Early Days

          Ask Americans to name some famous people from Missouri, and many will invariably throw out the name Mark Twain.  Maybe they read the popular novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn growing up, have visited or heard about the Mark Twain attractions in Hannibal, Missouri, or just remember from a school lesson or television program that the famous author was born and raised in the Show Me State. But who really was Mark Twain? Did he do anything besides tell the familiar stories of boy-heroes Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? Are we as familiar as we should be with the man who told the world about life on the Mississippi? This biography of Mark Twain can fill you in.

          “Mark Twain” is really just a pseudonym. The man who would later take up that name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was born in Florida, Missouri in 1835. At the age of four his family moved to Hannibal-then a bustling port town on the Mississippi River. When his formal education ended when Clemens was twelve years old, he trained as a printer’s apprentice and worked as a typesetter in New York City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia before returning to Hannibal in 1857 to work as a steamboat captain. His experiences growing up and working on the Mississippi would later provide a foundation for his most famous works.  

          When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the then South-supporting Clemens joined a Confederate militia group. After all of two weeks, he decided that a soldier’s life just wasn’t for him, and Clemens left Missouri to begin a long career as a traveling writer. He had adventures in professional mining, among other trades, and was even involved in a duel. By the end of the decade Clemens had traveled across the West, San Francisco, and Hawaii, and was paid the sum of twenty dollars per article during travels throughout Europe and the Middle East. His early travel experiences in the American West inspired his novel Roughing It, and Innocents Abroad was based on his journey in the Old World. Also around this time, Clemens began writing under the now-famous name Mark Twain, a term used by Mississippi riverboat captains for the water’s depth. When he returned from Europe, he found that his name had become famous, and publishers and magazines across the country were clamoring to commission works from this fresh new voice in travel writing.

A Great Career Begins

          In 1870 Twain settled down a bit, marrying Olivia Langdon. His wife was from a liberal family, and through her he met socialists, women’s rights activists, and figures like Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and the famed orator and writer Frederick Douglas. Throughout the rest of his life, Twain would befriend many of the prominent cultural, political, and intellectual figures of his time. He exchanged ideas on writing with friends Brett Harte and William Dean Howells. Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, were frequent guests in his family’s home. He took a great interest in science, working with and sponsoring the important researcher Nikola Tesla. Later in life, he shared frequent drinks and traveled with Booker T. Washington, the educator and African-American leader, and Henry Rogers, an executive at all-powerful Standard Oil.

           The cultural giants Twain rubbed shoulders with can tell us a great deal about the beliefs and character of the man from Missouri. He was a friend to men and women, blacks and whites - not unremarkable in an America healing from the scars of the Civil War and still working its way towards universal suffrage. Twain was not just the most noted humorist of his time, but a nineteenth century progressive to boot - a champion of the human rights of all people in his work. He wrote profusely in protest of the American war in the Philippines, and was extremely critical of exploitative European imperialism in Africa. Twain’s strong political views should not be forgotten as a part of his legacy; they permeate his writing and shaped American intellectual culture at the time.  Starting a family could not keep Twain pinned down for long; a second trip to Europe inspired A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880. By the middle of the decade Twain was already established as a literary leader, and was wildly popular with both critics and the general population. He was praised and loved for his humorous, all too realistic characters, his warm and lively style, and his wisdom. Twain’s most lasting success came in 1885, though, with the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Masterpiece

          Mark Twain had published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, a mostly lighthearted novel set in fictional St. Petersburg, Missouri. Based on his boyhood experiences in Hannibal, Twain created rich and humorous descriptions of life on the Mississippi before the Civil War, enriched by his mastery of the various dialects of the area that made his characters come to life.  A second novel set in and around St. Petersburg was published in 1885, and changed American literature forever.

          ">The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of the young boy, Huck, and the runaway slave, Jim, drifting together down the Mississippi River. Many of the characters from Tom Sawyer reappear in the novel, but Huck Finn is much more serious than its predecessor. Twain meets many of the social issues of the pre-Civil War South, most notably racism and slavery, head on, pulling no punches. Some critics at the time called the book crude, and there has been debate over the years about its place in school settings. Twain’s portrayal of the slave Jim has been criticized, but he shows dignity, courage, and selflessness throughout the novel while most of the white characters are criminals, tricksters, and low-lives. The young Huck, the novel’s hero, gives up his place in society to do what he sees as the honorable thing-to help his friend escape from slavery. Despite the book’s controversy it was and remains to this day widely read, and had a huge impact on American literature. A legendary American writer from a different generation, Ernest Hemingway, wrote that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Twain’s book has stood the test of time-writers and critics from every literary age have praised it as one of the first “Great American Novels” and it continues to be studied at both the high school and college level. 

Later Days

         Twain’s prolific career continued long after the success of Huck Finn. He continued to travel throughout the United States and the rest of the world, writing essays and articles about everything he thought, felt, and experienced. His novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889, reflected his growing disillusionment with politics and a sense of cynicism that would grow until the end of his life. In addition to his novels and articles Twain also dabbled in literary criticism, openly deriding the works of revered authors like James Fenimore Cooper and Jane Austen, and was a renowned public speaker and lecturer, able to sell out venues throughout the world. But despite his almost universal popularity and success, Twain was plagued by financial troubles for most of his life. Some bad investments-including starting his own publishing company-forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1894. By the turn of the century, Twain had become quite bitter in his outlook on society, and his writing often turned to vicious criticism and dark satire on almost all facets of life.

           Mark Twain died in 1910 at the age of seventy-five, continuing to write and publish up until his death. Although almost one hundred years have passed since then, but his place seems secure among the giants of American writing. Although many of the topics Twain addressed, such as racism, have improved in America since his time, his words remain relevant to our lives to this day (look no further than his opinion of bankers: “a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain”). A literary beacon of wisdom and humanity, Mark Twain left an indelible impression on the landscape of our culture and heritage. Missourians should be proud to call him a native son.

To get into the nitty-gritty of one classic American dialect that Twain was a master of, the Ozark dialect, click here for my InfoBarrel article. Thanks for reading!