Photo: Mark Twain, 1907, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: cph 3a08820
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born November 30, 1835 in the backwoods town of Florida, Missouri, was the sixth of seven children. When Sam was four, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi. Sam’s father, a stern would-be lawyer who was forced to content himself with working as a farmer and shopkeeper, lived perpetually at the edge of bankruptcy. He died in 1847 when his son was eleven.
Sam withdrew from formal schooling to help support his family. He held a variety of jobs, including printer, steamboat pilot, prospector, journalist, and newspaper editor. In this last role, Clemens won the chance to serve as a foreign correspondent for San Francisco’s Alta California in 1867. For three years he roamed Europe and the Middle East, donning the mask of a cigar-smoking, hard-drinking, godless, “Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope,” as he christened himself. It was in the course of these travels that he met his future brother-in-law. By 1870 he had married Olivia Langdon, an heiress from Elmira, New York, and the couple had moved to a fine house in Buffalo, where Clemens became the editor of the Buffalo Express. The marriage lasted 34 years and produced three daughters: Susy, Clara, and Jean. For all its seeming improbability, it was a love match. Clemens referred to the proper, lady-like Livy as his angel, and though he continued to delight in wearing the gruff mask of a curmudgeon with the outside world, he was, at least in domestic matters, extraordinarily acquiescent–an indulgent father and a devoted husband.
Starting in 1863, Clemens adopted the pen name “Mark Twain,” an old riverboat term for the line between safe water and dangerous water. In 1869, with the success of his first book based on his travels, Innocents Abroad, he decided to abandon journalism for fiction. He moved his family in 1871 to Hartford, where he could be closer to his publisher. He built an eccentric, three-story, 20-room, red brick, gingerbread mansion (which some say recalls a steamboat in its design) in the artistic/intellectual community of Nook Farm, across the lawn from Harriet Beecher Stowe. Surrounded by like-minded friends, lionized as a celebrity, Clemens basked in the devotion of his family, became a familiar presence in Hartford civic and charitable life, accommodated Livy’s desire for a prominent social life, and continued to earn considerable sums from his literature. It was here in Hartford that he published not only Roughing It in 1872, but also his major novels: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
The prosperous and productive idyll ended, however, when Clemens was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1895, after a series of disastrous financial investments. The family sold the house and Clemens set out on a worldwide lecture tour to repay the money he owed, a goal he achieved by 1898. Further griefs included the deaths of his wife Livy, in 1904, and of his daughter Jean from epilepsy in 1909; Susy had died in 1896 from spinal meningitis while Clemens was still in England. After Livy’s death Clemens became a wanderer again, traveling to Europe and the Southern Hemisphere (where he denounced American colonialism). Living in a series of rented houses from the White Mountains to the Adirondacks, he accepted countless invitations to lecture or make after-dinner speeches to counter his loneliness. Then, as his energies dwindled, he settled into his last home, which he called Stormfield, near Redding, Connecticut. There, amid neighbors and friends such as Reverend Joseph Twichell and his family, Charles Ives and his wife Harmony (daughter of Reverend Twichell), Helen Keller, and actress Billie Burke, Clemens gave his daughter Clara away to pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch and dictated his autobiography to Albert Bigelow Paine. He died at Stormfield on April 21, 1910.
Like Stephen Foster in music and William Sidney Mount in art, Samuel Clemens possessed an uncanny ability to recreate in the vernacular characters as colorful as his own experiences and in so doing to fashion from the colloquial a new American literary voice. Ernest Hemingway asserted in 1935 that all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn. Considered controversial for its use of dialect and its depiction of African Americans through the eyes of Southern whites, Huckleberry Finn nevertheless marked a turning point in American literature. Drawing on his own boyhood in Hannibal, Clemens evokes a vivid, often satirical picture of frontier life with its rough-hewn spirit, which he encases in the universal context of the journey archetype. Huckleberry Finn is a Bildungsroman–a novel whose true theme is the development of the individual’s mind and soul. With its “poor white trash” protagonist, the streetwise, tough-talking river urchin Huck Finn, Clemens donned a persona with which to examine not only the politics of slavery and southern life, but their moral implications as well. Humanizing the central character of the runaway slave Jim, Clemens makes a black man the vehicle of Huck Finn’s maturing realization that all men share a common brotherhood.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing