Mark Twain was
born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. The family soon
moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where Samuel was brought up. Samuel's father was
prosperous and owned a grocery store as well as slaves. He died when Samuel was
twelve, and Samuel had to leave school to earn a living. He was apprenticed to
a printer. Samuel began his journalistic career by writing for and typesetting
the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper which Samuel's brother Orion had
bought and which they ran from their home. From 1857-61 Samuel worked as a
Mississippi river-boat pilot, an experience that provided material for his
writing and gave him his pseudonym. "Mark twain" was a river-boat pilot's call
meaning the mark of two fathoms, used when sounding the depth of the river.
When the Civil
War broke out in 1861, river-boat traffic effectively ceased and Twain was
forced to give up his job. He enlisted briefly in the Confederate Army but left
after two weeks to go to Nevada with Orion. While working as an editor on a
newspaper based in Virginia City, Nevada, Twain upset a fellow journalist, who
insisted on a duel. To avoid imprisonment under anti-duelling laws, Twain fled
to San Francisco. He upset the San Francisco police by writing critical
articles about them, and they retaliated with a libel lawsuit. Twain escaped to
the Sierras, where he lived in a primitive cabin on Jackass Hill and panned for
gold and silver, without any great success.
After a few
months, Twain returned to San Francisco and resumed writing. He achieved fame
as a humorist with a story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras
County" (1865), about a frog that had been trained to jump but failed to
win a wager because the owner of a rival frog had loaded him with shot.
1860s, Twain built a reputation for bitingly funny pieces, which made him
popular with readers but unpopular with the targets of his satire. He was also
in demand as a public speaker and lecturer. He set out on a world tour of
France, Italy and the Middle East, and compiled his articles from the trip in a
book called The Innocents Abroad (1869), which poked fun at American and
European manners. The book's success gave Twain enough financial security to
marry Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy New York state family, in 1870.
They settled in Hartford, Connecticut and had three surviving children: Susy
(born 1872), Clara (born 1874) and Jean (born 1880). Olivia became Twain's
editor, retaining the position until her death in 1904 in Florence.
Hartford, Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). His hometown of Hannibal was the model for St Petersburg,
the fictional setting for both novels; his own childhood experiences and the
people he knew formed the characters and events of the novels. Other works
include the children's novel The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and
Life on the Mississippi (1883), a memoir of his experiences of the
In the 1890s
Twain lost most of the money he had earned from his writing in disastrous
financial speculations. In 1894 he had invested in the infamous Paige
typesetter, which never worked. He started a world lecture tour, and by 1898 he had repaid
his debts. From 1896 to 1900 he lived mainly in Europe. In 1896, Susy, his favorite
daughter, died of meningitis.
After the death
of his daughter and wife, Twain became more bitter and his writings
increasingly misanthropic. An example is his statement, "I believe that
our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the
monkey." Always a fierce opponent of oppression and imperialism, he wrote
scathing articles and speeches attacking the American government's actions in
the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars (1898 and 1899, respectively). Some
called Twain a traitor, and many of these works were never published because of
publishers' fears that they would make Twain unmarketable.
a superstitious man, Twain was born when Halley's comet was passing the earth,
and he believed that he would die when it returned. He was proved correct, and
died near Redding, Connecticut, in 1910.