Sam Clemens was born in the village of Florida, Missouri, on 30 November 1835, a few months after his father and mother—John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens—arrived from Fentress County, Tennessee. A few years later the family moved to the town of Hannibal, on the Mississippi River. It is Hannibal (called “St. Petersburg” in the novels) that serves as the setting for all of Tom Sawyer and the first part of Huckleberry Finn.
Sam Clemens had very little schooling. His father died when he was eleven, and young Sam dropped out of school at that time. Much of his informal education came in the print shops of Hannibal and other midwestern towns.
According to Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the “one permanent ambition” of the boys of Hannibal was to get some kind of position on the steamboats, which were the most glamorous means of river transportation in those days. Young Sam succeeded in doing so and was taught the river in the late 1850s by Captain Horace Bixby, a process that Twain recorded amusingly in Life on the Mississippi. He later claimed that he loved steamboating better than any other profession he followed, that he expected to follow it for the rest of his life, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 brought this aspect of Sam’s life to a close.
After two weeks’ service with a little band of Confederate soldiers, Sam joined his brother Orion in traveling to the Territory of Nevada, where Orion had been appointed territorial secretary. While the war was being fought in the eastern part of the country, Sam spent his time in Nevada and California and did not return to the East until after the war was over. While in the West, he wrote for several newspapers, including the Virginia City, Nevada,Territorial Enterprise, in which
he first used the name “Mark Twain,” a river term indicating that the depth of the water was two (“twain” is an old-fashioned word for “two”) fathoms, or twelve feet.
While in the West, Twain heard a story about a stranger and a man who owned a frog, which he worked up into a piece for an eastern paper, calling it “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” Published in New York in 1865, it was widely circulated and much admired. Two years later Twain used it as the title story for his first book, a collection of pieces he had already published in newspapers, calling it “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
After a trip to Hawaii during which he sent back a series of letters to be published in California, he returned to the eastern part of the country via Central America and was soon making plans to join a group of Americans in a kind of pilgrimage to Europe and the Holy Land. The trip lasted several months, during which Twain dispatched regular letters for publication in New York and San Francisco. These letters formed the basis for his humorous travel book, a piece of fictionalized autobiography, The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869). Though greatly impressed by a few sights in Europe (the gardens of Versailles, the cathedral at Milan), Twain was more often disappointed by what he found, and his cynical attitude proved popular with homeloving American readers.
With the success of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain began to dig further back into his past to find material for books. His western experiences and the journey to Hawaii were treated in Roughing It (1872). In an 1875 series, “Old Times on the Mississippi,” later a part of Life on the Mississippi (1883), he told of his experiences on the river.The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) took him still further back in time, to childhood, for many of the happenings and characters were based on actual persons and events. A less fictional treatment of his days in Hannibal and on the farm of his Uncle John Quarles near Florida, was eventually given in his autobiography, parts of which were published in 1906-1907, near the end of his life.
After his first three books, Twain turned to writing a novel in collaboration with his Hartford, Connecticut, neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) begins with chapters set in Tennessee, based on the real-life experiences of Twain’s father. From Tennessee the action moves on to Missouri and then to Washington for an exposure of coraiption in government during the post-Civil War years, a time that has come to be called the Gilded Age, taking its name from the novel. The phrase suggests a greater concern with outward appearance than with inner substance—a gilded, rather than a golden age.
Far better remembered by the American people have been the novels that followed: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; The Prince and the Pauper (1881); Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Other novels, particularly The Tragedy of Pudd’nbead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins (1894) and The Mysterious Stranger: A Romance (1916), have attracted interest but have never been as widely read or as frequently adapted for movies and television.
Mark Twain traveled and lectured around the United States and in many parts of the world, visiting such places as Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Russia, Hawaii, Australia, India, South Africa, the Holy Land, and Egypt. He described many of his travels, often with humorous exaggeration, in three books: The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Following the Equator (1897).
In 1870, Mark Twain married Olivia “Livy” Langdon of Elmira, New York, a young woman whose brother he had met while on his 1867 journey to Europe and the Holy Land. The couple had four children: Langdon, Susy, Clara, and Jean. Of these, only Clara outlived her father, and there are no descendants of Mark Twain living today. For many years the Clemens family lived in a large Victorian house built for them in Hartford, Connecticut. During the summers of the 1870s and 1880s, they usually lived with Livy’s relatives at Quarry Farm, near Elmira, where the greatest part of Twain’s work on his most celebrated books was completed.
Besides his famous novels, Mark Twain wrote short stories and tales, humorous sketches, essays, speeches, his autobiography, and a great many letters. Many of these, along with his notebooks and journals, have been published, though others still remain unpublished.
Halley’s Comet, which had been in the sky at his birth in 1835, returned in 1910 as he died at his house, “Stormfield,” near Redding, Connecticut. After a funeral in New York City, he was buried in Elmira beside his wife, who had died in Italy a few years earlier.