Samuel Clemens who was better known as Mark Twain (1835–1910) was a businessman, speculator, orator, publisher, and author whose work revolutionized American literature and whose jokes are as funny today as they were 150 years ago.
Samuel Clemens grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Both Hannibal and the Mighty Mississippi would play a profound role in his writing career. As a young man he worked as a steamboat captain on the river, a job he would recount with awe and love in his greatest nonfiction book, Life on the Mississippi. And Hannibal would serve as the model for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s hometown in Twain’s best-remembered novels.
Twain’s writing career began in the wild American West. Having failed as a businessman (for the first of what would be many times), Twain began writing humorous sketches about the American West that captured dialect with his distinctly literal rendering of Americans’ eccentric speechifying. The best of these, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Caleveras County,” made Twain a national celebrity (and, years later, would result in Calaveras High School picking the bullfrog as its mascot). His early career was marked by light and exceedingly funny writings—the Bill Bryson of his day, he got rich off humorous travelogues like Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad. And while these books were ostensibly nonfiction, Twain never had a problem stretching the truth—he once claimed, for instance, that the Egyptians used mummies to power their locomotives. Late in his career, however, Twain’s work (although still funny) became darker and increasingly bitter, vociferously attacking religion and the injustices within American society.
Twain was perched between the light and dark phases of his career when he wrote his best book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Originally published for adolescents, Huck Finn is at once a classic adventure story, a hilarious introduction to the many characters of the river, and a superb attack on the racist and class-dominated social order of the day. The only knock on Twain is that he never wrote another Huck Finn. But to paraphrase Joseph Heller: If Twain never wrote anything like Huck Finn ever again, well–neither did anyone else.
Twain was perhaps more inconsistent than any other major American author. Even his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is often criticized for its last third, when the book veers from its compelling themes of conscience, racism, and nationalism, and becomes mere shenanigans. Some of his books were consistent—consistently awful. Among the ones you don’t see in book stores much anymore: • Two sequels to Tom Sawyer: Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective. • Christian Science, a relentless, hilarious, and somewhat misogynistic attack on the religion and its founder, Mary Baker Eddy. • 1601, a sort of pauper’s The Prince and the Pauper, without the good plot. • And, of course, A Dog’s Tale, in which Twain fell into the all-too-common trap of telling a story from a dog’s perspective.
Presaging contemporary American opinions of France: “France had neither winter nor summer nor morals–apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.” Presaging the banning of: “First God created idiots. That was just for practice. Then he created school boards.” Or “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
On weather: “Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get..” On Congress: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except congress.”
THE HIGHEST PRAISE
Among Twain’s biggest fans are many of the American authors who came after him. Faulkner called him “the first truly American writer.” And Ernest Hemingway, in particular, admired Twain. He once said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” That last sentence means a lot coming from Hemingway, because he fancied himself awfully, awfully good. Conversation Starters
◆ Most of us know that Samuel Clemens is generally believed to have picked the pen name Mark Twain, which he first used when he was 27, as a reference to Mississippi riverboat captain slang for “two fathoms deep” (thus, just barely navigable). But some students of Twain argue for an alternate theory: When he first used the name in his wild days in the West, they argue, he would stop in at a saloon, buy two drinks, and tell the bartender to “mark twain” on his tab.
◆ Twain was born in 1835, a year when Halley’s comet was visible from Earth. In 1909, he wrote, “I came in with Halley’s Comet . . . and I expect to go out with it.” Indeed, he did. When he died on April 21, 1910, the comet was still visible in the night sky.
◆ Although Twain professed to hate captains of industry, it was an executive from Standard Oil, Henry H. Rogers, who helped Twain organize his finances toward the end of Twain’s life. The two became great friends, and one might accuse Twain of hypocrisy, except Rogers was no ordinary industrialist: Although he was nicknamed “Hellhound Rogers” for his hardnosed business deals, he was a secret softy. Rogers helped pay for the schooling of Helen Keller, quietly helped build elementary schools for African Americans in the South, and helped fund Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
“It liberates the vandal to travel–you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born.” –MARK TWAIN, 1868
Mark Twain loved to laugh and to make people laughCREDIT: “Mark Twain, Half-Length Portrait, Standing, Facing Front, Holding Cue Stick at Pool Table.” Between 1870 and 1910. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
November 30 is the anniversary of the birth of Mark Twain, born 1835 (a year of an appearance of Halley’s Comet). The photo was taken in the spring of 1894 in the laboratory of inventor Nikola Tesla, and originally published to illustrate an article in the legendary Century Magazine, by T.C. Martin called “Tesla’s Oscillator and Other Inventions,” in the April 1895 issue.