A onetime printer and Mississippi River boat pilot, Mark Twain became one of
America's greatest authors. His 'Tom Sawyer', 'Huckleberry Finn', and 'Life on the Mississippi'
rank high on any list of great American books.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835, in the small town
of Florida, Mo. He was the fourth of five children. His father was a hard worker but a poor
provider. The family moved to Hannibal, Mo., on the Mississippi, when young Clemens was 4
years old. It was in this river town that he grew up, and from it he gathered the material for his
most famous stories. The character of Judge Carpenter is somewhat like his father; Aunt Polly,
his mother; Sid Sawyer, his brother Henry; Huck Finn, a town boy named Tom Blankenship; and
Tom Sawyer, a combination of several boys including himself.
His father died when he was 12, and the boy was apprenticed to a printer. An apprentice
works for someone in order to learn a trade. This was the first step toward his career as a writer.
In 1857 he apprenticed himself to a riverboat pilot. He became a licensed pilot and spent two
and a half years at his new trade. The river swarmed with traffic, and the pilot was the most
important man aboard the boat. He wrote of these years in 'Life on the Mississippi'.
The Civil War ended his career as a pilot. Clemens went west to Nevada and soon
became a reporter on the Virginia City newspaper. Here he began using the pen name Mark
Twain. It is an old river term meaning two fathoms, or 12 feet, of water depth.
In 1864 he went to California. The next year he wrote his 'Jumping Frog' story, which ran
in many newspapers. He was sent to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) as a roving reporter,
and on his return he began lecturing. He was soon on a tour of the Mediterranean and the Holy
Land. From this came 'The Innocents Abroad', which made him famous.
In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon. She modified Twain's exaggerations, sometimes
weakening his writings, sometimes actually making them more readable. Twain began turning
out a new book every few years. William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly and a
highly respected novelist, became his close friend and literary adviser.
Twain bought a publishing firm in Hartford, Conn. He earned much money writing,
lecturing, and in his publishing house, but he spent it on high living and unsuccessful
investments. He lost a fortune promoting a typesetting machine. By 1894 his publishing
company had failed and he was bankrupt.
Twain set out on a world lecture tour to retrieve his fortune, and by 1898 his debts were
paid. In his last years he traveled and spoke much but wrote comparatively little. He died on
April 21, 1910.
Twain was more than a humorist. Behind his mask of humor lay a serious view of life.
Tragedy had entered his own life in the poverty and early death of his father, the loss of a
daughter, and his bankruptcy. His short story, 'The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg', published
in 1900, which showed greed at work in a small town, is an indication of Twain's dark side.
The controversial 'Huckleberry Finn', which is periodically banned in schools or libraries
because of alleged racial overtones, can be read by children, but it is not a child's book. It has
elements of heartbreak and wisdom that can be appreciated best by adults. On the other hand,
'Tom Sawyer' is primarily a juvenile book but one that can be read with pleasure by adults.