Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)
Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, one of the major authors of American fiction. Twain is also considered the greatest humorist in American literature. Twain's varied works include novels, travel narratives, short stories, sketches, and essays. His writings about the Mississippi River, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have been especially popular among modern readers.
Boyhood. Mark Twain was born on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. In 1839, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a village on the Mississippi River. Here the young Twain experienced the excitement of the colorful steamboats that docked at the town wharf, bringing comedians, singers, gamblers, swindlers, slave dealers, and assorted other river travelers.
Twain also gained his first experience in a print shop in Hannibal. After his father died in debt in 1847, Twain went to work for a newspaper and printing firm. In 1851, he began assisting his older brother Orion in the production of a newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. Twain contributed reports, poems, and humorous sketches to the Journal for several years. Like many American authors of his day, Twain had little formal education. Instead of attending high school and college, he gained his education in print shops and newspaper offices.
Travels. In 1853, Twain left Hannibal, displaying the yearning for travel that he would experience throughout his life. He stayed briefly in cities such as St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, working for low wages in print shops. He then traveled to Keokuk, Iowa, to assist his brother with more printing business.
In 1857, Twain made plans to travel to South America, and in April of that year, he started down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. At this point, he made a decision with important consequences for his life and career. Instead of traveling to South America, he persuaded a riverboat pilot named Horace Bixby to teach him the skills of piloting. By April 1859, Twain had become a licensed riverboat pilot.
The profession of riverboat piloting paid well and brought Twain much attention, which he enjoyed. His piloting experiences also allowed him to observe the many kinds of people who traveled aboard the steamboats. He later reported that "in that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history."
Newspaper work in the West. The beginning of the American Civil War (1861-1865) abruptly closed commercial traffic on the Mississippi River. After serving for two weeks with a Confederate volunteer company, Twain chose not to become involved in the war. He traveled to Carson City, Nevada, in 1861 with his brother Orion. Later, in Roughing It (1872), Twain humorously described his unsuccessful attempts at prospecting for gold and silver during this time and his eventual conclusion that he must support himself by newspaper journalism. He joined the staff of the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise in the summer of 1862. He first began publishing under his pen name on Feb. 3, 1863, while working for the Enterprise. "Mark Twain" comes from a riverboat term meaning two fathoms (a depth of 12 feet, or 3.7 meters).
Twain next drifted westward to California, where he wrote for the San Francisco Morning Call and a literary journal, the Californian. On Nov. 18, 1865, his first popular story—about "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"—appeared in the New York Saturday Press. In 1866, Twain traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, where he acted as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union. Following his return to San Francisco, he began a profitable lecture tour. Twain soon...
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