1835 - 1910
pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens , was a writer and humorist, whose best
work is characterized by broad, often irreverent humor or biting social satire.
Twain's writing is also known for realism of place and language, memorable
characters, and hatred of hypocrisy and oppression.
Florida, Missouri, Clemens moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, a port
on the Mississippi River, when he was four years old. There he received a public
school education. After the death of his father in 1847, Clemens was apprenticed
to two Hannibal printers, and in 1851 he began setting type for and contributing
sketches to his brother Orion's Hannibal Journal. Subsequently he worked as a
printer in Keokuk, Iowa; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and other
cities. Later Clemens was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the
War for Southern Independence (1861-1865) brought an end to travel on the river. In 1861
Clemens served briefly as a volunteer soldier in the Confederate cavalry. Later
that year he accompanied his brother to the newly created Nevada Territory,
where he tried his hand at silver mining. In 1862 he became a reporter on the
Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1863 he began signing
his articles with the pseudonym Mark Twain, a Mississippi River phrase meaning
“two fathoms deep.” After moving to San Francisco, California, in 1864,
Twain met American writers Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, who encouraged him in
his work. In 1865 Twain reworked a tale he had heard in the California gold
fields, and within months the author and the story, “The Celebrated Jumping
Frog of Calaveras County,” had become national sensations.
In 1867 Twain
lectured in New York City, and in the same year he visited Europe and Palestine.
He wrote of these travels in The Innocents Abroad (1869), a book exaggerating
those aspects of European culture that impress American tourists. In 1870 he
married Olivia Langdon. After living briefly in Buffalo, New York, the couple
moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Much of Twain's best work was written in the
1870s and 1880s in Hartford or during the summers at Quarry Farm, near Elmira,
New York. Roughing It (1872) recounts his early adventures as a miner and
journalist; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) celebrates boyhood in a town on
the Mississippi River; A Tramp Abroad (1880) describes a walking trip through
the Black Forest of Germany and the Swiss Alps; The Prince and the Pauper
(1882), a children's book, focuses on switched identities in Tudor England; Life
on the Mississippi (1883) combines an autobiographical account of his
experiences as a river pilot with a visit to the Mississippi nearly two decades
after he left it; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) satirizes
oppression in feudal England (see Feudalism).
of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the sequel to Tom Sawyer, is considered Twain's
masterpiece. The book is the story of the title character, known as Huck, a boy
who flees his father by rafting down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave,
Jim. The pair's adventures show Huck (and the reader) the cruelty of which men
and women are capable. Another theme of the novel is the conflict between Huck's
feelings of friendship with Jim, who is one of the few people he can trust, and
his knowledge that he is breaking the laws of the time by helping Jim escape.
Huckleberry Finn, which is almost entirely narrated from Huck's point of view,
is noted for its authentic language and for its deep commitment to freedom.
Huck's adventures also provide the reader with a panorama of American life along
the Mississippi before the Civil War. Twain's skill in capturing the rhythms of
that life help make the book one of the masterpieces of American literature.
In 1884 Twain
formed the firm Charles L. Webster and Company to publish his and other writers'
works, notably Personal Memoirs (two volumes, 1885-1886) by American general and
president Ulysses S. Grant. A disastrous investment in an automatic typesetting
machine led to the firm's bankruptcy in 1894. A successful worldwide lecture
tour and the book based on those travels, Following the Equator (1897), paid off
during the 1890s and the 1900s is marked by growing pessimism and
bitterness—the result of his business reverses and, later, the deaths of his
wife and two daughters. Significant works of this period are Pudd'nhead Wilson
(1894), a novel set in the South before the Civil War that criticizes racism by
focusing on mistaken racial identities, and Personal Recollections of Joan of
Arc (1896), a sentimental biography. Twain's other later writings include short
stories, the best known of which are “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”
(1899) and “The War Prayer” (1905); philosophical, social, and political
essays; the manuscript of “The Mysterious Stranger,” an uncompleted piece
that was published posthumously in 1916; and autobiographical dictations.
was inspired by the unconventional West, and the popularity of his work marked
the end of the domination of American literature by New England writers. He is
justly renowned as a humorist but was not always appreciated by the writers of
his time as anything more than that. Successive generations of writers, however,
recognized the role that Twain played in creating a truly American literature.
He portrayed uniquely American subjects in a humorous and colloquial, yet
poetic, language. His success in creating this plain but evocative language
precipitated the end of American reverence for British and European culture and
for the more formal language associated with those traditions. His adherence to
American themes, settings, and language set him apart from many other novelists
of the day and had a powerful effect on such later American writers as Ernest
Hemingway and William Faulkner, both of whom pointed to Twain as an inspiration
for their own writing.
In Twain's later years he wrote less, but he became a celebrity, frequently speaking out on public issues. He also came to be known for the white linen suit he always wore when making public appearances. Twain received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1907. When he died he left an uncompleted autobiography, which was eventually edited by his secretary, Albert Bigelow Paine, and published in 1924. In 1990 the first half of a handwritten manuscript of Huckleberry Finn was discovered in Hollywood, California. After a series of legal battles over ownership, the portion, which included previously unpublished material, was reunited with its second half, which had been housed at the Buffalo and Erie County (New York) Public Library, in 1992. A revised edition of Huckleberry Finn including the unpublished material was released in 1996.