Clemens spent his young life in a fairly affluent family that owned a number of household slaves. The death of Clemens’s father in 1847, however, left the family in hardship. Clemens left school, worked for a printer, and, in 1851, having finished his apprenticeship, began to set type for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. But Hannibal proved too small to hold Clemens, who soon became a sort of itinerant printer and found work in a number of American cities, including New York and Philadelphia.
While still in his early twenties, Clemens gave up his printing career in order to work on riverboats on the Mississippi. Clemens eventually became a riverboat pilot, and his life on the river influenced him a great deal. Perhaps most important, the riverboat life provided him with the pen name Mark Twain, derived from the riverboat leadsmen’s signal—“By the mark, twain”—that the water was deep enough for safe passage. Life on the river also gave Twain material for several of his books, including the raft scenes of Huckleberry Finn and the material for his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi (1883).
Clemens continued to work on the river until 1861, when the Civil War exploded across America and shut down the Mississippi for travel and shipping. Although Clemens joined a Confederate cavalry division, he was no ardent Confederate, and when his division deserted en masse, he did too. He then made his way west with his brother Orion, working first as a silver miner in Nevada and then stumbling into his true calling, journalism. In 1863, Clemens began to sign articles with the name Mark Twain.
Throughout the late 1860s and...