Mark Twain once said, "Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written." Nevertheless, one must try - otherwise every historical figure would slip into obscurity.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.
The author and humorist we know as Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835, as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, in Florida, Missouri. Halley's Comet was visible in the night sky. Twain was the sixth of seven children; only four of them survived into adulthood.
Twain was born two months premature and was frail as a child. His mother, Jane Moffit Clemens, tried a number of remedies and therapies to improve his health. Twain was close with his mother, sharing her sense of humor. He once said, "My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it."
Twain's father, John Clemens, was a self-educated lawyer who ran a general store. He was distant with his children and he seemed to always be waiting for his ship to come in. He had purchased a plot of land in Tennessee years prior, assuming it would one day be worth a large sum. Twain later condemned the land, explaining, "It put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us - dreamers and indolent... It is good to begin life poor; it is good to begin life rich - these are wholesome; but to begin it prospectively rich! The man who has not experienced it cannot imagine the curse of it."
In 1839 the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, and John Clemens worked as a justice of the peace. The town of Hannibal would later inspire the fictional town of St. Petersburg, the setting for Twain's famous novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Twain saw despair and death while growing up - epidemics, drownings, a body in his father's office, and violence toward slaves. During a measles epidemic he climbed into bed with an ill friend, just to get it over with because he was so worried about getting sick.
In 1847 Twain's father died of pneumonia; shortly thereafter young Twain left the fifth grade to become a printer's apprentice at Joseph P. Ament's "Missouri Courier," a Hannibal newspaper.
Adventures in Early Adulthood
Twain began working in 1851 as a typesetter for the "Hannibal Journal," a newspaper owned by his older brother, Orion. He also contributed occasional articles and humorous sketches. While Orion was out of town, Twain tried out a pseudonym for the first time - W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins.
For the next several years Twain drifted, working as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, while educating himself in public libraries. He once observed, "A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read."
In 1857 Twain got a notion to travel down to South America to make his fortune. To begin his journey he booked passage on a steamboat to New Orleans. During the trip he fell in love with the idea of becoming a Mississippi River steamboat pilot instead.
Twain apprenticed and earned his steamboat pilot's license in 1859. He enjoyed the respect and camaraderie that life on the river offered to him. He even encouraged his younger brother, Henry, to find work on a steamboat. Sadly, nineteen-year-old Henry was killed on a steamboat when a boiler exploded, and Twain carried that guilt for the rest of his life.
In 1861 Mississippi River traffic was mostly halted, due to the Civil War. This ended Twains career on the river. Twain cast about and briefly joined a small Confederate unit, the Marion Rangers, more from nostalgia for his Southern roots than from a desire to advocate slavery. The unit was best known for retreating from Union troops. Twain later wrote of his Civil War experience in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed."
Twain's brother Orion campaigned for Abraham Lincoln during his run for the presidency. As a reward, he was given the post of secretary to James W. Nye, governor of the Nevada Territory. Twain briefly worked with his brother, then left to mine for silver, unsuccessfully, in the Comstock Lode in Nevada.
Twain began working at the "Territorial Enterprise," a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. For the first time, in 1863, he used the pen name Mark Twain in letters for the "Enterprise." "Mark twain" was a callback to his riverboat days - it means a river depth of two fathoms, a safe water depth for steamboats to navigate.
After challenging a fellow newspaperman to a duel, Twain thought better of it and fled the state. He eventually wound up in Angels Camp in Calaveras County, California, where heard a tale about a jumping frog contest. This would become the basis for Twain's 1865 story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," later retitled as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," published in newspapers across the country and bringing Twain his first taste of celebrity.
Twain met and fell in love with Olivia Langdon, who came from a wealthy abolitionist family, during an 1867 passage to the Mediterranean. The trip would inspire "The Innocents Abroad," published in 1869.
Twain and Langdon married in February of 1870. They had four children - a son who died as a toddler, two daughters who died in their twenties, and a third daughter, Clara, who would outlive both of her parents.
"Huckleberry Finn" and Other Mature Work
In 1874 the family moved into a 25-room home in Hartford, Connecticut. In this home Twain would write "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "The Prince and the Pauper," "Life on the Mississippi," and his masterwork, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
The character Huckleberry Finn, originally just a sidekick for Tom Sawyer, made enough of an impression on Twain that he decided to flesh out his character further. Huck was modeled after a boy he had known back in Hannibal, Tom Blankenship. Twain said, "In 'Huckleberry Finn' I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had."
"Huckleberry Finn" has been both adored and abhorred over the years. In fact, the book was banned by the public library in Concord, Massachusetts within a month of its first publication. While some see it as a condemnation of slavery as seen through the eyes of a boy who was raised to accept slavery as moral, others see it as supporting the notion that black people are inferior, deserving of racial slurs and mistreatment. It is an iconic American novel, in that it still promotes debate and touches people at their core.
Throughout his life Twain continued to produce short stories, essays, novels, and nonfiction. Some items were only printed in obscure newspapers or journals, so a definitive bibliography is nearly impossible to compile.
On the subject of writing, Twain once commented, "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
Twain amassed a large fortune, particularly for the times, to the point that he was able to invest over $200,000 in support of a new invention. The Paige Compositor, a mechanical typesetting machine, was a wonder to behold but it frequently jammed. Before the device could be perfected, it was made obsolete by the invention of the Linotype. Twain's investment was therefore lost.
In 1891 the family closed up their home in Hartford and relocated to Europe, for a combination of financial and health reasons. Twain's wife was in poor health. In 1894 Twain's publishing company, which he had established ten years prior, failed as well. He was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Twain was adept at turning a phrase and using homespun humor, not only in his written works, but also in the public arena. He traveled the world in 1895, making money as a public speaker and eventually paying off his debts, even though he was not legally required to do so.
Twain's friend, Henry Huttleston Rogers, helped him to repay his creditors and rebuild his reputation.
Twain grew somewhat bitter later in life, especially after losing two of his adult daughters in their twenties and losing his wife at the age of 58. His 1906 work, "Eve's Diary," conveyed some of his sense of loss. He also wrote essays condemning anti-Semitism, lynching, and the brutality of Belgian rule in the Congo.
The joy of his later years was a group he founded, known as the Angelfish Club. The group was made up of schoolgirls between the ages of ten and sixteen, each deemed intelligent and good-natured. He corresponded with them, took them to concerts, and generally served as a mentor. He considered them to be surrogate granddaughters.
Halley's Comet is visible from Earth every 75 or 76 years. It was visible on the day of Mark Twain's birth. Late in life he said, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'"
In 1910, on April 21, Mark Twain died of a heart attack at his home in Redding, Connecticut. Halley's Comet was visible in the night sky.
Mark Twain was a creative thinker and an innovator. He once said, "A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds."
In addition to funding the failed Paige Compositor, he held three patents for his own inventions. His self-pasting scrapbook was a financial success. The patent description for another invention, an adjustable elastic strap for vests or pantaloons, would later be cited as source material for patents on the bra. Twain's third patent was for a history trivia game.
Twain also invented a whole series of pseudonyms, in addition to Mark Twain and the already-mentioned W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins. Other colorful pen names included Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Quintius Curtius Snodgrass, Josh, Rambler, and Sergeant Fathom.
He had a love not only for humor, but also for dogs. He once had three collies, named I Know, You Know, and Don't Know.
Twain was friends with Nikola Tesla, a scientist famous for his work with electrical currents.
In a shortsighted decision, Twain reportedly turned down an opportunity to invest in another invention, the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell.
In 1909, Thomas Edison personally shot the only known film footage of Mark Twain.
Mark Twain's words and wit have withstood the test of time, and secured his place in American culture.
He is buried in a family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. It is marked by a monument measuring two fathoms - twelve feet or mark twain. His admirers would surely hope he has a spot in Heaven, although he once said, "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company."