This Day In Writing History
On November 30th, 1835, the legendary American writer Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri. He was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the son of a lawyer and judge. He was the sixth of seven children; only three of his siblings would survive childhood.
When Twain was four years old, his father moved the family to Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi River. Growing up in Hannibal, Twain came to love the town and would model the fictional town of St. Petersberg, Missouri, after it.
Twain's father contracted pneumonia and died when he was eleven years old. A year later, Twain went to work as a printer's devil, (apprentice) where he learned the printing and typesetting trade. By the age of sixteen, he was working as a typesetter and writing articles and humorous pieces for the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his brother, Orion.
When he turned eighteen, Twain left Hannibal and moved East, living in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York City. He worked as a printer by day and educated himself at night in public libraries. He found a wider spectrum of information available to him in libraries than in conventional schools. He returned to Hannibal four years later.
While traveling by steamboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans, Twain befriended the pilot, Horace E. Bixby, who inspired him to become a steamboat pilot himself. At the time, steamboat piloting was a very prominent and respected position. It also paid well - around $3000 per year, which is equivalent to about $72,000 in today's money. In order to obtain a steamboat pilot's license, one had to go through a lot of training.
While Twain was training, his younger brother Henry was killed on another steamboat when it exploded. A month before the explosion, Twain had a dream where his brother died; after he was killed, Twain was racked with guilt, as he had encouraged Henry to train on the ill-fated steamboat and never took the dream seriously. He would develop an interest in parapsychology as a result. Despite this tragedy, Twain worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until 1861, when the Civil War broke out. His famous pen name, Mark Twain, was a term used by steamboat captains to note that the water was at least two fathoms deep, and thus safe to travel on.
Twain's experiences as a steamboat pilot would lead him to write his classic book, Life on the Mississippi (1883), a combination of non-fiction and fiction.
In 1861, Twain moved out West and joined his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to James W. Nye, the governor of the Nevada Territory. To get there, Twain and Orion traveled two weeks by stagecoach across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. The trip would inspire him to write his first classic short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865), and his famous travelogue, Roughing It (1872).
When they arrived in Virginia City, Nevada, Twain found work as a miner. He failed at mining, so he switched gears and began working as a journalist for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he first used his famous pen name, Mark Twain. He moved to San Francisco in 1864, where he met famous writers such as Bret Harte, Artemus Ward, Dan DeQuille, and Ina Coolbrith. Twain's first classic short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County would be published a year later in The Saturday Press, a weekly literary newspaper based in New York City.
In 1867, Twain was still working as a journalist when a newspaper sponsored him to take a tour of Europe and the Middle East, during which he wrote a series of popular travel letters. These letters would be compiled and published in book form as his classic travelogue, The Innocents Abroad (1869). While on his tour, Twain met Charles Langdon, whose sister, Olivia, he would later marry.
Twain met Olivia in 1868. It was love at first sight, and within two years, they would be married. She bore him a son and three daughters. Twain's son Langdon died at the age of two from diphtheria. His daughter Susy would die suddenly from meningitis at 24. Daughter Jean, an epileptic, would die at 29 after suffering a seizure in the bathtub. Though oldest daughter Clara would live a long life, her relationship with her father was tempestuous and plagued with scandal. For more information on these subjects and what became of Mark Twain's final years, read my review of Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley at the Internet Review Of Books.
Mark Twain's wife, Olivia, came from a wealthy, liberal, intellectual family, and through them, he met fellow abolitionists, "socialists, principled atheists and activists for women's rights and social equality" including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and the famous utopian socialist, William Dean, who became a lifelong friend. Olivia's family and their friends would have a strong influence on Twain's philosophy and writings. Although a Presbyterian, Twain was often critical of religion and once quipped that "if Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian."
Twain would become most famous for his classic novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Prince and the Pauper (1882), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), Eve's Diary (1906), and many others.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), considered by many to be Twain's greatest novel, was attacked for its abolitionist themes when it was first published. The sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) finds Tom's friend Huckleberry Finn on an adventure of his own. While running away from his guardians, Huck meets Jim, an escaped slave who hopes to make it to Ohio, a free state, and eventually buy his family's freedom so they can join him there.
Through initially opposed to the idea of Jim becoming a free man, when he befriends and travels with him, Huck comes to realize that Jim is a good, intelligent man who deserves to be free. When Jim is betrayed by some grifters and recaptured, Huck helps him escape again even though its against the law to do so - it's considered a form of theft.
Ironically, Twain's novel would be attacked again some seventy years after it was first published - this time for its alleged racism. The NAACP has denounced the novel for its use of the racial epithet nigger and alleged racist stereotyping of blacks. The book is often targeted by African-American activists who want it banned from classrooms and school libraries. Twain scholars point out that the author let his Southern white characters speak their own ugly language as a way of denouncing slavery and the Southern notion that black people were subhuman.
In addition to his writings, Twain was also a lecturer - a speaker in demand all over the world. His lecture tours also helped to establish his reputation as America's greatest humorist and iconoclast. When he ran into financial troubles from bad investments, he would go out on more lecture tours to earn back the money he lost. During one European tour, Twain was invited to speak as the guest of the Concordia Press Club in Vienna, Austria. In typical Twain style, he gave a speech in German - Die Schrecken der Deutschen Sprache, which means The Horrors of the German Language.
Mark Twain died in 1910 at the age of 74. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest writers of all time and the founding father of American literature.
Quote Of The Day
"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words." - Mark Twain
Today's video features a couple of clips from Hal Holbrook's legendary one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight. Enjoy!