Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was
a famous American humorist, novelist, writer, and lecturer.
Twain was confounded by financial and business affairs, his humor
and wit were keen, and he enjoyed immense public popularity. At
his peak, he was probably the most popular American celebrity
of his time. In 1907, crowds at the Jamestown Exposition thronged
just to get a glimpse of him. He had dozens of famous friends,
including Booker T. Washington, Nikola Tesla, Helen Keller, and
Henry Huttleston Rogers. Fellow American author William Faulkner
is credited with writing that Twain was "the first truly
American writer, and all of us since are his heirs."
Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri to John and Jane Clemens,
and was the third of four surviving children. His family was always
moving; when he was four years old, the Clemenses moved to Hannibal,
Missouri, praying that they would have good fortune there. Clemens
used this town imaginatively in one of his most famous works,
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).
1847 Samuel's father died, leaving the family with many debts.
The eldest son, Orion, began publishing a newspaper, and Samuel
began work as a journeyman printer and occasional writer. Samuel
later traveled to St. Louis and New York City to work as a printer.
adventure of the Mississippi eventually drew Clemens to a career
as a steamboat captain. He later stated in his book, Life on the
Mississippi (1883), that it would have held him to the end of
his days. But the Civil War and the advent of the railroad effectively
put an end to commercial steamboat traffic in 1861, and Clemens
was forced to look for a new job. Clemens also may have drawn
away from life on a steamboat when his younger brother, Henry,
was killed in a boiler explosion.
said that the numerous people he met on the river were a great
help to improving his enjoyment of reading. These people included
a man named Horace Bixby (later the head pilot of the Union navy
fleet), who took Clemens on as a cub pilot; and Mr. Brown, a tyrannical
pilot who made Clemens feel like an "emancipated slave"
when he no longer Had to put up with Brown's cruelty.
it" out West
In July of 1861, after a brief stint with a Confederate militia
(an experience he mentioned in his 1885 short story, "The
Private History of a Campaign That Failed"), Clemens escaped
the Civil War by going west with his brother, Orion, who was appointed
secretary to the territorial governor of Nevada. They traveled
for over two weeks on a stagecoach across the great plains and
the Rocky Mountains to the silver-mining town of Virginia City,
Nevada. On the way they visited the polygamous Mormon community
in Salt Lake City. Clemens' experiences in the West contributed
significantly to his formation as a writer, and became the basis
of his second book, Roughing It.
in Nevada, Clemens became a miner, hoping to strike it rich discovering
silver in the Comstock Lode. He stayed for long periods in camp
with his fellow prospectors—another life experience that
he later put to literary use. After failing as a miner, Clemens
obtained work at a newspaper called the Territorial Enterprise
in Virginia City, where he adopted the pen name "Mark Twain"
for the first time.
Clemens usually maintained that his primary pen name, "Mark
Twain," came from his years on the riverboat, where two fathoms
(12 ft, approximately 3.7 m) or "safe water" was measured
on the sounding line and marked by calling "mark twain."
However, the name may also have come from his wilder days in the
West, where he would buy two drinks and tell the bartender to
"mark twain" on his tab. The complete origin of the
pseudonym is unknown. Clemens is also known to have used the pen
name "Sieur Louis de Conte" on occasion.
his most famous pen name, Twain himself later wrote:
Isaiah Sellers] was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about
the river, and sign them "MARK TWAIN," and give them
to the "New Orleans Picayune." They related to the stage
and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; and
thus far, they contained no poison.
I burlesqued it broadly, very broadly, stringing my fantastics
out to the extent of eight hundred or a thousand words. I was
a "cub" at the time. I showed my performance to some
pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the "New
Orleans True Delta." It was a great pity; for it did nobody
any worthy service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man's
heart. There was no malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the
captain. It laughed at a man to whom such a thing was new and
strange and dreadful. I did not know then, though I do now, that
there is no suffering comparable with that which a private person
feels when he is for the first time pilloried in print.
He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never
again signed Mark Twain to anything. At the time that the telegraph
brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was
a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated
the ancient mariner's discarded one, and have done my best to
make it remain what it was in his hands—a sign and symbol
and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled
on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would
not be modest in me to say.
of the source of the name, "Mark Twain" was "born"
as Clemens' pen name in the office of the Nevada Territorial Enterprise,
when Clemens first used the name on an article published on February
Literary success and lecturing
In 1864, Twain moved on to San Francisco and wrote for several
papers there. In 1865, he had his first literary success. At the
behest of humorist Artemus Ward (whom he had met and befriended
in Virginia City during Ward's 1863 lecture tour), he submitted
a humorous short story for a collection Ward was publishing. The
story arrived too late to be included in the anthology, but the
publisher passed it to the Saturday Press. That story, originally
entitled "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog" but now better
known as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,"
was reprinted nationwide; Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell
Lowell called it "the finest piece of humorous literature
yet produced in America."
the spring of 1866 Twain was commissioned by the Sacramento Union
newspaper to travel to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and write
a series of letters reporting on his journey. The success of these
letters and the personal encouragement of Colonel John McComb
(publisher of San Francisco's Alta California newspaper) led Twain
to try his hand at the lecture circuit once he had returned to
San Francisco. He rented the Academy of Music and charged admission
at the rate of a dollar a head. "Doors open at 7 o'clock,"
Twain wrote on the advertising poster. "The trouble to begin
at 8 o'clock."
first lecture was a wild success, and soon Twain was traveling
up and down the state, lecturing and entertaining to packed houses.
First book and family
It was on another trip, however, that Twain's fame as an author
was firmly established. In 1867, he convinced Col. McComb of the
Alta California to pay for his passage aboard the steam packet
Quaker City on an American excursion to Europe and the Middle
resulting letters Twain produced for the newspaper as a report
of the trip would form the basis of his first book, The Innocents
Abroad (1869), a large and humorous travelogue that pointedly
failed to worship Old World arts and conventions. Sold by subscription,
the book became hugely popular and put its author in a spotlight
that he would never willingly relinquish for the rest of his life.
1868, Twain published two short stories in Francis Pharcellus
Church's popular The Galaxy magazine. In 1869, he moved to Buffalo,
New York to take a position as Managing Editor for the Buffalo
the success of Innocents Abroad, Twain married Olivia Langdon
in the Langdon family home in Elmira, New York on February 2,
1870. That year he began to write a monthly column called Memoranda
for The Galaxy. A son, Langdon, was born to the couple on November
7. In 1871, the family moved to the Nook Farm neighborhood in
Hartford, Connecticut. A daughter, Olivia Susan or "Susy,"
was born on March 19, 1872. In June, young Langdon succumbed to
diphtheria and died. Two more daughters were born: Clara Langdon
(1874) and Jane Lampton or "Jean" (1880). During this
period, Twain lectured often in the United States and England.
life and friendship with Henry H. Rogers
Twain's fortunes then began to decline; in his later life, he
was a very depressed man, although still capable. Following the
erroneous publication of a premature obituary in the New York
Journal, Twain famously responded: "The reports of my death
are greatly exaggerated" (June 2, 1897).
only son, who was sick from the time of his birth, died after
Twain took him out for a walk on a blustery day without covering
his carriage. His favorite daughter died while Twain was in Australia
completing a lecture series. After giving birth to four children,
his wife was sickly for most of her adult life. All in all, he
lost 3 out of his 4 children, and his beloved wife, Olivia Langdon,
before his own death in 1910. He also went through some very bad
times with his businesses; his publishing company ended up going
bankrupt, and he lost thousands of dollars on one typesetting
machine that was never finished. Twain also lost a great deal
of revenue on royalties from unauthorized copies and plagiarism
of his books, sometimes even before he had a chance to publish
1893, Twain was introduced to industrialist and financier Henry
Huttleston Rogers, one of the principals of Standard Oil. Rogers
reorganized Twain's tangled finances, and the two became close
friends for the rest of their lives. Rogers' family became Twain's
surrogate family, and Twain was a frequent guest at the Rogers
townhouse in New York City and summer home in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
The two were drinking and poker buddies. In 1907, they traveled
together in Rogers' yacht Kanawha to the Jamestown Exposition
held at Sewell's Point near Norfolk, Virginia in celebration of
the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown Colony.
Twain openly credited Rogers with saving him from financial ruin,
there is also substantial evidence in their published correspondence
that their close friendship was mutually beneficial, apparently
softening to some degree the hard-driving personality of Rogers,
who had apparently earned the nickname "Hell Hound Rogers"
when helping build Standard Oil earlier in his career. In one
of history's ironies, Twain introduced the industrialist to investigative
journalist Ida Tarbell, who is widely credited with exposing the
dark side of Standard Oil, largely through information she obtained
in meetings with Rogers. During the years of their friendship,
influenced by Twain, Rogers helped finance the education of Helen
Keller and made substantial contributions to Dr. Booker T. Washington.
After Rogers' death, Dr. Washington revealed that Rogers (despite
his much-hated public persona) had been generously funding many
small country schools and institutions of higher education in
the South for the betterment and education of African Americans
for over 15 years.
by this late date he was in marginal health, in April of 1909
Twain returned to Norfolk with Rogers, and was a guest speaker
at the dedication dinner held for the newly-completed Virginian
Railway, a "Mountains to Sea" engineering marvel of
the day. The construction of the new railroad had been solely
financed by Rogers.
died suddenly in New York less than two months later. Twain, on
his way by train from Connecticut to visit Rogers, was met with
the news at Grand Central Station that same morning by his daughter.
His grief-stricken reaction was widely reported. He served as
one of the pallbearers at the Rogers funeral in New York later
that week. When he declined to ride the funeral train from New
York on to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, for the burial, he stated
that he could not undertake to travel that distance among those
whom he knew so well, and with whom he must of necessity join
himself died less than a year later. He wrote in 1909, "I
came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year,
and I expect to go out with it." And so he did. Halley's
comet can be seen in the Earth's skies once every 75-76 years.
It was visible on November 30, 1835, when Mark Twain was born
and was also visible on April 21, 1910, when he died (although
the exact dates of Halley's highpoint were November 16th and April
his death, one of the prominent figures who paid public tribute
to him was the President of the United States at the time, William
H. Taft. In his words, "Mark Twain gave real intellectual
enjoyment to millions, and his works will continue to give such
pleasures to millions yet to come. He never wrote a line that
a father could not read to a daughter." (Taft was presumably
unaware of 1601).
Twain's greatest contribution to American literature is generally
considered to be his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
As Ernest Hemingway once said:
modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called
Huckleberry Finn. ...all American writing comes from that. There
was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
Also popular are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and
the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and the
non-fiction book Life on the Mississippi.
as a writer of light, humorous verse, Twain evolved into a grim,
almost profane chronicler of the vanities, hypocrisies and murderous
acts of mankind. At mid-career, with Huckleberry Finn, he combined
rich humor, sturdy narrative and social criticism in a way that
is almost unrivaled in world literature. Twain
was a master at rendering colloquial speech, and helped to create
and popularize a distinctive American literature built on American
themes and language.
had a fascination with science and scientific inquiry. He developed
a close and lasting friendship with Nikola Tesla, and the two
spent quite a bit of time together (in Tesla's laboratory, among
other places). Such fascination can be seen in Twain's book A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which features a time
traveler from the America of Twain's day, using his knowledge
of science to introduce modern technology to Arthurian England.
Twain also patented an improvement in adjustable and detachable
straps for garments.
1901 until his death in 1910, Twain was vice president of the
American Anti-Imperialist League. The League opposed the annexation
of the Philippines by the United States. Twain wrote Incident
in the Philippines, posthumously published in 1924, in response
to the Moro Crater Massacre, in which six hundred Moros were killed.
Many but not all of Mark Twain's neglected and previously uncollected
writings on anti-imperialism appeared for the first time in book
form in 1992.
recent years, there have been occasional attempts to ban Huckleberry
Finn from various libraries because Twain's use of local color
is offensive to some people. Although Twain was against racism
and imperialism far ahead of the public sentiment of his time,
those who have only superficial familiarity with his work have
sometimes condemned it as racist because it accurately depicts
language in common use in the 19th-century United States. Expressions
that were used casually and unselfconsciously then are often perceived
today as racist (today, such racial epithets are far more visible
and condemned). Twain himself would probably be amused by these
attempts; in 1885, when a library in Massachusetts banned the
book, he wrote to his publisher, "They have expelled Huck
from their library as 'trash suitable only for the slums', that
will sell 25,000 copies for us for sure."
of Mark Twain's works have been suppressed at times for various
reasons. 1880 saw the publication of an anonymous slim volume
entitled 1601: Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside,
in the Time of the Tudors. Twain was among those rumored to be
the author, but the issue was not settled until 1906, when Twain
acknowledged his literary paternity of this scatological masterpiece.
least Twain saw 1601 published during his lifetime. During the
Philippine-American War, Twain wrote an anti-war article entitled
The War Prayer. It was submitted to Harper's Bazaar for publication,
but on March 22, 1905, the magazine rejected the story as "not
quite suited to a woman's magazine." Eight days later Twain
wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story,
"I don't think the prayer will be published in my time. None
but the dead are permitted to tell the truth." Because he
had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain
could not publish The War Prayer elsewhere; it remained unpublished
later years, Twain's family suppressed some of his work which
was especially irreverent toward conventional religion, notably
Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1962. The
anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916,
although there is some scholarly debate as to whether Twain actually
wrote the most familiar version of this story.
most controversial of all was Mark Twain's 1879 humorous talk
at the Stomach Club in Paris, entitled Some Thoughts on the Science
of Onanism (masturbation), which concluded with the thought, "If
you must gamble your lives sexually, don't play a lone hand too
much." This talk was not published until 1943, and then only
in a limited edition of fifty copies.
Twain's Hartford, Connecticut home is a museum and National Historic
Landmark known as The Mark Twain House. Twain also lived in Elmira,
New York in the latter part of the 19th century; he had met his
wife there and had other close ties to the area. He and many members
of his family lie buried in a wooded knoll in Woodlawn National
Cemetery in Elmira. A small octagonal study, given to Twain as
a gift when he lived at Quarry Farm east of Elmira and in which
he wrote all or part of several works, is now located on the grounds
of Elmira College.
big town of Hannibal, Missouri is another place with many Mark
Twain attractions, including one of Twain's boyhood homes and
the caverns he used to explore, featured in The Adventures of
American steam-powered paddle boats traveling the Rivers of America
attractions at Disneyland and Disneyland Paris are named after
Mark Twain, and the island in the middle of the river at Disneyland
is called Tom Sawyer's Island after one of Twain's characters.
An Audio-Animatronic Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin host The
American Adventure show at EPCOT.
"I have never let my schooling get in the way of my education."
"You can have heaven, I'd rather go to Bermuda."
"Familiarity breeds contempt—and babies."
"Golf is a good walk spoilt."
"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have
those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom
of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
"Truth is our most valuable commodity, so let us economize."
"To create man was a fine and original idea; but to add sheep
was a tautology." (notebook, 1902)
"We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking.
And out of it we get an aggregration which we consider a boon.
Its name is public opinion. It is held in reverence. Some think
it the voice of God." (Corn-Pone Opinions)
"Never put off until tomorrow that which could be done the
day after tomorrow."
"A habit cannot be thrown out the window, it must be coaxed
down the stairs one step at a time."
"The human race has one really effective weapon, and that
"Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
"The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching
in that procession but carrying a banner."
"There are several good protections against temptations,
but the surest is cowardice."
"Suppose you were a congressman, and suppose you were an
idiot. But, I repeat myself."
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.
Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you
feel that you, too, can become great."
"When I, a thoughtful and unblessed Presbyterian, examine
the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is
insane; not in all things, but in religious matters. When a thoughtful
and unblessed Mohammedan examines the Westminster Catechism, he
knows that beyond any question I am spiritually insane. I cannot
prove to him that he is insane, because you never can prove anything
to a lunatic—for that is a part of his insanity and the
evidence of it. He cannot prove to me that I am insane, for my
mind has the same defect that afflicts his... When I look around
me, I am often troubled to see how many people are mad."
The saying "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies,
and statistics" is sometimes attributed to Twain. He did
not coin the phrase, but he did popularise it in the United States.
Twain in literature and popular culture
Hal Holbrook famously portrayed Mark Twain in a one-man show on
stage and on television.
Sam Clemens is a character in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld.
In the TV version, he is portrayed by actor Cameron Daddo.
The journalist Clemens makes an appearance in Neil Gaiman's comic
book series The Sandman, in issue #31, "Three Septembers
and a January", where he is proclaimed Royal Storyteller
by the Emperor of the United States, Norton I.
Samuel Clemens is a character in the Star Trek: The Next Generation
episodes "Time's Arrow Part I" and "Time's Arrow
Part II", portrayed by actor Jerry Hardin.
Samuel Clemens appears as a viewpoint character in Harry Turtledove's
book How Few Remain.
Robert A. Heinlein modeled the father of Maureen in To Sail Beyond
the Sunset after Mark Twain, and included him as a minor character
in one scene.
Twain is a major character in The Adventures of Mark Twain, a
claymation film by Will Vinton Studios.
Samuel Clemens arrives in Virginia City, Nevada, in an episode
of Bonanza, as a reporter who causes some trouble for the Cartwrights.
In an episode parodying "The Prince and the Pauper,"
Mark Twain appeared in the animated show Johnny Bravo to complain
about the episode's inadequacies.
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944) starred Fredric March as Twain.
(1867) The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (fiction)
(1868) General Washington's Negro Body-Servant (fiction)
(1868) My Late Senatorial Secretaryship (fiction)
(1869) The Innocents Abroad (non-fiction travel)
(1870-71) Memoranda (monthly column for The Galaxy magazine)
(1871) Mark Twain's (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance
(1872) Roughing It (non-fiction)
(1873) The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (fiction)
(1875) Sketches New and Old (fictional stories)
(1876) Old Times on the Mississippi (non-fiction)
(1876) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (fiction)
(1877) A True Story and the Recent Carnival of Crime (stories)
(1878) Punch, Brothers, Punch! and other Sketches (fictional stories)
(1880) A Tramp Abroad (non-fiction travel)
(1880) 1601: Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in
the Time of the Tudors (fiction)
(1882) The Prince and the Pauper (fiction)
(1883) Life on the Mississippi (non-fiction)
(1884) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (fiction)
(1889) A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (fiction)
(1892) The American Claimant (fiction)
(1892) Merry Tales (fictional stories)
(1893) The £1,000,000 Bank Note and Other New Stories (fictional
(1894) Tom Sawyer Abroad (fiction)
(1894) Pudd'n'head Wilson (fiction)
(1896) Tom Sawyer, Detective (fiction)
(1896) Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (fiction)
(1897) How to Tell a Story and other Essays (non-fictional essays)
(1897) Following the Equator (non-fiction travel)
(1900) The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (fiction)
(1901) Edmund Burke on Croker and Tammany (political satire)
(1902) A Double Barrelled Detective Story' (fiction)
(1904) A Dog's Tale (fiction)
(1905) King Leopold's Soliloquy (political satire)
(1905) The War Prayer (fiction)
(1906) The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories (fiction)
(1906) What Is Man? (essay)
(1907) Christian science (non-fiction)
(1907) A Horse's Tale (fiction)
(1907) Is Shakespeare Dead? (non-fiction)
(1909) Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (fiction)
(1909) Letters from the Earth (fiction, published posthumously)
(1910) Queen Victoria's Jubilee (non-fiction)
(1916) The Mysterious Stranger (fiction, possibly not by Twain,
(1924) Mark Twain's Autobiography (non-fiction, published posthumously)
(1935) Mark Twain's Notebook (published posthumously)
(1969) No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (fiction, published posthumously)
(1992) Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings
on the Philippine-American War. Jim Zwick, ed. (Syracuse University
Press) ISBN 0815602685 ((previously uncollected, published posthumously)
(1995) The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven,
Eden, and the Flood (published posthumously))