Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is perhaps the most
distinguished author of American Literature. Next to William Shakespeare, Clemens is
arguably the most prominent writer the world has ever seen.
In 1818, Jane Lampton found interest in a serious young lawyer named John
Clemens. With the Lampton family in heavy debt and Jane only 15 years of age, she soon
married John. The family moved to Gainesboro, Tennessee where Jane gave birth to
Orion Clemens. In the summer of 1827 the Clemenses relocated to Virginia where John
purchased thousands of acres of land and opened a legal advice store. The lack of
success of the store led John to drink heavily. Scared by his addiction, John
vowed never to drink again. Even though John now resisted alcohol, he faced other
addictions. His concoction of aloe, rhubarb, and a narcotic cost him most of his savings
and money soon became tight (Paine 34-35).
The family soon grew with the birth of Pamela late in 1827. Their third child,
Pleasant Hannibal, did not live past three months, due to illness. In 1830 Margaret was
born and the family moved to Pall Mall, a rural county in Tennessee. After Henrys birth
in 1832, the value of their farmland greatly depreciated and sent the Clemenses on the
road again. Now they would stay with Janes sister in Florida, Missouri where she ran a
successful business with her husband. Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, in the
small remote town of Florida, Missouri. Samuels parents, John Marshall and Jane
Lampton Clemens never gave up on their child, who was two months premature with little
This was coincidentally the same night as the return of Halleys Comet. The
Clemenses were a superstitious family and believed that Halleys Comet was a portent of
good fortune. Writing as Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens would claim that Florida,
Missouri contained 100 people and I increased the population by one percent. It is more
than the best man in history ever did for any other town (Hoffman 15).
1847 proved to be a horrific year for John Clemens. He ventured to Palmyra in
order to find work on the county seat. On his voyage home he found himself in a
devastating snowstorm which left him ill with pneumonia. He stayed at his friend Dr.
Grants house, ill and jaded, where he rested and grew weak. He died on March 24, 1847
Samuel was eleven years old when his father passed away. He was of ambiguous
emotions. He had dreaded his father, yet at the same time respected him. The onus of
taking care of the family was now on Samuel and Orions shoulders. He attended school
and for additional cash delivered newspapers and aided storekeepers. His expertise was
with Joseph Ament, editor of the Missouri Courier, where he was an apprentice.
In the fall of 1850, Samuels brother Orion purchased a printing press and
expected Samuel to work on his newspaper. They began work on the Hannibal Western
Union where Orion printed all of Samuels essays and articles. Although the newspaper
was unprofitable, and deemed a failure by most, Orion and Samuel saw themselves as a
success. They soon changed the name to the Journal and now had the largest circulation
of any newspaper in the region. It was filled with works both original and copied from
other sources. This was acceptable in a society without copyrights. When the Journal
gained success, Orion refused to print some of Samuels works. He, however took his
writing elsewhere. He wrote for the Carpet-Bag and the Philadelphia American
Courier, berating his old town and the Hannibal natives. He signed each work with the
Orion left town for awhile and gave the duty of editor to Samuel. He
quickly took advantage of Orions absence. He wrote articles of town news and prose
poetry that revealed characteristics of the boy who would eventually transform into Mark
Twain. In these articles he would use his first of many pseudonyms, W. Epaminondas
Adrastus Blab. Orions return ended both Samuels developing humor and burning satire.
Orion decided to publish the Journal daily and it gave Samuel an opportunity to write
more material, but at the same time overworked him. When Orion deleted local news
from the newspaper, interest was lost and the rival Messenger began outselling the
Journal. This prompted Samuel to leave Orion and the Journal behind at the age of
eighteen. He had bigger aspirations and vowed never to let a place trap him again. His
journeys would take him to St. Louis, New York City, and then Philadelphia (Hoffman
The best position he found involved night work as a substitute typesetter at the
Philadelphia Inquirer. Clemens wrote about the sights of Philadelphia which he copied
from a guidebook, but altered the descriptions into a style much more mature than in
previous writings. Clemens well-known writing style had a loose rhythm of speech and he
wrote as if he were telling an unbelievable story which he expected his listeners and
readers to believe. He was a master of the tall story of the frontier and delighted his
audience with his storytelling abilities (Lyttle 65). One can see this unique style in his
description of the nations capital:
The public buildings of Washington are all fine specimens of architecture, and
would add greatly to the embellishment of such a city as New York- but here they
are sadly out of place looking like so many palaces in a Hottentot village. . . .The
other buildings, almost invariably, are very poor–two and three story brick
houses, and strewed about in clusters; you seldom see a compact square off
Pennsylvania Avenue. They look as though they might have been emptied out of a
sack by some Brobdignagian gentleman, and when falling, been scattered abroad
In his time, most novels were a form of enriching entertainment. Light reading that would
do no harm and might even do the reader some good. They were written with an
intelligent, well-behaved audience in mind, an audience that expected to read about people
like themselves. They were most comfortable reading the language they used in public.
William Gibson belies that, Twain developed one of the great styles in the English
language because he had a firm grasp of the American vernacular(qtd. in Long 205).
His letters to the Keokuk Papers in St. Louis proved to be most successful for
Clemens. He signed these letters with the pseudonym Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. His
narrations made the western readers feel more intelligent by laughing at the characters
idiocy. Snodgrass would continue to write letters until the editor refused to pay him.
He then decided to leave the city and travel along the Mississippi River in a steamboat.
By the middle of 1857, Clemens had made five runs up and down the river, and this is
where he first used the name, Mark Twain.
On river boats, one member of the crew always stood near the forward railing
measuring the depth of the water with a long cord which had flags spaced a fathom apart.
When the crewman saw the flags disappear he would call out “Mark One!” for one fathom
and for two fathoms he called out “Mark Twain!” Two fathoms meant safe clearance for
river boats, so Clemens chose a name which not only recalled his life on the river but
which also had a motivating meaning (Robinson).
One horrific afternoon, while his brother Henry was traveling the Mississippi River
on the Pennsylvania eight of this ships boilers exploded while Twain was on the nearby
Memphis-bound A.T. Lacy. When the boilers exploded, Henry died from breathing in the
scalding steam.Grief was overwhelming Twain and he seemed to be losing his mind. He
returned to St. Louis where his mother tried to comfort him. Gradually his depression
began to lift, and he returned to the river (Cox 44).
Many writers of the time used pen names, especially authors of humor and satire.
The first article signed with Mark Twain appeared in the Enterprise on February 3,
1863, entitled The Unreliable. Within a period of weeks he was no longer Sam or
Clemens or that bright chap on the Enterprise, but Mark- Mark Twain. No nom de
plume was ever so quickly and generally accepted as that wrote friend and biographer,
Twain moved to San Francisco, California, in 1864, where he met writers
Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, who encouraged him in his work. In 1865, Twain
reworked a tale he had heard in the California gold fields, and within months the author
and the story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, had become national
While on a trip in Europe, one of the most important moments of Twains life
occurred off the coast of Turkey. He set his gaze on Olivia Langdon, and he would never
forget the moment. Almost forty years later, Twain recalled, …she was slender and
beautiful and girlish – and she was both girl and woman. He asked for her hand in
marriage several times but to no avail. His persistence paid off in late November 1869,
when she agreed to marry him if her parents approved. Twain needed money to support
his new wife so he spent several weeks writing his second book, The Innocents Abroad.
Young novelist and editor William Deam Howells said the book contained an abundance
of pure human nature, such as rarely gets into literature…(qtd. in Lyttle 110).
Following the birth of their first child, Langdon Clemens in 1870, Twain set out to write
Roughing It, a story recounting his early adventures as a miner and journalist; and The
Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was an immediate hit with the public and sold out three
printings in the first month. Twain soon wrote perhaps the two most famous and
influential stories in American Literature: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Howells would call Tom Sawyer the best story I
ever read. It will be an immense success… (Lyttle 137). Though some people
complained that Tom and Huck were bad examples for children, most readers were
fascinated by the story of their adventures in the town of St. Petersburg. Barrett Wendel
of Harvard labeled Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a book which in certain moods one is
disposed for all its eccentricity to call the most admirable work of literacy as yet produced
on this continent (Long 199). Twain would write many more essays, novels, plays, and
poetry but none would reach the status that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn acclaimed.
At the turn of the century, Olivia Clemens was stricken with what seemed to be a
violent heart attack. Twain wrote, She could not breathe – was likely to stifle. Also she
had severe palpitation. She believed she was dying. I also believed it (qtd. in Kaplan 220).
They moved to Florence, Italy in October 1903. After recuperating from her heart attack,
she was stricken with another. Twain never left Olivias side and was with her until her
death. That night Twain stayed by her side caressing her hand. The next day he wrote, I
am tired and old; I wish I were with Livy (qtd. in Kaplan 236).
Twain went into a state of depression and it seemed nothing was going right. One
of his daughters suffered a nervous breakdown and entered a sanitarium, and his other was
nearly killed in a horse and trolley accident. As several years passed, he gradually began
accepting invitations to banquets and parties, but still felt lonely without Olivia. Dont
part with your illusions, he had written. When they are gone you may still exist but you
have ceased to live. Now his illusions were gone and was deeply a lonely man (qtd. in
In the spring of 1907, Twain learned that Oxford University in England wanted to
give him an honorary degree and quickly took a ship to London. Four weeks of nonstop
activity followed before returning to the United States. He suffered severe heart pains on
Aware throughout his life that he was born when Halleys Comet was visible,
Mark Twain predicted in 1909 that he would die when it returned. I came in with
Halleys Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year and I expect to go out with it…The
Almighty has saved me no doubt: Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they
came in together, they must go out together. Oh! I am looking forward to that(qtd. in
He sailed to Bermuda in the spring of 1910, planning to stay all winter in the
warmth and sunshine, but unhappiness would bring him back to Hannibal. I dont want
to die there. I am growing more and more particular about the place (qtd. in Long
421).Twains prediction came true. On the night of April 21 he set his gaze on Halleys
Comet, sank into a coma and died (Cox 218).
Essentially no one any longer ponders the place of Mark Twain in American
literature, or in international literature. A pioneer in writing, William Dean Howells best
sums Mark Twain up with, There was never anybody like him; there never will be
Cox, Clinton. Mark Twain: Americas Humorist, Dreamer, Prophet. New York:
Hoffman, Andrew. Inventing Mark Twain: The lives of Samuel L. Clemens. New York:
William Morrow 1997
Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Simon and
Long, Hudson E. and J.R. Lemaster. The New Mark Twain Handbook. New York and
London: Garland Publishing Inc. 1985
Lyttle, Richard B. Mark Twain: The Man and His Adventures. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company 1994
MiningCo. Research. Mark Twain- Home Page Online. Internet 1999
Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Harper and Brothers,
Robinson Research. Samuel Langhorne Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain. Online.