“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
Regarded by William Faulkner as “the father of American literature,” the voice of Samuel Langhorne Clemens was one full of wit, substance, and personality. With his pen and typewriter, his fresh take on America provided a compelling portrait by virtue of humor and sincerity for the world to admire.
Who was Samuel Clemens?
Through his quick wit and timeless satires, Clemens captured the idiosyncrasies of everyday American folk. He was known by pen names such as Josh and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, but none more notable than Mark Twain. His iconic protagonists Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn appeal to the heart and soul of the American zeitgeist, especially during a time of significant change and turmoil between class and race. But, who was the man behind the great American novel?
Born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, Clemens was the sixth of seven children; only four, including himself, made it to adulthood. In what would inspire his later work, Clemens moved to the Mississippi port town of Hannibal, Missouri at the age of four. The town would later be used as inspiration for the fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Clemens’ father, John Marshall Clemens, was an attorney and judge, who passed away in 1847 of pneumonia when Clemens was just 11 years old. It would be a year later when Clemens left school to work as a printer’s apprentice; then, a few years after in 1851, he would work for his older brother Orion’s newspaper the Hannibal Journal as a typesetter. It was here where Clemens would have his first real chance as a creative, contributing articles and humorous sketches to the publication.
After he turned 18, Clemens set out upon the world as a printer, joining the newly created printers trade union, the International Typographical Union, and traveled the country as he worked in Cincinnati, New York City, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. During this time, he pursued self-education in public libraries rather than settling on conventional schooling, since public libraries provided a broader scope of information free from singular perspectives. This would allow Clemens to form his own views of the world around him.
Sowing the seeds for Clemen’s later work
As a boy, Clemens and his friends dreamt of working as steamboatmen on the Mississippi. Later as a young man, he would become a cub pilot, learning the river between New Orleans and St. Louis. Twain’s vast knowledge of the Mississippi, which included its landmarks and how to read the river’s shifting channels, reefs, and submerged snags, later informed Huck and Jim’s adventure.
In his two years as a cub pilot, he likely picked up his future pen name of ‘Mark Twain,’ from old-fashioned boating terms. A steamboat needs two fathoms, or 12 feet, in order to move safely in the waters. And since they would use the word “twain” in place of “two,” when they were in two fathoms, or in safe waters, the leadsmen would call out “by the mark twain!” Always one for humor, what likely started as a joke became the name he was most known for.
During this time, Clemens convinced his younger brother Henry to join him as the steamer’s mud clerk. However, on June 13, 1858, the steamer’s boiler exploded, fatally injuring Henry. He succumbed to his wounds just over a week later. Clemens never forgave himself, accepting full responsibility for his brother’s early death. This would lead to his deep interest in psychic phenomena and communicating with the afterlife.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Clemens left his job as a steamboat pilot and enlisted in the Confederate Army, which would be detailed to some extent in his sketch, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed. As the title indicates, Clemens held no romantic sensibilities for the cause. In fact, after just two weeks, he and his companions disbanded going their separate ways.
Clemens journeyed to the American West that same year, accompanying his older brother Orion, who had become the secretary of Nevada Territory governor James W. Nye. He first tried his hand in silver mining while in Virginia City, Nevada, but failed to find his fortune. So, he switched paths, finding work as a journalist for the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise. This is where Clemens first used his pen name, signing “Mark Twain” at the end of a travel account. To mark this evolution, we’ll refer to Clemens as Twain from here on out.
The rise of Mark Twain
Twain launched his career as a celebrated writer with his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Twain learned of the tall tale from an Angels Hotel bartender when he was passing through Angels Camp, California. The rest of his exploits in the West would inspire Roughing It, the prequel for his travel book The Innocents Abroad, which followed his time aboard the Quaker City in 1867 as he traveled the Mediterranean, while also touring Europe and the Middle East. On his travels, he met the brother of his future wife, Charles Langdon. When Charles showed Twain a photo of his sister, Olivia, he later claimed to have “fallen in love at first sight.”
Upon returning to the United States, Twain received an honorary membership at Yale’s secret society, Scroll and Key in 1868. That same year, he corresponded with Olivia, who rejected his first marriage proposal. She was wealthy, and he wasn’t, but he eventually won over Olivia and her father, and they married in Elmira, New York in 1870. Olivia’s family was wealthy but liberal, and Twain met atheists, activists, abolitionists, and socialists. Some of whom he met include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and William Dean Howells.
Samuel Clemens — the innovator
Twain was also inspired by science and the possibilities it promised. His friendship with Nikola Tesla placed him regularly in the genius’s laboratory. Twain went on to patent three of his inventions, which came in the form of an improvement for suspenders, a history trivia game, and a self-pasting scrapbook — of which, only 25,000 were ever sold.
His main innovations were in writing. Twain featured the forensic technique of fingerprinting in Life on the Mississippi and his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain also played with alternative histories in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, about a time traveler who introduces modern technology, of Twain’s time, to Arthurian England.
Twain’s views had evolved throughout his life. Where he began with an American imperialist outlook, in his later years, he reversed course, claiming a political awakening. He states his sentiments the most clearly in the context of the Philippine-American War:
“I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific … Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? … I said to myself, Here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American Constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.
But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [which ended the Spanish–American War], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.
It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
Going out with Halley’s Comet
Twain’s prediction for his death would come to pass when Halley’s Comet closely approached the Earth in 1910. The day after, on April 21, 1910, he died of a heart attack at 74 years old.
Upon his death, President William Taft said:
“Mark Twain gave pleasure — real intellectual enjoyment — to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come … His humor was American, but he was nearly as much appreciated by Englishmen and people of other countries as by his own countrymen. He has made an enduring part of American literature.”
Twain’s life was long and full of adventure, humor, and heartbreak. We could only cover so much of it in this video. So, if you want to learn more about one of America’s most beloved authors, we recommend Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volumes 1–3.
If you haven’t already, now’s as good a time as ever to hop on over to my article on the great American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.