Updated April 2013
Man is the Only Animal that Blushes. Or needs to.
– Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897.
He was born under the sign of Halley's Comet, and he went out when the great ball of ice came round again. In between, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), riverboat pilot, Confederate deserter, world traveller, and story-teller extraordinaire, became known as Mark Twain, the funniest – and sometimes most controversial – writer the United States had ever known.
Twain told curious Americans about such far-flung places as Hawaii, Europe, the Holy Land, and Fiji. He skewered greed, territorial ambition, and pious hypocrisy. He wrote about the poor, the alienated, and the needy at the same time that he posed basic questions about the pretensions and goals of the human race. Sometimes readers failed to notice the sharp critique – because they were so busy laughing. Other times, they were just perplexed, as they didn't quite know who was the butt of the joke.
It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.
– Mark Twain, The Double-Barrelled Detective Story.
Twain's literary world was rich and intellectually challenging. This is all the more surprising when you consider his humble beginnings beside the mighty Mississippi River. Since Twain wrote so much about it, it might be a good idea to start there, in Hannibal, Missouri.
Life on the Mississippi
Twain's family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a port on the Mississippi River, when he was four years old. His father died when he was eleven and Samuel Clemens became an apprentice typesetter for his older brother's newspaper. Hannibal became the model for the fictional St. Petersburg, which is the setting of the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
When he was 18 years old, Sam Clemens went East and worked as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. In 1857 he started training as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, He also encouraged his younger brother Henry to enter this career. After two years of studying all 2,000 miles (2,700km) of dangerous river, Clemens earned his pilot's license. It was here he picked out his pen name Mark Twain, from a phrase called out when the river depth measures two fathoms. Tragedy struck the Clemens family when Henry died aboard the steamboat Philadelphia when it exploded in 1858. Sam had had a premonition about this a month before it occurred – he felt guilty for the rest of his life. He piloted riverboats until 1861, when river traffic was interrupted by the Civil War.
According to Clemens' personal account of his involvement in the Civil War, he was in his hometown of Hannibal in 1861, when the state was invaded by Union forces. As was common during this conflict, Clemens joined an ad-hoc cavalry militia group numbering fifteen, the Marion Rangers, as a second lieutenant. He claimed there was no first lieutenant. The small group soon found soldiering far less glamorous than advertised, and precision riding hard to learn. Their military expertise was nil, and their organisation typically Confederate – meaning, they spent a great deal of time in democratic argument.
After a couple of weeks of this warlike activity, Clemens and his group had killed one man, which they deeply regretted, and become seriously frightened by the appearance of then-Colonel Ulysses S Grant. The unit disbanded, and most of them left the Civil War to its own devices. Clemens felt he had received an education. 'I had got part of it learned, I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating1.'
Travels in the West
Now using the pen name Mark Twain, the author joined his older brother Orion on a journey by stage coach over the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, visiting the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City and ending up in the mining town of Virginia City. Here at the famous Comstock Lode, Sam unsuccessfully tried to be a miner. He went back to journalism and chronicled his adventures in Roughing It, and 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'. – a short story that made him famous when it was printed in a New York weekly, The Saturday Press on 18 November, 1865.
Innocents Abroad – Making Fun of Tourists
In 1867, the Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper, financed Twain's participation in a heavily-publicised package tour of Europe and the Holy Land aboard the Quaker City. In return, Twain blogged the experience. The $1.250 ticket price was well invested – Twain's account, The Innocents Abroad, sold 70,000 copies the first year. It remains a classic of travel writing. As the Saturday Evening Post said in 1869, 'It is a capital work for summer reading.'
"Hello, doctor, what are you doing up here at this time of night? What do you want to see this place for?"
"What do I want to see this place for? Young man, little do you know me, or you wouldn't ask such a question. I wish to see all the places that's mentioned in the Bible."
"Stuff – this place isn't mentioned in the Bible."
"It ain't mentioned in the Bible! – this place ain't – well now, what place is this, since you know so much about it?"
"Why it's Scylla and Charybdis."
"Scylla and Ch– confound it, I thought it was Sodom and Gomorrah!"
– The Innocents Abroad.
When not looking for tourists to make fun of, Twain befriended his fellow travellers aboard the Quaker City. One of them, Charles Langdon, had a picture of his sister – a very good-looking young lady. It took a couple of years and two marriage proposals, but Twain married Olivia Langdon in Elmira, New York, in 1870.
Twain wrote the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876 in Elmira, New York. He also wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,which was published in the United States in 1885. This is considered by many to be the first 'Great American Novel' because of its use of regional dialect. Unfortunately, it uses language now considered offensive, so that it has at one time or another been banned by most school systems in the United States, despite the strong anti-racist message conveyed by the plot.
While at Elmira, Twain also penned his popular time-travel novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, as well as the tale of identity swapping, The Prince and the Pauper.
Also during the 1880s, Twain used his influence and expertise in publishing to help out an old enemy, now an admired friend. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant was edited by Twain and successfully brought out using a public subscription (=preorder) system. In this way, Grant, who dictated his autobiography as he was dying of cancer, was able to provide for his family.
The Well-Travelled Twain
In addition to his accounts of roughing it in the American West and being an annoying tourist in the Mediterranean, Twain wrote other travel books. In 1880, he recounted his somewhat fictionalised journey through Germany, the Alps, and Italy in A Tramp Abroad. Even the title is misleading – allegedly, this was a walking tour. In reality, the narrator will do just about anything to avoid walking, including hiring a mountaineer so that he can climb an alp 'by proxy'.
Though A Tramp Abroad has many fictional elements, Twain, who was fluent in German, was actually there. The book includes the famous text of his address to the American students of the University of Heidelberg, entitled 'The Awful German Language', and well as his review of the Wagner opera Lohengrin:
A German lady in Munich told me that a person could not like Wagner's music at first, but must go through the deliberate process of learning to like it – then he would have his sure reward; for when he had learned to like it he would hunger for it and never be able to get enough of it. She said that six hours of Wagner was by no means too much... this surprised me. I said I had attended one of his insurrections, and found hardly any music in it except the Wedding Chorus. She said 'Lohengrin' was noisier than Wagner's other operas, but that if I would keep on going to see it I would find by and by that it was all music, and therefore would then enjoy it. I could have said, 'But would you advise a person to deliberately practice having a toothache in the pit of his stomach for a couple of years in order that he might then come to enjoy it?' But I reserved that remark. – A Tramp Abroad.
Anti-Imperialist, Enemy of Missionaries
I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
– Mark Twain, New York Herald, 15 October, 1900.
As he grew older, Twain grew more radical. Always an opponent of hypocrisy, whether it appeared in the form of business, government, or religion, Twain was particularly incensed at the behaviour of the Missionary Party which engineered the US military takeover of the Sandwich Islands, later to become the State of Hawaii.
When the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China in the late 1890s, an eight-nation coalition, which included the US, Japan, Germany and Great Britain, invaded that country with the stated aim of rescuing missionaries and Chinese Christians from mass murder at the hands of the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a group opposed to foreign influence. When foreign troops looted the palaces of the Forbidden City, and missionaries forced the sale of Chinese goods in order to indemnify missionaries and Christians for their financial losses, Twain was scathing. His essay To the Person Sitting in Darkness is a bitter condemnation of the practice of imperialism. In it, Twain condemns, among other actions, the US invasion of the Philippines.
From 1901 until his death in 1910, Twain was a member of the Anti-Imperialist League, an organisation whose membership included industrialist Andrew Carnegie, political leader John Dewey, the founder of the Civil Service, German-born Carl Schurz, novelist Henry James and his brother, psychologist William James, and urban crusader Jane Addams. Twain also served as the League's secretary.
Passing with the Comet
Twain was a practical man. His interest in science was keen, and his skepticism profound. Nonetheless, like many of his contemporaries, Twain also had an interest in psychic phenomena. He never forgot the premonitory dream he had experienced before his brother Henry's untimely death, and he was an early member of the Society for Psychical Research.
Twain felt an affinity with Halley's Comet, under whose sign he was born in 1835. He felt that he would die when the comet arrived again on its periodic journey – and he did. He passed away of a heart attack on 21 April, 1910, one day after the comet made its closest approach to Earth.
Twain himself should be allowed his own epitaph. In 1909, he stated:
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.'
He may have gone out with the comet, but in a sense, Mark Twain has never left the Earth. His influence lives on as new generations of readers discover him through his work.
For Further Information
Mark Twain appeared in film only once: in a 1909 silent film made by Thomas Edison. You can see him in his iconic white suit, chatting with his daughters at his home.
Twain's works are public domain, and well worth reading. Here is a list, by no means exhaustive.
- Life on the Mississippi.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson.
- The Innocents Abroad.
- A Tramp Abroad.
- To the Person Sitting in Darkness.
- The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.
- Following the Equator.
US actor Hal Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain on stage for over half a century. You can listen to an interview between Holbrook and NPR's Neal Conan.
Inquiring wellwishers wonder: did Mark Twain ever see Halley's Comet himself? As a child, he would have been too young. As an elderly adult, we assume that he might have been able to view the sight, weather permitting, on his last night. He has left us no description, alas.
Twain's funeral was a quiet affair held in Elmira, New York, where the Clemens family spent many happy summers. Here you may read his obituary in the New York Times.