Last reviewed: June 2018
American novelist, travel writer, short-story writer, essayist, and memoirist
November 30, 1835
April 21, 1910
Mark Twain is both the greatest humorist American literature has produced and one of its most important novelists. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the son of John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens, in the small town of Florida, Missouri, he spent his boyhood in nearby Hannibal on the banks of the Mississippi River, a setting that would figure prominently in many of his best works. His father died before he turned twelve, and he quit school and went to work as a printer’s apprentice a few years later. While working on his older brother’s newspaper, he began writing humorous sketches. In 1852, he published his first piece in the East, “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter,” which appeared in a Boston magazine. A year later, he left Hannibal and found work as a printer in several eastern cities before deciding, at the age of twenty-one, to set out for South America. While traveling down the Mississippi River by steamboat, however, he altered his plans and persuaded a steamboat pilot to teach him his trade. Mark Twain
Twain’s career as a pilot was cut short by the Civil War, and after a two-week stint in a Missouri militia unit, he went with his brother to Nevada. There, he made unsuccessful forays into silver mining and adopted the pseudonym “Mark Twain”—a nautical phrase meaning two fathoms deep—while working for a Virginia City newspaper. After relocating to San Francisco, he wrote the story that would win him national recognition, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (early titles vary). The story shows Twain already a master of the deadpan, Western-flavored tall tale, and its use of dialect introduces the idiomatic style that would help earn him a place among the giants of American literature.
As a reporter for the Sacramento Union, Twain traveled to Hawaii in 1866 and sent home humorous travel sketches in the form of letters. In 1867, he embarked for Europe and the Holy Land as a newspaper travel correspondent, and his revised and expanded sketches were published in his first major book in 1869, The Innocents Abroad. That book’s immense popularity soon made its author a familiar figure on the lecture circuit. In 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon, with whom he had four children, only one of whom outlived him. The couple eventually resettled in Hartford, Connecticut, where they remained for twenty years. Roughing It, Twain’s comical recollections of his time in the West, was published in 1872 and was followed the next year by The Gilded Age, a social and political satire that he cowrote with his friend Charles Dudley Warner.
In 1876, Twain published what would become one of his best-loved novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Drawing on his memories of his childhood in Hannibal, Twain created a rollicking portrait of an American boyhood characterized by high spirits, a thirst for adventure, and an irrepressible talent for mischief. The book became a classic and has never been out of print.
In 1884, Twain completed a novel he had begun eight years earlier. Generally acknowledged as his greatest work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a scathing social satire disguised as a young boy’s adventure. During the course of Huck’s trip downriver with the runaway slave Jim, he encounters the hypocrisy, greed, and cruelty of “civilized” society and notes, in the book’s famous final passage, “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Criticized as crude and vulgar by some at the time of its publication, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has since entered the ranks of the most important and influential American novels; it was praised by Ernest Hemingway as the beginning of modern American fiction.
Although Twain’s final years were marred by business failures and personal sorrow (the deaths of his wife and two daughters), Twain found himself a celebrated and beloved public figure, recognized throughout the world and a legend in his own time. His last years were devoted to philosophical works, often dark and bitter in tone, and to his autobiography, a portion of which was edited and published after his death by his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. When Twain died of heart disease in 1910, he left an immense body of unpublished writings in various stages of completion.
Mark Twain’s reputation as a writer has grown in the years since his death as the richness of his legacy has come to be appreciated by subsequent generations of readers and critics. He is often credited with giving American literature its first uniquely American voice, and the color and vibrancy of his work stand in stark contrast to the elegant language and seriousness of tone that mark other nineteenth-century novels. Yet Twain’s command of language was one of his chief strengths, and his genius lay in his ability to make even the roughest of dialects serve his purposes as eloquently as the most refined and educated of accents. Twain brought the energy and truth-stretching humor of the West to his work and used it to entertain society with an account of its own foibles and vices.