Mark Twain – Keen Observer and Sharp-tongued Critic

Mark Twain (1835-1910),
by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907

On November 30, 1835, famous American author Samuel Longhorn Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was born in the tiny village of Florida, Missouri. He is most noted for his humorous novels about the mischievous boys Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their adventures on the mighty Mississippi River.

His father John Clemens worked as a storekeeper, lawyer, judge, and land speculator, who sometimes only hardly could feed his family and was attributed never to be seen smiling. In 1839, the Clemens family moved 35 miles east to the crescent town of Hannibal, a growing port city on the banks of the Mississippi, a frequent stop for steam boats arriving from St. Louis and New Orleans. In his early years, Twain was a mischievous boy, the prototype of his character Tom Sawyer. Though he suffered from poor health and often wasn’t allowed to leave the house, by age nine he had already learned to smoke, led a small band of pranksters, and had developed an aversion to school. Only aged 12, he lost his father by pneumonia and the Clemens family almost became destitute. Twain left school and became an apprentice in a printer’s shop and later became an editorial assistant at the Hannibal Journal. It was here that young Samuel discovered the joy of writing.

At 17, he left for a printer’s job in St. Louis, where he switched his intentions and started a career as a river pilot’s apprentice. Clemens’ pseudonym, Mark Twain, comes from his days as a river pilot, where it is a specific river term denoting ‘two fathoms’ or 4 meters, when the depth of water for a boat is being sounded. “Mark twain” means that is safe to navigate. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861‚ all traffic along the river came to a halt‚ and inspired by the times‚ Twain joined a volunteer Confederate unit‚ but quit again after just two weeks. In search for a well suited career, he traveled west to Nevada, where after failing as a silver prospector‚ he began writing for a Virginia City newspaper. This was, where he for the first time used his pen name‚ Mark Twain. In 1864‚ he headed for San Francisco where he continued to write for local papers. It was in 1865, when he had his very first success as a writer with his humorous short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. Now, he traveled throughout the entire country, meeting famous contemporaries Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens, and visited various countries in Europe, Hawaii, and the Holy Land.

In 1870 Twain married Olivia ‘Livy’ Langdon in Hartford, Connecticut, where in 1874 he built a home. Apart from numerous short stories during this time he wrote many of his classic novels, among them ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer‘ (1876), ‘The Prince and the Pauper‘ (1881), ‘Life on the Mississippi‘ (1883), ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘ (1885) 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 inventor Nikola Tesla and even patented three inventions himself, including an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments” (to replace suspenders). Although Twain made a substantial amount of money through his writing, he lost a great deal through investments, mostly in new inventions and technology. By 1895, he set off on a world lecture tour to Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, and South Africa to pay his debts off, during which he met Sigmund Freud and Booker T. Washington.

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.” (from ‘Old Times on the Mississippi’, 1875) 

On 21 April 1910, Mark Twain passed away in Redding, Connecticut.

At yovisto you may enjoy Dr. Mark Schenker at Yale University with his talk ‘As Webster Is My Witness: Language, Lies, and Laughter in Mark Twain

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