✪ Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910) who was most famously known by his pen name, Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. He was praised as the “greatest humorist the United States has produced.” William Faulkner called him “the father of modern American literature.” His novels include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the latter which has often been called the “Great American Novel.” Twain also wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. He was the sixth of seven children of Jane (née Lampton; 1803–1890), a native of Kentucky, and John Marshall Clemens (1798–1847), a native of Virginia. Only three of his siblings survived their childhoods. Twain was of Cornish, English, and Scots-Irish descent.
When Twain was four, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi River which inspired the fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At this time, slavery was still legal in Missouri and it became a common theme in these writings. Twain’s father died of pneumonia in 1847, when Twain was only 11 years old.
The following year, Twain left school after the fifth grade to become a printer’s apprentice. In 1851, he began working as a typesetter and contributing articles and humorous sketches to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his older brother, Orion. At 18, he left Hannibal to go work as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, joining the newly formed International Typographical Union, a printers’ trade union. In the evenings, he educated himself in public libraries; finding they provided wider information than available at a conventional school.
In Life on the Mississippi, Twain describes his boyhood stating that “there was but one permanent ambition” among his comrades: to become a steamboatman. “Pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary – from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.” Steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby took Twain on as a cub pilot apprentice to teach him the river between New Orleans and St. Louis for $500 (equivalent to $16,000 in 2021), payable out of Twain’s first wages after graduating. For two years, Twain studied the Mississippi, learning its landmarks, how to navigate its currents effectively and how to read the river and its constantly shifting channels, reefs, submerged snags, and rocks. Piloting also gave him his pen name from “mark twain,” the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe water for a steamboat.
Twain used different pen names before finally deciding on “Mark Twain.” He signed humorous and imaginative sketches as “Josh” until 1863. Additionally, he used the pen name “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass” for a series of humorous letters.
While training on the Mississippi, Samuel convinced his younger brother Henry to work with him, and even arranged a post of mud clerk for him on the steamboat Pennsylvania. On June 13, 1858, the steamboat’s boiler exploded. Henry was severely injured and succumbed to his wounds on June 21. Twain claimed to have foreseen this brother’s death in a dream he had a month earlier which inspired his interest in parapsychology. Twain continued to work on the river as a river pilot until the Civil War broke out in 1861 and traffic along the Mississippi River was curtailed due to hostilities. He enlisted briefly in a local Confederate unit as a volunteer but the unit disbanded after only two weeks.
Twain left work on the river in 1861 when his brother Orion became secretary to Nevada Territory governor James W. Nye and Twain joined him when he moved west. The brothers traveled for more than two weeks together by stagecoach across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, visiting the Mormon community in Salt Lake City. Twain’s journey ended in the silver-mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, where he became a miner on the Comstock Lode. He eventually failed as a miner and went to work at the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise. He first used his pen name there on February 3, 1863, when he wrote a humorous travel account titled “Letter From Carson – re: Joe Goodman; party at Gov. Johnson’s; music” and signed it “Mark Twain.”
Twain’s first success which brought him national attention as a writer came when his humorous tall tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published on November 18, 1865 in the New York weekly The Saturday Press. A year later, he traveled to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii) as a reporter for the Sacramento Union.
In 1867, a local newspaper funded his trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East. He wrote a collection of travel letters which were later compiled as The Innocents Abroad (1869). It was on this trip that he met fellow passenger Charles Langdon, who showed him a picture of his sister Olivia. Twain later claimed to have fallen in love at first sight. in 1868 upon his return to the United States, Twain was offered an honorary membership in Yale University’s secret society Scroll and Key.
Twain and Olivia Langdon corresponded throughout 1868. After she rejected his first marriage proposal, they were married in Elmira, New York in February 1870 after he managed to overcome her father’s initial reluctance. The Clemenses lived in Buffalo, New York, from 1869 to 1871. Twain owned a stake in the Buffalo Express newspaper where he worked as an editor and writer. While they lived in Buffalo, their son Langdon died of diphtheria at the age of 19 months.
in 1873, Twain moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, where he arranged to build a home which would later become known as Twain House. Twain wrote many of his classic novels during his 17 years in Hartford (1874–1891) at Twain House and over 20 summers at Quarry Farm in Elmira. They include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
Twain was fascinated with science and scientific inquiry. He developed a close and lasting friendship with Nikola Tesla, and the two spent much time together in Tesla’s laboratory. Twain patented three of his own inventions including an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments” (to replace suspenders) and a history trivia game. The most commercially successful of his inventions was a self-pasting scrapbook; a dried adhesive on the pages needed only to be moistened before use. Over 25,000 were sold.
In 1909, Thomas Edison visited Twain at his Stormfield home in Redding, Connecticut and filmed him. Part of the footage was used in The Prince and the Pauper (1909), a two-reel short film. It is the only known existing film footage of Twain.
During his lifetime, Twain earned a substantial amount of money from his writings, but also lost a great deal through bad investments. He invested mostly in new inventions and technology, particularly the Paige typesetting machine. It was a beautifully engineered mechanical marvel that amazed viewers when it worked, but it was often prone to breakdowns. Between 1880 and 1894, Twain spent $300,000 (equal to $9,000,000 in 2023) on it, but it was rendered obsolete by the Linotype before it could be perfected. He lost the bulk of his book profits, as well as a substantial portion of his wife’s inheritance.
Twain’s writings and lectures slowly enabled him to recover financially, combined with the help of his friend, Henry Huttleston Rogers. In 1893 he began a friendship with the financier, a principal of Standard Oil, that would last the remainder of his life. Rogers first made him file for bankruptcy in April 1894; then had him transfer the copyrights on all of his written works to his wife to prevent creditors from gaining possession of them. Finally, Rogers took absolute charge of Twain’s money until all his creditors were paid.Twain also found himself in great demand as a featured speaker, giving solo humorous talks similar to modern stand-up comedy to many private business and academic organizations.
Twain was a Republican for most of his life. However, in 1884 he publicly broke with his party and joined the Mugwumps to support the Democrat nominee, Grover Cleveland, over the Republican nominee, James G. Blaine, whom he considered a corrupt politician.
Twain was also a staunch supporter of technological progress and free market commerce. He was against welfare measures because he believed that society in the “business age” is governed by “exact and constant” laws that should not be “interfered with for the accommodation of any individual or political or religious faction.” He opined that “there is no good government at all & none possible.” During the Boxer Rebellion, Twain said that “the Boxer is a patriot. He loves his country better than he does the countries of other people. I wish him success.”
Later Life & Death
In his later years, Twain lived at 14 West 10th Street in Manhattan. He passed through a period of deep depression which began in 1896 when his daughter Susy died of meningitis. His wife Olivia’s death in 1904 only deepened his gloom. On May 20, 1909, his close friend Henry Rogers also died suddenly.
In 1906 Twain formed the Angel Fish and Aquarium Club for girls whom he viewed as surrogate granddaughters. Its dozen or so members ranged in age from 10 to 16. He exchanged letters with his “Angel Fish” girls and invited them to concerts and the theatre and to play games. In 1908, Twain wrote that the club was his “life’s chief delight.”
Twain was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) by Yale University in 1901. In 1902, the honorary Doctor of Law by the University of Missouri, Oxford University would also award him the Doctorate of Law in 1907.
Twain was born two weeks after Halley’s Comet’s closest approach in 1835. In 1909 he said:
“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.”
Twain’s prediction was eerily accurate; he died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, in Stormfield, only one day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.
Twain’s funeral was held at the Brick Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue, New York. He is interred in his wife’s family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. The Langdon family plot is marked by a 12-foot monument (two fathoms, or “mark twain”) placed there by his surviving daughter Clara. ✪