The man, the writer, the original Marky Mark* (*not factually accurate).
I’ll let the great Ernest Hemingway introduce our next American author and humorist:
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
Thanks, Hem. We’ll get to your legacy in another post.
Mark Twain Author Profile
1835 – Samuel Langhorne Clemens is born in Florida, Mississippi.
1839 – Clemens’s family moves to Hannibal, Missouri along the Mississippi River. This town would eventually lay the foundation for Tom Sawyer’s fictional town, St. Petersburg.
1851 – Clemens takes a job as a typesetter and editorial assistant for his brother, Orion’s local paper, the Western Union.
1859 – Clemens obtains his riverboat piloting license and makes a good living until ’61 when the Civil War begins.
1863 – Clemens becomes a journalist and officially signs his name “Mark Twain” to his pieces. He would maintain this pseudonym for the rest of his career.
1866 – Twain, now a nationally-known humorist and writer, embarks on a lecture tour in the western states to promote his career. He was reported as having natural talent for telling stories and making speeches.
1870 – Twain meets Olivia Langdon (Livy) from Elmira, New York and the two marry. Settling in Hartford, Connecticut, the couple has four children (one son dies in infancy, and two of their three daughters die in their 20’s).
1876 – Twain publishes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
1884 – Twain publishes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
1891 – The Clemens family travels to Europe where Twain lectures on-and-off to pay off debts accumulated from bad business deals and to improve his wife’s health (Livy would die shortly thereafter).
1900 – Twain returns to the US to a supportive and admiring public.
1910 – Twain dies of a heart attack at the age of 74 in his Stormfield home in Connecticut.
Fun Twain Facts:
The Mark Twain Pseudonym – Samuel Clemens’s use of the pseudonym Mark Twain was originally a steamboatman’s phrase for water found to be 12 feet deep. The depth of the water was, of course, crucial because it either signified safe passage or hazardous shallows.
Pilots would call “Mark!” and the riverman would take a stick and measure the depth of the water. If the water was 12 feet (2 fathoms) deep, they would call back “Twain!” The phrase means it is safe to navigate the waters.
That Time He Predicted his Own Death– the year of Clemens’s birth in 1835, Halley’s Comet flew by the earth. The comet, which flies past the earth every 76 years was due back in 1910. In 1909, Clemens famously declared:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”
Serving in the Confederate Militia – although he served for two weeks, 25-year-old Samuel Clemens (not yet known as Mark Twain) joined the Marion Rangers, a pro-Confederate militia in June 1861 shortly after the Civil War broke out.
Historians speculate that although his family owned a slave when he was a young boy, Clemens didn’t have strong affiliations with the Confederacy and most likely enlisted out of loyalty to his Southern roots.
Limited formal education – despite his literary success, Clemens had to cut his education short when his father died in 1848. Just out of 5th grade, Clemens began full-time work as an apprentice printer at a newspaper in Hannibal, Missouri. This apprenticeship and his later job as a typesetter at his older brother, Orion’s local paper enabled Clemens to develop a love for the English language and it was in Orion’s local paper, Western Union that Clemens published his first sketch, A Gallant Fireman.
Twain Books You Haven’t Read but Should:
- Pudd’nhead Wilson – the “prince” switches places with the “pauper,” only the prince and the pauper are unaware they’ve been switched! (Not to be confused with Twain’s other story The Prince and the Pauper). This piece is the first of American literature to deal with the then-unheard of forensic science of fingerprinting to solve crimes. Major themes include racism in antebellum society, slavery, mixed ethnicities and nature v. nurture.
- The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg – a piece of short fiction intended by Twain to be read as a satiric replay of the Garden of Eden story. The piece focuses on corruption, small-mindedness, revenge, dishonesty, redemption and temptation.
- The Mysterious Stranger – set in late 1500s Austria, Twain discusses his opinions about the reason of life, significance of death, deities and religious hypocrisy.
- Autobiography of Mark Twain – he kept the world waiting for 100 years. How lucky I feel to be alive at the time of Twain’s autobiography’s publication! Twain felt that his autobiography was so controversial that it could not be published until 100 years after his death (though his daughter Clara fought for the publishing
rights after his death but was unsuccessful). What was controversial about it, though? Wanting his memoirs to be honest renderings of his thoughts, Twain does not hold back his opinions. He criticizes the government, religion and the country’s culture of racism. Twain plays the role of the angry prophet: slamming Wall Street tycoons and raging at the intervening American militia. A very contemporary and politically-pointed Twain emerges from the grave after 100 years to let America into his mind at last. Definitely worth reading the three volumes.
Themes in Twain’s Writing:
Writers write about their own issues, the demons with which they wrestle, the questions they strive to answer. In Twain’s writing, there are significant themes that continue to show themselves time and time again:
Slavery – living through extreme racism in the South and before and pre-/post- Civil War does not leave a man unmarked. Twain wrote frequently and fiercely on the subject of slavery, the most famous example being found in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, Twain often pointed out how religion was used to justify slavery:
“…the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.”
Race relations/ class differences – in almost every piece of his writing, Twain illustrates the different class lines as dictated by society and emphasizes that the social life of each class was specifically restricted to that class.
The “dark angel” within each of us – there is absolutely a darkness to Twain, specifically in Tom Sawyer. Throughout my own “curation” of Twain’s books, I continue to be struck by the author’s use of ‘light’ and ‘dark.’ You can definitely make a case for the ‘light’ as the human consciousness and positivity, and the ‘dark’ as our subconscious, our hidden thoughts and negativity. I wrote an essay about it for
fun class which I’ll post later.
The spirit of America during the late 19th century – of which Twain masterfully observed and reflected back in his works, capturing the real way people spoke and the mannerisms of human interaction.
- “The Adventures of Mark Twain” – 1985 American Claymation fantasy film that brings to
life Twain’s philosophies as extracted from his work. Excerpts are taken from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Mysterious Stranger, The Diaries of Adam and Eve and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras City, among others. Check out the trailer!
Themes explored include religion, youth, references to Halley’s Comet, a look at many of Twain’s popular and most well-known characters and an illustration of Twain’s lesser known “dark side.”
I absolutely adored the film and dearly wished we’d analyzed it more in class, however, its rating is shocking: the film is meant for children and is given a rating of G, however the film dives deeply into Twain’s philosophy, staying true to the general direction of his works, which are definitely not suited for young kids.
Just check out this spooky scene with the Angel Satan and Tom, Becky and Huck here:
Regardless, I highly recommend the film and encourage you to spend the $2.99 on YouTube. Find it here.
2. Why Mark Twain Still Matters – Alan Greenblatt chats with Jerome loving, a lit professor at Texas A&M University on the continued importance and study of Twain’s works.
“Never pass up the opportunity to pee.”
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”
“My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.”
“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
Curated with love by Sam