Mark Twain Biography


As one of America's first and foremost realists and humorists, Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) usually wrote of 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 (written after The Prince and the Pauper), 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 The Prince and the Pauper is not based on personal experience (it is set in sixteenth-century England), Twain uses the experiences of two young boys gradually losing their innocence, as he did in both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Twain's father was a lawyer, 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, was inclined to be overly emotional, and was 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 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 about traveling in frontier America had been published earlier, Twain actually launched his literary career with the short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, published in 1865. Then, after the acclaim of Roughing It , Twain gave up his career as a journalist-reporter and began writing seriously. His fame as an American writer was immediate, especially after the publication of Innocents Abroad, a book that 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 old-fashioned Yankee common sense, is similar to that found ten years later in The Prince and the Pauper. But it is his novels and stories concerning 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 he found there, along with its way of life, has continued to fascinate readers and embodies 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 essayist, and he became more popular as a satirist than as a humorist. The body of work 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.

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