Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote under the pen name Mark Twain, a riverboat term for water that is just deep enough for navigation. He wrote some of the most famous works in American literature, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Clemens had literary and financial success and failure during his long career, and died a bitter man in 1910.
Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri , on November 30, 1835. His father, John Marshall Clemens, was a lawyer and businessman. His mother was Jane (Lampton) Clemens. When Samuel was four, the family of four boys and two girls moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a small town on the Mississippi River.
Three river steamboats stopped in Hannibal daily when Clemens was young. His childhood involved adventures on rafts, in swimming holes, and in woods and caves. These carefree pursuits ended abruptly at age twelve, when Clemens's father died. This forced Clemens to work as a typesetter to help support his family.
Clemens eventually worked for one of his brothers, Orion Clemens, who owned several newspapers. When the business failed, Clemens traveled throughout the Midwest and East for three years, selling nonfiction to newspapers. He then rejoined Orion in the newspaper business, this time in Keokuk, Iowa .
A dream fulfilled
In 1857, Clemens left Keokuk. He planned to travel to the Amazon River, in South America, to make a fortune growing cocoa. Before leaving America, however, he befriended a steamboat captain named Horace Bixby (1826–1912). Clemens trained with Bixby for the next two years and, in 1859, obtained his own pilot's license.
Clemens's years on the Mississippi River provided much material for his writing. After the beginning of the American Civil War (1861–65), the Union army closed the Mississippi River to private boats so that it could be used as an invasion route instead. Clemens served in the Confederate States of America army for a few weeks, then moved to Nevada , where Orion was working in the territorial government.
Clemens spent a year in Nevada panning for precious metal. The experience gave him material for a novel he would write, Roughing It, published in 1872. In 1862, he moved to Virginia City, Nevada, to write for the newspaper Territorial Enterprise. There he began to write regularly under the pen name Mark Twain. A dispute with a fellow journalist caused Clemens to flee to San Francisco, California , and a dispute there with the police caused him to flee to the Sierra Mountains, near the California-Nevada border.
Literary success and marriage
When he returned to San Francisco from the Sierras, Clemens wrote a satiric story called “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The story was published widely and was well received by readers and critics. Success allowed Clemens to spend the rest of the 1860s traveling and writing for various publications. In the book The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, Clemens gave a humorous account of Americans on a five-month tour through Europe and the Middle East.
During the tour, Clemens met a wealthy man named Charles Langdon. While visiting Langdon in New York City and finishing his book, Clemens fell in love with Langdon's sister, Olivia. They married on February 2, 1870, and had a son (who died as a toddler) and three daughters.
The Clemens family soon settled in Hartford, Connecticut , where they lived for twenty years. Their neighbors included Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), author of Uncle Tom's Cabin . After completing Roughing It, Clemens was paid to do a lecture tour in England. Lecture tours were important sources of money over the remainder of his career.
Back in Connecticut, Clemens wrote a novel with neighbor Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900) called The Gilded Age. Another tour in England followed. Clemens was on the verge of publishing what would become his most popular works.
In Hartford, Clemens began writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It is the story of young Tom Sawyer's escapades with his friend Huckleberry Finn and his girlfriend Becky Thatcher. Published in 1876, the book was immensely popular with readers of all ages, and well regarded by literary critics.
Clemens next began to work on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Picking up where the prior book ended, it tells the story of Finn's journeys on the Mississippi River with a runaway slave named Jim. Many literary critics, including writer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), consider it to be among the best books in American literature. In it, Clemens used specific, local manners of speech for the different characters. Some critics consider the book to be a masterful statement against slavery , though others say it is just a white man's inaccurate account of an African American slave.
Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885. Between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Clemens published fiction and nonfiction that resulted in strong critical reviews but mixed sales. In 1882, he returned to the Mississippi River, traveling on a steamboat piloted by his old teacher, Bixby, and then published the nonfiction Life on the Mississippi, which sold poorly. His financial woes climbed as he invested in a publishing company and a new typesetting device, both of which eventually failed.
Clemens's writing was always humorous. In the later years of his life, however, he became increasingly critical of humanity. Later novels included A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, published in 1889, and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins, published in 1894. He revisited the Sawyer and Finn characters in 1894 in Tom Sawyer Abroad, by Huck Finn.
In 1896, Clemens's second child, Olivia Susan, became ill with meningitis and died. Clemens's wife Olivia, who battled poor health throughout their marriage, died in 1904. Their daughter Jean drowned in 1909, and daughter Clara eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. The tragedies embittered Clemens.
In 1906, Clemens began to dictate his autobiography to his literary executor. He continued to be paid for lecture tours until settling in New York City and then Redding, Connecticut, for his final years. His humor was often malicious and pessimistic, founded on an extreme dissatisfaction with humanity. He died near Redding on April 21, 1910. His works remain an enduring and beloved part of American literature.