Mark Twain Biography


As one of America's first and foremost realists and humorists, Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, usually wrote about his own personal experiences and things he knew about from firsthand experience. Two of his best-known novels typify this trait: In his Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain immortalized the sleepy little town of Hannibal, Missouri (the fictional St. Petersburg), as well as the steamboats which passed through it daily; likewise, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both written before A Connecticut Yankee), the various characters are based on types which Twain encountered both in his hometown and while working as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River; and even though A Connecticut Yankee is not based on personal experience (it is set in sixth-century England), Twain uses many of the same techniques that he used in his Prince and the Pauper. In that novel, for example, two young boys gradually lose their innocence; in A Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan wakes up in a land of innocence — Camelot.

Mark Twain's father was a lawyer by profession, but he was never quite successful, and so he dabbled in land speculation, hoping to become wealthy someday. He was, however, a highly intelligent man who was a stern disciplinarian. Twain's mother, a southern belle in her youth, had a natural sense of humor, and was known to be particularly fond of animals and unfortunate human beings. Although his family was not wealthy, Twain apparently had a happy childhood. Twain's father died when Twain was twelve years old and, for the next ten years, Twain was an apprentice printer, both in Hannibal and in New York City. Hoping to find his fortune, he conceived a wild scheme of getting rich in South America. On a riverboat to New Orleans, however, he met a famous riverboat pilot who promised to teach him the trade for five hundred dollars. After completing his training, Twain was a riverboat pilot for four years and, during this time, he became familiar with all of the towns along the Mississippi River.

When the American Civil War began, Twain's allegiance tended to be somewhat southern due to his regional heritage, but his brother Orion convinced him to go west on an expedition, a trip which became the subject of a later work Roughing It. Even though some of his letters and accounts of traveling had been published earlier, Twain actually launched his literary career with the short story "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," published in 1865.

Because of the acclaim of Roughing It, Twain gave up his career as a journalist-reporter and began writing seriously. His fame as a writer was immediate; one of his first efforts, Innocents Abroad, became an immediate best seller, and it is still one of his most popular works. The satire that Twain uses to expose the so-called sophistication of the Old World, in contrast to the old-fashioned Yankee common sense, is similar to that found some years later in A Connecticut Yankee, when Hank Morgan confronts nobility and knighthood. But it was the Mississippi River and the values of the people who lived along its length that have made Twain one of America's best and favorite storytellers. The humor which he found there, along with its way of life, 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.

After Twain turned fifty, however, his fortunes reversed themselves; his health began to fail and he faced bankruptcy; in addition, his wife became a semi-invalid, one daughter developed epilepsy, and his oldest daughter died of meningitis. Yet Twain survived. He became a critic and an essayist, and he became more popular as a satirist than as a humorist. The body of work which he left behind is immense and varied — poetry, sketches, journalistic pieces, political essays, novels, and short stories — all a testament to the diverse talent and energy which used the folklore of frontier America to create authentic American masterpieces of enduring value.