Mark Twain Biography (1911)
Mark Twain Biography
Family and boyhood
The American author Mark Twain, the nom de plume of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), was born on the 30th of November 1835, at Florida, Missouri. His father was a country merchant from Tennessee, who moved soon after his son’s birth to Hannibal, Missouri, a little town on the Mississippi.
When the boy was only twelve his father died, and thereafter he had to get his education as best he could. Of actual schooling he had little. He learned how to set type, and as a journeyman printer he wandered widely, going even as far east as New York. At seventeen he went back to the Mississippi, determined to become a pilot on a river-steamboat. In his Life on the Mississippi he has recorded graphically his experiences while “learning the river.” But in 1861 the war broke out, and the pilot’s occupation was gone.
After a brief period of uncertainty the young man started West with his brother, who had been appointed lieutenant-governor of Nevada. He went to the mines for a season, and there he began to write in the local newspapers, adopting the pen name of “Mark Twain,” from a call used in taking soundings on the Mississippi steamboats.
He drifted in time to San Francisco, and it was a newspaper of that city which in 1867 supplied the money for him to join a party going on a chartered steamboat to the Mediterranean ports. The letters which he wrote during this voyage were gathered in 1869 into a volume, The Innocents Abroad, and the book immediately won a wide and enduring popularity. This popularity was of service to him when he appeared on the platform with a lecture or rather with an apparently informal talk, rich in admirably delivered anecdote.
Marriage and other adventures
He edited a daily newspaper in Buffalo for a few months, and in 1870 he married Miss Olivia L. Langdon (d. 1904), removing a year later to Hartford, where he established his home. Roughing It was published in 1872, and in 1874 he collaborated with Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age, from which he made a play, acted many hundred times with John T. Raymond as “Colonel Sellers.”
In 1875 he published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the sequel to which, Huckleberry Finn, did not appear until 1884. The result of a second visit to Europe was humorously recorded in A Tramp Abroad (1880), followed in 1882 by a more or less historical romance, The Prince and the Pauper; and a year later came Life on the Mississippi. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the next of his books, was published (in 1884) by a New York firm in which the author was chief partner.
This firm prospered for a while, and issued in 1889 Mark Twain’s own comic romance, A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, and in 1892 a less successful novel, The American Claimant. But after a severe struggle the publishing house failed, leaving the author charged with its very heavy debts. After this disaster he issued a third Mississippi Valley novel, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, in 1894, and in 1896 another historical romance, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, wherein the maid is treated with the utmost sympathy and reverence.
He went on a tour round the world, partly to make money by lecturing and partly to get material for another book of travels, published in 1897, and called in America Following the Equator, and in England More Tramps Abroad. From time to time he had collected into volumes his scattered sketches; of these the first, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, appeared in 1867, and the latest, The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, in 1900. To be recorded also is a volume of essays and literary criticisms, How to Tell a Story (1897).
A complete edition of his works was published in twenty-two volumes in 1890-1900 by the American Publishing Company of Hartford. And in this last year, having paid off all the debts of his old firm, he returned to America.
End of life
By the time he died his books had brought him a considerable fortune. In later years he published a few minor volumes of fiction, and a series of severe and also amusing criticisms of Christian Science (published as a book in 1907), and in 1906 he began an autobiography in the North American Review.
He had a great reception in England in 1907, when he went over to receive from Oxford the degree of Doctor of Literature.
He died at Redding, Connecticut, on the 21st of April 1910. Of his four daughters only one who married the Russian pianist Gabrilowitch survived him.
Mark Twain was an outstanding figure for many years as a popular American personality in the world of letters. He is commonly considered as a humorist, and no doubt he is a humorist of a remarkable comic force and of a refreshing fertility.
But the books in which his humour is broadly displayed, the travels and the sketches, are not really so significant of his power as the three novels of the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, wherein we have preserved a vanished civilization, peopled with typical figures, and presented with inexorable veracity. There is no lack of humour in them, and there is never a hint of affectation in the writing; indeed, the author, doing spontaneously the work nearest to his hand, was very likely unconscious that he was making a contribution to history.
But such Huckleberry Finn is, beyond all question; it is a story of very varied interest, now comic, now almost tragic, frequently poetic, unfailingly truthful, although not always sustained at its highest level. And in these three works of fiction there are not only humour and pathos, character and truth, there is also the largeness of outlook on life such as we find only in the works of the masters. Beneath his fun-making we can discern a man who is fundamentally serious, and whose ethical standards are ever lofty.
Like Cervantes at times, Mark Twain reveals a depth of melancholy beneath his playful humour, and like Molière always, he has a deep scorn and a burning detestation of all sorts of sham and pretence, a scorching hatred of humbug and hypocrisy. Like Cervantes and like Molière, he is always sincere and direct.
After Mark Twain’s death, his close friend, W. D. Howells, published in 1910 a series of personal recollections in Harper’s Magazine.
This biography was adapted from an article by Brander Matthews (1852-1929) in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 27, from the Wikisource 1911 encyclopedia project.
Many thanks to Finn from the Steamboat Times website (http://steamboattimes.com/) for graciously allowing us to use the author image on this page. We appreciate the work he has done to digitally clean the image. To the best of our knowledge, the original photograph is free of any copyright restrictions.
The University of Illinois offers an excellent collection of information about Mark Twain and his life on the Mississippi.
When will you read Mark Twain’s writing in Excellence in Literature?