When Mark Twain was born in Missouri, it had been a state for only fifteen years. It gained statehood in 1820. At this time in history, the state formed part of the western border of the westward expanding United States. Beyond its border was frontier. Some of state's inhabitants owned slaves. Twain's father had one slave and his Uncle had several. As a youth he spent time on his Uncle's farm - playing in the slave quarters and listening to the tall tales they told and the spirituals the slaves sang. He remembered the language, the stories, and the people for the rest of his life. He populated his books with their dialect. Although later in life, he showed his more serious side, Twain is best known as a humorist. One of the greatest of his accomplishments was the fact that he created a writing style that was distinctly American and not an imitation of English writers. Language in his stories sounded like the authentic speech of the American people - loose and rhythmic. This realistic prose influenced future American writers. Hemingway had stated that all modern American literature was influenced by the book, Hucklebery Finn.
Twain's birth name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The sixth of seven children, he was born on November 30th, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. The family moved to the river town of Hannibal on the Mississippi River when Samuel was four years old. It was here that he experienced the color and excitement that living on a thriving river town can present to a boy. The steamboats that docked at the town's wharf brought slave dealers, gamblers, singers, a virtual cornucopia of river travelers that could fuel his young imagination. It was also in Hannibal that he had his first experience in a print shop. His father had died - in debt when Samuel was eleven years old. Shortly afterwards he left school, having completed the fifth grade, he went to work. In print shops, as he set the type, he got to read the news stories from around the world. At the age of sixteen he started to help his older brother, Orion, in producing a newspaper, The Hannibal Journal. For several years he contributed poems, humorous sketches and reports.
Yearning to travel, Twain explored the United States by working for low wages in print shops in various cities. Having made plans at the age of twenty-two to go to South America, he was traveling down the Mississippi towards New Orleans when he made a momentous choice. He asked a riverboat pilot to teach him the skills he employed and in two years Samuel was a licensed riverboat pilot. It paid well and he acquired yet more experiences, characters, and stories. When the civil war broke out in 1861, river traffic stopped and so did Clemens career as a pilot. But he came away from the river with his pen name, "Mark Twain". It is a phase that is used to denote "two fathoms" (a depth of twelve feet.)
He joined a volunteer Confederate unit in the Civil War, but quit after two weeks and traveled to Nevada where his brother Orion was working. He traveled from Missouri to Nevada by stagecoach. Along the way across the frontier, he not only encountered adventures and characters but had his first experience with Native American Indians as well. He first used the name Mark Twain when writing for the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise. Twain describes his times in Nevada, and his attempts to mine for gold and silver, in Roughing It (1872). It was during this time that he concluded he was better suited for newspaper journalism than mining for gold. Moving father west, to California, he wrote for the San Francisco, Morning Call, and a literary journal, the Californian. In 1866, his first popular story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, appeared in the New York, Saturday Press. It was a story he had heard while mining for gold. Later, he continued even farther west, and traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, while a correspondent for the Sacramento, Union.
The lust for travel never left him. At the age of 32, he took a voyage to Europe on the steamship Quaker City. The letters that he wrote on this trip, both to a paper in San Francisco, and one in New York, were collected into a popular book, Innocents Abroad (1869). It was on this steamship that Twain met the brother of the women he was to marry, Olivia Langdon. It was said he saw her photo and fell in love at first sight. Following a brief stint writing for a newspaper in Buffalo, New York - the young couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1871. They had a young son that died in infancy. They also had three daughters Suzy, Clara, and Jean. The family spent 20 years in Hartford, moving into a luxurious new 19- room house, where they entertained many prominent authors of the day. These were prolific and prosperous times for the Twain family. He wrote most of his best work during these years including:
The Guilded Age (1873)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
A Tramp Abroad (1880)
The Prince and the Pauper (1882)
Life on the Mississippi (1883)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and
A Connecticut Yankee in Arthur's Court (1889).
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered by most to be Twain's greatest work. He had begun the book in 1876 as a sequel to Tom Sawyer. Huck is the son of the town drunk. The story chronicles the adventures of the runaways Huck and the black slave, Jim - told from the view of Huck. The book was and still is - controversial. Much of the controversy is due to Hunk's language. Twain used dialects, and made the conversation realistic - using careless grammar and words. Many object to this language and to Huck's careless morals. The book was banned from some libraries. Many readers today, find Huck's casual acceptance to the principles of slavery, and his use of racial stereotypes, abhorrent. The intrinsic theme of the story, however, is about the fundamental equality and aspirations of all races.
Although his days in Hartford had been successful, he had started his own publishing company and had invested heavily in an elaborate typesetting machine. Twain lost money and his publishing company had to declare bankruptcy. He found himself humiliated and unable to pay his debts. Eventually he recovered financially by continuing to write and by taking a lecture tour around the world. By the time he and his family returned to the states, he was an international hero, with a showy image of wearing unconventional white suits and smoking a cigar or pipe. He also used his position to criticize the U.S. foreign policy. His anger grew at imperialist countries and he declared himself an - anti-imperialists. He continued to be one throughout his life.
Although his financial life was beginning to recover, his personal life began to un-ravel. In 1896, his cherished daughter Suzy whom had returned to visit the Hartford house - died while there. The rest of the family was still in Europe. They sold the house. His wife, Olivia died in 1904, and his youngest daughter, Jean died in 1909. He somehow continued to write - but his writing turned dark. He focused on human greed and human cruelty. His view seemed to be more and more pessimistic and decry that all human motives are ultimately selfish. One of his light works - a play that had been published - Is He Dead? - was rediscovered in 2001 and published. But whether his life ended on a happy note is not the question. He had a fruitful life and is still often quoted. No one can deny his wonderful wit or his contribution to American literature. He was the innovator of writing the way Americans actually spoke and about American experiences. Living in the Bay Area, I'm sure we all hear this quote of his every summer. "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco". Ironically, this has never been proven to be a quote of Twains. But then, it hasn't been proven not to be - so we can still use it. I would guess that Twain would say, "Well, even if I didn't say it, I should have."