Mark Twain Biography


Writing Career

While in the Nevada Territory, Sam resumed writing humorous sketches and travel letters and began using the pseudonym, Mark Twain, a term for water that is only two fathoms — twelve feet — deep. Twain continued to sign his more serious pieces as "S. L. Clemens," but the farces, hoaxes, and satires that were to make him famous were now authored by "Mark Twain." With the realization that he had an audience for his brand of bawdy humor, Twain began to travel extensively and write humorous travel letters for the San Francisco Alta California. The Alta California sponsored his steamship journey from New York to the Mediterranean, and the resulting travel letters increased his audience and admirers; Twain's literary rise was under way.

Between 1864 and 1870, Twain contributed articles and travel letters to various newspapers and published Innocents Abroad (1869). After a long courtship, he married Olivia Langdon, daughter of Jervis Langdon, in 1870. Olivia proved to be a tempering influence on the often-moody Twain, and her family's abolitionist views on slavery influenced Twain and his writings. As with Olivia's father, Jervis, Twain eventually became friends with Frederick Douglass and supported the antislavery movement.

Because of the acclaim of Innocents Abroad, Twain gave up his career as a journalist-reporter and began concentrating on short stories and books. Using the method of parlaying his short story success into collections, Twain's fame as a writer was immediate, and Innocents Abroad became a bestseller. The satire Twain used to expose the so-called sophistication of the Old World, in contrast to the old-fashioned American common sense, is similar to that found some ten years later in A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), when Hank Morgan confronts nobility and knighthood.

But it was the Mississippi River and the values of the people living along its shores that have made Twain one of America's best and favorite storytellers. The humor that he found among the small one-horse towns, along with the culture of the Mississippi, has continued to fascinate readers and to embody an almost mythic sense of what it meant to be a young American in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

In 1876, Twain captured these elements in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Despite its contemporary reception, Tom Sawyer's publication was overshadowed by the deaths of George Custer and his calvary at Little Big Horn. But the book's popularity would grow throughout Twain's lifetime, and by the time of his death, it was his best-selling novel. Twain's most controversial work, however, was to come nine years later. In 1885, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published among much publicity and fanfare. Huck Finn ensured Twain's place among the literary giants, and the work would prove to be Twain's most studied and critically acclaimed novel.

Later Years

After Twain turned fifty, his fortunes reversed themselves. His health began to fail, and in 1894, he was forced to declare bankruptcy due to his investment in a failed automatic typesetter, a publishing company that drained more of his money than it earned him. His failures with moneymaking ventures extended to his family, and he suffered through the illnesses and deaths of those whom he loved. His wife, Olivia, struggled with her health and soon became a semi-invalid; one of his daughters developed epilepsy; and his oldest daughter died of meningitis. Twain's comment that "the secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow" became painfully realized, and by the end of the nineteenth century, Twain's writings reflected his dark view of life.

Overall, the 1890s were Twain's blackest decade. Twain and his family lived throughout Europe in hopes that the weather would improve the health of all the family members, but they sorely missed their home in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Langdon house at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York. In 1894, Twain published Pudd'nhead Wilson, in which he confronted the slave-holding South and the question of nature versus nurture. Following a lecture trip around the world to raise money to repay his many creditors, he brought out a series of mostly unremarkable books, including Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, all published in 1896.

In 1900, Twain's short story "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" was printed and proved to be one of his bleakest works. In it, Twain argued that human beings have no choice in what they do, no matter how much they think they are free to choose; rather, decisions are based selfishly on what will best help the individual. Twain's only darker view of humanity, published posthumously, was the fragmented The Mysterious Stranger, in which he condemned the universe and mocked the pitiful relations to one another and God.

On April 19, 1910, some 75 years after its last appearance, Halley's comet again reached its perihelion. Two days later, American's greatest humorist died at sunset at Stormfield, Twain's home near Redding, Connecticut. Olivia had died almost six years earlier, and Twain — "worn out in body and spirit," according to one critic — greatly missed his wife's company.

Continued on next page...

Back to Top