Halley’s Comet was blazing across the sky when Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835 to John and Jane Clemens. His family moved to Hannibal when he was six years old, because his father thought Hannibal would become the chief commercial center of northeast Missouri. Eight years later, the towns’ population went from 450 when they arrived, to 2500 because of river traffic from the Mississippi and stagecoaches coming through town three times a day. Sam thought his mother didn’t seem to recognize wit or irony and his father didn’t like mischief of any kind and said little to his children. (Fred Kaplan 5)
John Clemens became one of Hannibal’s leading citizens. He began by sitting on a circuit court jury in 1841, to being elected justice of the peace. The Justice of the Peace also acted as a coroner and assisted with other court functions, being paid per job. He chaired committees for civic improvements for a year, which included creating the Hannibal Library Institute. The Institute had 70 stockholders and a collection of 450 books. The Clemens were almost always in debt and to his children, John seemed like he was silently suffering unwarranted slings and arrows. Sam later wrote, “Stern, unsmiling, never demonstrated affection for wife and child…. Ungentle of manner toward his children, but always a gentleman in his phrasing-and never punished them-a look was enough, and more than enough.” (15) Sam felt his father was a stranger and repressed his boyhood life, he also said this of his father, “My own knowledge of him amounted to little more than an introduction.” (16) John Clemens died of pneumonia in 1847, and Sam was soon helping his mother.
Sam was sickly for the first couple years of his life and his mother, Jane, was into homeopathic remedies and tried everything that came her way. She frequently used castor oil mixed with molasses to make it easier to take. When Sam was nine, he recalled his mother doing this to him, “My mother used to stand me up naked in the backyard every morning and throw buckets of cold water on me, just to see what effect it would have…. And then, when the dousing was over, she would wrap me up in a sheet with ice water and then wrap blankets around that and put me into bed. I never realized that the treatment was doing me particular good physically. But it purified me spiritually. For pretty soon after I was put into bed I would get a perspiration that was something worth seeing. Mother generally put a life preserver in bed with me. And when finally she let me out and unwound the sheet, I remember that it was covered with yellow color.” (16) When his mother was 88 years old, Sam asked her about that because he thought it was more of a punishment than a cure. He asked if she was afraid he might not live, and she said, “No-afraid you would.” (17)
Jane was an active Christian, mostly Presbyterian, but attended any church that interested her or was convenient, since the social part of church attending interested her more. She had the children attend church regularly and Sam knew all about sin by the time he was six. Since sin was always on his mind, his impulses to sin were irresistible. He didn’t pay attention in church, disobeyed adults, played practical jokes, tricked other people to his own advantage, and lied to escape blame. He once asked his Sunday school teacher about Eve in the Garden, wondering, “if he had ever heard of another woman who, being approached by a serpent, would not excuse herself and break for the nearest timber. He did not answer my question, but rebuked me for inquiring into matters above my age and comprehension.” (18)
Before the Civil War, Missouri was a moderate slave state. The Clemens, and some other relatives, the Quarles, owned slaves. Sam later wrote, “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong with it.” (20) However, selling slaves away from their families was frowned on and the slave trader was loathed by everyone. On the Quarles’ farm, Sam never saw slaves mistreated and he saw them carry themselves with dignity and self-respect. He was fascinated by the black world, its folklore, the sounds of their speech, and their combination of Christianity and superstition. He later wrote, “It was on the farm, that I got my strong liking for (the black) race and my appreciation of certain of its fine qualities.” (23) Sam was really impressed with an older slave named Daniel, so much so that he modeled Jim in Huckleberry Finn after Daniel.
Sam had a taste for adventure and living off of the Mississippi River helped develop that and his imagination. He dreamed of being a riverboat captain or pilot and visiting places he had learned about in school. The California Gold Rush happened in 1849 when he was 14, so he and his friends played gold mining games. When a friend of his, John Robard went west with his father, Sam remembered, “We were all on hand to gaze and envy when he returned, two years later, in unimaginable glory-for he had traveled. None of us had ever been 40 miles from home. But he had crossed the continent. He had been in the gold mines, that fairyland of our imaginations.” (27) He also had lots of crushes on girls, but he was timid and practiced getting over his shyness by actively wooing a girl who lived down the street from him. One girl he had a crush on, Laura Hawkins, became Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer and Laura’s name was used for a character in The Gilded Age.
Sam lived in Hannibal until 1853, until he turned 18. A year after his father died, 1848, is when he began his newspaper career. He was apprenticed to Joseph Ament, who published the Missouri Courier. When he turned 16, Sam went to work for the Hannibal Western Union (later named the Journal), which was owned by his brother Orion. Sam wrote his first published sketches and worked as a printer, and sometimes was even the editor when Orion was gone. In 1852, he published a sketch anonymously in the Boston Carpet-Bag, which was a weekly that published popular humor. The name of the sketch was called, “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter.” (43) A week later, he published in the Philadelphia American Courier, a sketch in the form of a letter called, “Hannibal, Missouri”, it was a selective town history with humorous touches. Seeing the two articles “in print was a joy which rather exceeded anything in that line I have ever experienced since,” he later wrote. (44) In September of the same year, Orion left the Journal in Sam’s hands and he published four of his own sketches in three issues. The sketches are set in Hannibal; one is an ongoing dispute with the Hannibal Tri-Weekly Messenger’s editor about stray dogs barking, the second is a satire of that same editor attempting to commit suicide after being jilted in love, and the third is “Historical Exhibition-A No. 1 Ruse”. It’s a comic, slightly vulgar story about a man who sells tickets to an exhibition in which people are deceived into thinking is sexually titillating, which is similar to “Royal Nonesuch” in Huckleberry Finn. (44) The fourth sketch is an alcoholic’s paragraph length statement about his retreat to an island. In 1853, he moved to New York, the Philadelphia to work as a printer.
In 1857, when Sam was 21, he was looking to go to South America by way of New Orleans, but met a steamboat pilot named Horace Bixby. He convinced Bixby to make him an apprentice, but Bixby only would if Sam paid a fee of $500. For two years, Sam was a cub pilot until he received his pilot’s license from District of St. Louis federal inspectors on April 9, 1859. When the Civil War broke out, river traffic on the Mississippi was suspended, and Sam said, “The war came…. commerce was suspended, my occupation was gone. I had to seek another livelihood.” (Justin Kaplan 37) He then joined the Marion Rangers, a volunteer militia group. They drilled for only two weeks and then they disbanded. In the summer of 1861, President Lincoln appointed Orion as Secretary of the Nevada Territory, so Sam went with him by stagecoach, to become Orion’s secretary. While in Nevada, he tried prospecting for gold and silver, never made much money, and ended up working in a quartz mill so he could earn a living.
By September 1862, Sam accepted a job with the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise as a reporter; he had occasionally been contributing humorous letters to the newspaper. He covered, for $25 a week, the territorial legislature, local news, and he also wrote humorous pieces. During this time, Sam used Mark Twain as a pen name for the first time. He left the Enterprise nearly a year and a half later, going to San Francisco to avoid anti-dueling laws after challenging a rival editor to a fight. In San Francisco, Sam stayed for four years, writing for the Call as a reporter, then the Enterprise as a Pacific correspondent, and then wrote for Golden Era and the Californian. In the literary circles of the city, he was a central figure, which included Bret Harte. Sam’s story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog was published November 18, 1865 in the New York Saturday Press. In 1866, as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union, he went to Hawaii for four months. When he came back from Hawaii, he capitalized on his letter from Hawaii by organizing a lecture tour, which was for two months through northern California and western Nevada. This established him as a popular speaker and remained that way for the rest of his life.
At the end of 1866, Sam headed to New York City so that he could travel to Europe, the Middle East, and Russia on board a ship called Quaker City. Before leaving, he arranged to be a correspondent for the San Francisco Alta California, and had his first book published, which was The Celebrated Jumping Frog of CalaverasCounty, And Other Sketches. While on the Quaker City, Sam wrote letters about his experiences and when he came back to the United States, he went on a lecture tour through Missouri and Iowa speaking about his experiences overseas. Sam was asked by the American Publishing Company to write a book, which became The Innocents Abroad, released in July 1869. Sam was promised a lot of money in book sales by the publisher, and so he boasted to his family, “But I had my mind made up to one thing. I wasn’t going to touch a book unless there was money in it, and a good deal of it.” (Fred Kaplan 219)
During this period in his life, he met Olivia (Livy) Langdon and secretly became engaged to her. She wanted him to become a better Christian, because she wouldn’t commit to anyone who didn’t believe in a personal salvation with Jesus. To convince Livy and her family that he was as Christian as everyone else, he provided references from the West coast and had friends provide the right answers to whatever questions the Langdon’s had about Sam. The Langdon’s believed Sam was doing all of this because they though he was sincere, had a good heart in essence, and wanted to please Livy for the sake of his own soul. When they wrote to each other, Livy kept asking him, so he gave the appropriate response, “I am upon the right path-I shall succeed, I hope. Men as lost as I have found a Savior, & why not I?” He argued that without her, he wouldn’t succeed, “I can be a Christian-I shall be a Christian.” (244) They became officially engaged on February 4, 1869, and exactly one year later they married. Sam bought a 1/3 interest in his father-in-laws newspaper, the Buffalo (New York) Express, and then became managing editor of the paper. He also wrote a column for a literary magazine called Galaxy and contracted to write about his experiences in Nevada and California, called Roughing It.
Around this time, Livy’s father died and their first child, Langdon, was born premature, he was sick for two years before he died. They had moved to Hartford, Connecticut, Roughing It was published in 1871 and Sam went on tours through the country. While Sam was away, Livy’s mother visited and Livy discovered that her religious faith was declining. With her mother, it was the first time in months that she had attended church. She realized the more she loved her husband, the less she loved God. Sam brought Livy close to disbelief and she felt somewhat cold about God. Livy told a friend, “If I felt toward God as I did toward my husband, I should never be in the least troubled.” (274)
Sam went to England to see about publishing an English edition of Roughing It and when he came back, he and Livy paid for a house to be built in Hartford, and then the whole family went to England in 1873. When they returned, Sam began writing about corruption, which had bothered him when he had been in Washington, D.C. three years earlier. It was to be a work of satiric fiction, something Sam had never tried before because it had no story-line to build on and he had an ongoing difficulty with narrative structure; the novel became known as The Gilded Age. It was autobiographical fiction based on his family members, and the novel combines satire, melodrama, and burlesque. Because it had two authors, Charles Dudley Warner being the other, the story had two plots that weren’t compatible with each other and once published, the reviews were hostile, and reviewers complained of aesthetic weakness and an incoherent narrative. Some British reviewers said that Twain and Warner were as harsh on America as Dickens had been with England in 1843 with his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. It was also attacked on a moral basis because Sam seemed to have the intention of himself getting the rewards as if he had written the whole novel, the satiric attack on American corruption seemed self serving, and Sam seemed to be biting the hand that fed him, since he was the best paid author in the United States. The Chicago Tribune thought it a callous fraud, a puerile, vicious book by authors whose “names had become a sort of certificate of high character. It is a fraud to the reading public to append them to a trashy book…. Stupidity can be forgiven, but deliberate deceit-never.” (307)
While working on a book about his childhood and adapting The Gilded Age to stage, Sam was writing other stories. One was named, “Some Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls.” It was a humorously satirical attack on false scientific reasoning and, indirectly, on the Judeo-Christian creation myth. One of Sam’s author friends, William Dean Howells, thought well of this story, but feared its Christian heterodoxy would alienate subscribers. (311) Tom Sawyer, the book about his childhood in fiction form, was published in 1876 and was only intended to be read by adults, but changed his mind when he realized it would be more successful when children read it. This was also the year of the centennial of the United States and he felt the nation was corrupt, including Henry Ward Beecher, a famous preacher friend who was on trial for adultery, so he thought the clergy was just as corrupt as Boss Tweed, who controlled New York City politics. Sam told Orion, “The present era of incredible rottenness is not democratic, it is not republican, it is national.” (323) His family then spent a year and a half in Europe, resulting in A Tramp Abroad in 1880, which was a travel book.
Sam’s first attempt at writing historical fiction that was serious was The Prince and the Pauper, released in 1881. He had Life on the Mississippi published in 1883; it was supposed to be a book where everything about the Mississippi River Valley was to be contained in a historical and cultural point of view. This book contained a section of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885, which illustrated rafting down the Mississippi. To publish Huckleberry Finn, because of his irritation with various publishers, he bought a publishing firm and called it C.L. Webster & Company in 1884. Sam made Charles Webster editor in chief and chief executive officer, but Sam would make all the decisions as to what books to publish, and he wanted to profit as both author and owner. Once Huckleberry Finn was published, it offended a lot of people and began the controversial life that continues today.
With his own publishing company, which existed for 10 years, Sam had Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant published in 1886, which had successful sales. Sam reissued some earlier books, and Huckleberry Finn appeared in bookstores within a month, but was banned by the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts, as being unsuitable for children. Sam thought this publicity would help sales, but thought banning was hypocritical stupidity, since the library kept on its shelves books that were genuinely obscene, vulgar, and violent, like the Bible. (410) During this period, Sam became involved with investing in the Paige compositor, which was an automatic typesetting machine. He thought a huge profit could be made from this, but he bankrupted the Webster publishing company by transferring money from that to the investment, which caused the firm to close in 1894. The Paige compositor itself failed at a test run at the Chicago Herald in the same year, the Herald was using the linotype machines, all 32 ran smoothly and like they were supposed to. The newspaper didn’t have a favorable impression of the compositor and it was scrapped. Sam lost a huge investment and blamed the inventor for his loss.
With his finances in bad shape and nearing personal bankruptcy, Sam sold the Hartford house and moved the family to Europe in 1891. He wrote a few more novels and sketches in the 1890’s, including Tom Sawyer Abroad and Pudd’nhead Wilson, both in 1894. From 1895 to 1896, the entire family went on a world-wide tour, which gave him material for a final travel book in 1897, called Following the Equator. Unfortunately, in 1896, his oldest daughter Susy, died in Hartford of spinal meningitis while Sam was in London, and her death devastated him. She was involved with Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, so Sam blamed everyone who was there, but not what had actually killed her. He wrote to a friend, “Susy you know, was simply killed by mental science & spiritualism, without the least exaggeration. A murder it was, a demented cold blooded unforgivable murder.” (539) Sam became obsessed with why her death happened, so he read psychology books, including William James’ Principles of Psychology. He was angry with Christianity and having met and befriended Jews in Europe, he thought they were much smarter. Sam said, “The difference between the average Christian & that of the average Jew-certainly in Europe-is about the difference between a tadpole’s & and Archbishop’s.” (560)
The Clemens ended their exile from America in October 1900. They settled in New York and became active in the social scene. Yale presented Sam with an honorary degree in 1901, followed by the University of Missouri in 1902. Livy became seriously ill and was told to seek the warmer climate of Florence, Italy, in 1903. Sam and Livy were apart quite a bit due to his speaking engagements and she died of a heart attack on June 6, 1904. “I am tired and old,” Twain wrote to Howells, “I wish I were with Livy.” (612) He returned with her body to New York along with his shattered daughters. Sam was 70 in 1905, a milestone that everyone considered not the start, but close to the end of old age, and his writing was winding down. He was given a gala birthday party banquet at Delmonico’s in New York and dined with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. He received an honorary degree from Oxford in 1907.
In 1908, Sam moved to his final home in Redding, Connecticut, which he named Stormfield. He organized the Angelfish Club, which was comprised of teenaged girls. He wrote to them, invited them to stay with him, and declared himself admiral of the club. The rules were that they had sincerity, good disposition, schoolgirl age, intelligence, and if they went three months without writing to him, they’d be suspended. This was deemed inappropriate by a lot of people, but it seems all of it was purely platonic. Sam’s health deteriorated when his youngest daughter, Jean, died on Christmas Eve 1909, the causes of which was epileptic seizure. Sam wrote “The Death of Jean” in his autobiography, about sudden tragedy of death and his feelings about losing family members. When it was completed he never wrote again.
On April 21, 1910, Samuel Langhorne Clemens died of a heart attack at sunset, he was 74 years old. Halley’s Comet was again in the sky and he had said throughout his life, “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Sam was buried with his wife and children at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Elmira, New York.Works Cited
Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Kaplan, Justin. Mark Twain and His World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.
.Michael Waisman. About Mark Twain. 1999. http://www.geocities.com/swaisman.