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Mark Twain - Biography & Selected Products

Selected products from Mark Twain

    

Mark Twain, named Samuel Langhorne Clemens at birth, was born on the 30th of November, 1835, to John Marshall Clemens, an attorney and judge, and Jane Lampton. His mother was from Kentucky and his father Virginia, and they met when John moved to Missouri, marrying in 1823. Together they had seven children, of whom Twain was the sixth and of whom three died during childhood. Twain was born two weeks after the closest approach Halley’s Comet had made to Earth. 


At the age of four he and his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, the town which later inspired the fictional port town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, arguably his two greatest works. They lived there while the slave trade was booming, his childhood perception of its injustices proving a valuably formative experience upon which he would draw throughout his literary career. Twain often saw the grand riverboats and steamers passing the town and on occasion managed to speak briefly with their captains, forging a fascination with the river and its transport, and a boyhood dream of becoming a captain himself.

Twain’s father John occupied a prominent position in the Missouri legal system, facilitating several advances in infrastructure by assisting with the legal processes necessary to establish significant railroad projects, most notably the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad which was organised in Twain’s office in 1846 and connected the state’s second and largest cities. Though the importance of such infrastructure is hard to accurately quantify there is little doubt that, by facilitating quick travel and communication between cities, it played a large part in the development of the civilisation of Western America. John Twain died in 1847 of pneumonia when his son was eleven.

In 1848 Twain became a printer’s apprentice before taking up work for his brother Orion, owner of the Hannibal Journal, as a typesetter and occasional contributor of satire and humour in articles and sketches. He worked there for two years before leaving Hannibal for New York City and moving on to Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati, finding work in each city as a printer. The International Typographical Union had recently formed and Twain decided to join both it and the printers union, spending his evenings in public libraries where he found he could access a much wider variety of information than he would have access to at a traditional school.

In Life on the Mississippi Twain describes how the “one permanent ambition” of him and his friends was to be a steamboatman on the Mississippi. He writes that “pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary - from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.” He expands on the pilot’s duties, describing how he must “get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, must … actually know where these things are in the dark”. His fascination with and knowledge of the pilot’s lifestyle was enough to secure him work as a “cub” pilot under Horace E. Bixby, a prominent pilot known for his high standing in the profession, his significant contributions to the technical aspects of the trade, and for distinguished service in the American Civil War. His work was between New Orleans and St. Louis at a cost of $500, a sum which Twain would pay out of his first wages. He had to learn the river, understanding its currents, the constant shift of its channels and reefs, and submerged rocks or snags which might “tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated”, along with the rules of navigation and interaction with other boats.

Twain acted as Boxby’s cub for two years before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859. He took his pen name Mark Twain from the shout “mark twain” given by the leadsman in order to indicate a measured depth of two fathoms, the safe depth for a steamboat. During training Twain had convinced his younger brother Henry to join with his work, though he was killed in the explosion of the Pennsylvania, upon which he was working. Twain recorded that he had seen this event in a dream almost a month earlier and that he was sticker with guilt for not having paid it any heed. He considered himself responsible, and the entire affair spawned an interest in parapsychology, a practice involving the investigation of paranormal and psychic activity. He became a member of the Society for Psychical Research shortly thereafter.

Twain’s career on the river continued until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 which halted all traffic up the Mississippi. With the advent of Civil War Twain enlisted with a local Confederate unit though he didn't remain long, instead leaving to work for his brother Orion who had become the secretary to James W. Nye, governor of the Nevada Territory. Twain describes this period in his book Roughing It (1872) and later in a sketch “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed”, which tells of his time with his friends as volunteers in the Confederate army before they disbanded.

Twain travelled West with Orion, spending two weeks on stagecoaches crossing the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Eventually they reached Virginia City, Nevada, a silver-mining town, and Twain embarked on a mining career on the Comstock Lode, a lode of silver ore discovered in 1859. However Twain’s mining career proved short-lived as he failed to make any significant discoveries, so he instead turned to the Virginia City newspaper the Territorial Enterprise where he worked under his friend Dan DeQuille, who wrote for the newspaper. Dan DeQuille was a pseudonym for William Wright, and this inspired Twain’s first use of his own pseudonym, signing a travel account entitled “Letter from Carson - re: Joe Goodman; Party at Gov. Johnson’s; music” with “Mark Twain”.

In 1864 Twain moved to San Francisco, California, where he continued his career as a journalist meeting such writers as Bret Harte, who was celebrated for his fictional accounts of the Californian Gold Rush, and Artemus Ward. It is quite likely that he engaged in a brief romance with Ina Coolbrith, a young poet who went on to become the first poet laureate of California, and indeed of any state. Twain remained a positive critic of her work throughout his life.

Twain enjoyed his first true success as a writer with the publishing of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, a humorous tall tale which was published in The Saturday Press, a weekly New York editorial, on November 18th, 1865. He received national attention for the work, a significant pay cheque and offers of work. Within the year he was travelling to the Sandwich Islands for the Sacramento Union, writing popular travelogues which would later become the basis for a series of lectures.

The next year, in 1867, Twain was funded by a newspaper to travel to the Mediterranean, and then on a tour of Europe and the Middle East. He continued his travel writing with a series of letters to the paper, later compiled as The Innocents Abroad in 1869. It quickly became a bestseller and furthered Twain’s positive critical reception and popularity. He met Charles Langdon on the ship the Quaker City sailing for the Holy Land, and Langdon showed Twain a picture of his sister. Twain claimed love at first sight. Following this trip Twain returned to the United States and in 1868 was made an honorary member of the Scroll and Key society of Yale University, a secret society devoted to “fellowship, moral and literary self-improvement and charity”. Throughout that year Twain corresponded with Langdon’s sister, Olivia, and though their correspondence was regular and impassioned, she rejected his first marriage proposal at the end of 1868. Her father was reluctant about him. Twain waited two months and tried again, this time successfully. They married in February 1870 in Elmira, New York, where they had spent the majority of their courtship together. Her family was “wealthy but liberal” and through it Twain met “socialists, principled atheists and activists for women’s rights and social equality” such as Frederick Douglass who had escaped slavery to become a social reformer and statesman, William Dean Howells, a utopian socialist and later friend of Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist and author. Twain and Olivia moved to Buffalo, New York, living there from 1869 to 1871. Twain worked for the Buffalo Express as an editor and writer and later bought a stake in the newspaper, while Olivia began editing his work. The couple had a son, Langdon, born in 1870.

In 1872 Twain published Roughing It, his account of his time on the river as a steamboat pilot, to more critical acclaim. They moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and though the couple celebrated the birth of their first daughter, Susy, that year, they later mourned the loss of Langdon, who died of diphtheria. In the beginning of 1873 Twain began to build a house which was saved from demolition by a local group in 1927 and preserved as a museum of his life and writing. The family spent their summers at Quarry Farm, home of Olivia’s sister Susan Crane, and in 1874 their second daughter Clara was born. Susan built an octagonal study some two hundred yards from the main house in order that Twain may have a dedicated space in which to write, and it was here that he wrote much of his most celebrated work including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Moreover, Twain’s pipe-smoking habit was not welcome in the main house. In 1880 Twain embarked on a second European tour which he recorded in A Tramp Abroad, often considered the sequel to The Innocents Abroad. It follows a similar style to the earlier work, with humorous accounts of his encounters supplemented and augmented by some 328 sketches provided by, among others, Walter Francis Brown and Benjamin Henry Day. His third daughter Jean was born in 1880.

Twain met and befriended the prolific scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla and together they spent many hours in Tesla’s laboratory. Twain filed three patents and spent a great deal of his book profits and wife’s inheritance between 1880 and 1894 developing his Paige typesetting machine. Though it was beautifully crafted and very well received by its audiences, it was prone to breakdown and soon rendered obsolete by the Linotype machine. The Paige was bulkier, less reliable and more expensive to run, and ultimately cost Twain dearly.

In 1884 Twain had founded a publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Company, whose initial profits he also ploughed into his Paige machine. Though its production of the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant were lucrative, the publishing house lost a huge sum on an unsuccessful biography of Pope Leo XIII, of which it sold fewer than two hundred copies.

Luckily for Twain, a new acquaintance with the financier Henry Huttleston Rogers proved instrumental in rescuing his finances. Rogers encouraged Twain to file for bankruptcy and then to protect the copyrights to his work from repossession by creditors by transferring them to his wife. Ultimately Rogers took absolute control of Twain’s finances until all debts were paid and Twain could take back execution rights.

An offer from Robert Sparrow Smythe to embark on a year-long lecture tour gave Twain the opportunity to pay of his creditors in full so Twain accepted the offer and the tour commenced in July 1895. Though an essential trip in terms of his finances it proved damaging to his health. He was sick for much of the tour, from a cold and a carbuncle. His itinerary included Hawaii, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, Mauritius, South Africa and England. The three months he spent in India which would become the main focus of Following the Equator, a travelogue published in 1897.

The death of his daughter Susy from meningitis in 1896 sparked a lengthy period of depression which was worsened by Olivia’s data in 1904, some 34 years after their marriage. He began an autobiography in the North American Review in 1906 and, on hearing that his friend Ina Coolbrith had lost almost all of her wealth and possessions in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake offered several autographed portraits for sale at a benefit auction. He received an honorary doctorate in letters from Oxford University in 1907.

His daughter Jean died on Christmas Eve 1909 which, following the sudden death of his friend Henry Rogers in May 1909, depressed him even further. His depression was becoming both more pronounced and more obvious, and in 1909 he was quoted saying “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. 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”.

Surely enough, Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to earth on April 21st, 1910, and Twain was struck by a heart attack the next day in Redding Connecticut. His funeral was held at the “Old Brick” Presbytarian Church in New York, and he was buried alongside his wife and children at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. Their plot is marked by a monument twelve feet high, or two fathoms, the safe steamboat depth which had given him his pen name Mark Twain.