Authors: Mark Twain

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist, travel writer, short-story writer, essayist, and memoirist

November 30, 1835

Florida, Missouri

April 21, 1910

Redding, Connecticut

Biography

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. {$I[AN]9810000790} {$I[A]Twain, Mark} {$S[A]Clemens, Samuel Langhorne;Twain, Mark} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Twain, Mark} {$I[tim]1835;Twain, Mark}

Mark Twain

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Gilded Age, 1873 (with Charles Dudley Warner) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876 The Prince and the Pauper, 1881 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 1889 The American Claimant, 1892 Tom Sawyer Abroad, 1894 The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894 Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896 Tom Sawyer, Detective, 1896 A Double-Barrelled Detective Story, 1902 Extracts from Adam’s Diary, 1904 Eve’s Diary, 1906 A Horse’s Tale, 1906 Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, 1909 Report from Paradise,1952 (Dixon Wecter, editor) Simon Wheeler, Detective, 1963 Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, 1969 (William M. Gibson, editor) Short Fiction: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, 1867 Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance, 1871 Mark Twain’s Sketches: New and Old, 1875 Punch, Brothers, Punch! and Other Sketches, 1878 The Stolen White Elephant, and Other Stories, 1882 Merry Tales, 1892 The £1,000,000 Bank-Note, and Other New Stories, 1893 The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, and Other Stories and Essays, 1900 King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule, 1905 The $30,000 Bequest, and Other Stories, 1906 The Curious Republic of Gondour, and Other Whimsical Sketches, 1919 Letters from the Earth, 1962 Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques, 1967 (Franklin R. Rogers, editor) Mark Twain’s Which Was the Dream? and Other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years, 1967 (John S. Tuckey, editor) Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Huck and Tom, 1969 (Walter Blair, editor) Mark Twain’s Fables of Man, 1972 (Tuckey, editor) Life as I Find It, 1977 (Charles Neider, editor) Early Tales and Sketches, 1979-1981 (2 volumes; Edgar M. Branch and Robert H. Hirst, editors) A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, 2001 (Roy Blount, Jr., editor) Drama: Colonel Sellers, pr., pb. 1874 (adaptation of his novel The Gilded Age) Ah Sin, pr. 1877 (with Bret Harte) Is He Dead?: A Comedy in Three Acts, pb. 2003 (Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor) Nonfiction: The Innocents Abroad, 1869 Roughing It, 1872 A Tramp Abroad, 1880 Life on the Mississippi, 1883 Following the Equator, 1897 How to Tell a Story, and Other Essays, 1897 My Début as a Literary Person, 1903 What Is Man?, 1906 Christian Science, 1907 Is Shakespeare Dead?, 1909 Mark Twain’s Speeches, 1910 (Albert Bigelow Paine, editor) Europe and Elsewhere, 1923 (Paine, editor) Mark Twain’s Autobiography, 1924 (2 volumes; Paine, editor) Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1935 (Paine, editor) Letters from the Sandwich Islands, Written for the Sacramento Union, 1937 (G. Ezra Dane, editor) Mark Twain in Eruption, 1940 (Bernard DeVoto, editor) Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown, 1937 (Franklin Walker and Dane, editors) The Love Letters of Mark Twain, 1949 (Dixon Wecter, editor) Mark Twain to Mrs. Fairbanks, 1949 (Wecter, editor) Mark Twain of the Enterprise: Newspaper Articles, and Other Documents, 1862–1864, 1957 (Henry Nash Smith and Frederick Anderson, editors) Traveling with the Innocents Abroad: Mark Twain’s Original Reports from Europe and the Holy Land, 1958 (Daniel Morley McKeithan, editor) Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William D. Howells, 1872–1910, 1960 (Smith and William M. Gibson, editors) The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1961 (Charles Neider, editor) Mark Twain’s Letters to His Publishers, 1867–1894, 1967 (Hamlin Hill, editor) Clemens of the Call: Mark Twain in San Francisco, 1969 (Edgar M. Branch, editor) Mark Twain’s Correspondence with Henry Huttleston Rogers, 1893–1909, 1969 (Lewis Leary, editor) Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, 1975–79 (3 volumes; Anderson et al., editors) Mark Twain Speaking, 1976 (speeches; Paul Fatout, editor) Mark Twain Speaks for Himself, 1978 (journalism; Fatout, editor) Mark Twain’s Letters, 1988–2002 (6 volumes; Branch et al., editors) Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the “North American Review,” 1990 (Michael J. Kiskis, editor) Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence, 1905–1910, 1991 (John Cooley, editor) The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood, 1995 (Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough, editors) Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews, 2006 Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, 2010 (Harriet Elinor Smith, et al., editors) Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2, 2013 (Harriet Elinor Smith, et al., editors) Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3, 2015 (Harriet Elinor Smith, et al., editors) Miscellaneous: The Portable Mark Twain, 1946 (Bernard DeVoto, editor) Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 1853–1891, 1992 (Louis J. Budd, editor) Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 1891–1910, 1992 (Budd, editor) Bibliography Briden, Earl F. “Twainian Pedagogy and the No-Account Lessons of ‘Hadleyburg.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Spring, 1991): 125–234. Argues that within the context of Twain’s skepticism about man’s capacity for moral education “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is not a story about a town’s redemptive lessons of sin but rather an exposé about humanity’s inability to learn morality from either theory or practice, abstract principle or moral pedagogy. Camfield, Gregg. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Collection of essays, including several by other scholars, on diverse aspects of Twain’s life and writing, with encyclopedia reference features. Includes a three-page entry on detective stories. Indexed. Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Complete revision of Emerson’s The Authentic Mark Twain (1984), this masterful study traces the development of Twain’s writing against the events in his life and provides illuminating discussions of many individual works, including the mystery and detective stories discussed here. Indexed. Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A broad survey of Mark Twain’s influence on modern culture, including the many writers who have acknowledged their indebtedness to him; discusses Twain’s use of Hannibal, Missouri, in his writings; charts his transformation from a southern racist to a committed antiracist. Fulton, Joe B. Mark Twain in the Margins: The Quarry Farm Marginalia and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Alabama, 2000. An examination of the marginalia that Fulton finds revealing of the development of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. Horn, Jason Gary. Mark Twain: A Descriptive Guide to Biographical Sources. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999. Richly annotated bibliography of nearly three hundred books and other sources on Mark Twain, including many works of criticism. Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966. Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is a superior general work on Twain’s life after 1861. Lauber, John. The Inventions of Mark Twain. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. Very well-written and often humorous, this biography reveals Twain as an extremely complex, self-contradictory individual. Includes an annotated bibliography. LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993. Comprehensive reference work broadly similar in organization to Rasmussen’s Critical Companion to Mark Twain, differing in devoting most of its space to literary analysis. Includes a long entry by Don L. F. Nilsen on detective fiction. Leonard, James. S., ed. Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Collection of essays by leading Twain scholars designed for students and teachers. Special attention is given to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Joan of Arc, Innocents Abroad, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Messent, Peter B. Mark Twain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A standard introduction to Twain’s life and works. Provides bibliographical references and an index. Messent, Peter B. The Short Works of Mark Twain: A Critical Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Detailed exploration of Twain’s shorter works that takes the innovative approach of examining how Twain planned the individual collections in which they were first published in book form. Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography. 3 vols. 1912. Reprint. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997. Often reprinted, this immense study by Twain’s authorized biographer and editor remains the fullest study of Twain’s life and benefits from Paine’s close personal acquaintance with Twain and his access to sources that no longer exist. Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005. A massive, engrossing biography which examines not only Twain’s life and work, but also his context. Includes bibliography and index. Rasmussen, R. Kent. Bloom’s How to Write About Mark Twain. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. Practical guide to writing student essays on Mark Twain, with numerous general and specific suggestions on his major novels. Contains a general introduction to writing on Mark Twain and chapters on ten individual works, including Pudd’n head Wilson. Each chapter has a lengthy bibliography. Rasmussen, R. Kent. Critical Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Facts On File, 2007. Revised and much expanded edition of Mark Twain A to Z (1995), which covered virtually every character, theme, place, and biographical fact relating to Mark Twain and contained the most complete chronology ever compiled. Among new features in this retitled edition are lengthy critical essays on Twain’s major works, including all the mystery and detective stories discussed here; an extensive, annotated bibliography; and a glossary of unusual words in Mark Twain’s writings. Indexed. Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A-Z. New York: Facts on File, 1995. The most impressive reference tool available. Virtually every character, theme, place, and biographical fact can be researched in this compendious volume. Contains the most complete chronology ever compiled. Sanborn, Margaret. Mark Twain: The Bachelor Years. New York: Doubleday, 1990. This biography covers the adventure-filled years from the author’s boyhood to marriage in 1870 at age thirty-four. Based on extensive research into letters written to Twain’s mother, sister, brothers, and close friends. Includes many letters not referenced by Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. Also includes valuable insights gained from 184 letters written between 1868 and 1870, while courting Olivia Langdon, whom Twain eventually married. Sloane, David E. E. Student Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001. Essays on aspects of Twain’s life, with special chapters on individual books. Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. A collection of essays with an introduction by Smith. Among the contributors is W. H. Auden. A chronology of important dates in the author’s life is also included. Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. University of California, 2001. The complete original manuscript, including more than six hundred excised pages. Twain, Mark. Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. This volume is comprised of interviews with Mark Twain dating from 1871 to 1910, presented in chronological order. The interviews paint a vivid picture of Twain, bringing to life his speech patterns and idiosyncracies, his likes and dislikes, and his philosophies on life and writing. Editor Gary Scharnhorst makes the book easily accessible to those unfamiliar with Twain by providing annotations to clarify the historical and biographical references. Twain, Mark. The Stolen White Elephant, and Other Detective Stories, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Omnibus volume containing facsimile reprints of the first American editions of The Stolen White Elephant, and Other Stories (1882), Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), and A Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1902). Part of the twenty-nine-volume Oxford Mark Twain edition, this volume also includes a new introduction by mystery writer Walter Mosley and an analytical afterword by scholar Lillian S. Robinson. Wagenknecht, Edward. Mark Twain: The Man and His Work. 3d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. A thorough revision of the 1935 work in which Wagenknecht considers the vast historical and critical study conducted between 1935 and 1960. He has modified many of his original ideas, most notably, that Mark Twain was “The Divine Amateur.” The original chapter with that title has been rewritten and renamed “The Man of Letters.” Ward, Geoffrey C., and Dayton Duncan. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. A heavily illustrated companion to the PBS television documentary. More than a picture book, however, this volume provides ample biographical information that is well researched and thoughtfully presented. Wieck, Carl F. Refiguring “Huckleberry Finn.”Georgia, 2000. A novel approach to the meaning and influence of Twain’s best-known work; Wieck concentrates on certain key words to decipher the text. Wilson, James D. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Mark Twain. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Detailed summaries and analyses of sixty-five stories, including several that appear within Twain’s travel books. Wonham, Henry B. Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Discusses how Twain used the tall-tale conventions of interpretive play, dramatic encounters, and the folk community. Focuses on the relationship between storyteller and audience in Twain’s fiction.

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