(Nov. 30, 1835-April 21, 1910)
It was in the West that Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain, and although the landscape and characters of frontier life play only a small part in his writings, one can always detect a tang of the region where he found his literary voice and identity in his distinctively colloquial style.
Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835, and grew up in nearby Hannibal, on theMississippi River. His father died in 1847, leaving the family with little financial support, and Clemens became a printer's apprentice, eventually working for his brother, Orion, who had set himself up in Hannibal as a newspaper publisher. After a year spent setting type for newspapers on the east coast, Clemens returned in 1854 to rejoin Orion, who by this time had moved on to start a paper in Keokuk,Iowa.
Through all his years in the printshop, Clemens tried his hand at composing humorous pieces, using the heavy-handed techniques of local colorists who were popular at the time. By 1856, he was accomplished enough to receive a commission from the KeokukSaturday Post for a series of comical letters reporting on his planned travels to South America. But on his way down the Mississippi, Clemens temporarily abandoned his literary ambitions to take up a trade he had dreamed about as a boy. He apprenticed himself to become a riverboat pilot, and after 18 months of training, spent the next three years navigating the Mississippi's ever-changing waters.
When the Civil War closed traffic on the river in the spring of 1861, Clemens spent a few inglorious weeks as a volunteer in the Confederate army, then deserted to join Orion again, whose abolitionist views had won him appointment as territorial secretary in Nevada. By mid-August, the brothers were in Carson City, where Clemens tried his luck with timber, then mining, then finally found a measure of success in 1862 as a feature writer for theVirginia City
Territorial Enterprise. It was as this paper's reporter at the Nevada constitutional convention that Clemens began to sign his work "Mark Twain."
The experience of filing daily reports on the picturesque doings in a Nevada mining town helped Clemens sharpen and broaden his abilities as a writer. After two years, he carried those talents toSan Francisco
, where he wrote for a variety of newspapers and periodicals, among them The Californian, edited by Bret Harte. Though they were to quarrel later, at this time Clemens and Harte shared a common ambition, and the more experienced Harte proved a valuable guide as Clemens tried to work the comic artifice out of his humor and develop a more natural, conversational style. With "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," published in 1865
byThe Saturday Press of New York, and reprinted by newspapers across the country, this style made its first appearance, a style readers would soon come to recognize as the voice of Mark Twain.
Clemens left San Francisco in 1866, reporting first on his travels to Hawaii for the SacramentoUnion, then heading back east with an open assignment for humorous travel writing from the San FranciscoAlta California. After a brief return toMissouri, he took up the literary life in New York, where he polished his lucrative talent as an entertaining lecturer, then set sail in 1867 on a grand tour of Europe and theMideast. The reports of this journey which he sent back to San Francisco and New York later became his first best-seller,Innocents Abroad (1869).
On his return to the United States, Clemens married Olivia Langdon of Elmira,New York, in 1870 -- after a courtship hundreds of love letters long. The couple settled briefly in Buffalo,New York, then permanently in Harford,Connecticut, where Clemens finally turned from journalism to produce the books and novels that are the basis of his fame. One of the first in this string wasRoughing It (1872), an autobiographical account of his years in the West told in the humorous style of his travel writing, which pits a self-confident observer against a setting which he both comically misinterprets and ironically understands only too well. This element of self-conscious irony, rooted here in memory, would become the hallmark of Clemens' best work, especially evident in the novels set in his boyhood world beside the Mississippi River,Tom Sawyer (1876) and his masterpiece,The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Like his father and brother before him, Clemens was unlucky in business and much of his writing and lecturing was spurred by the need to pay off debts stemming from bad investments. Toward the end of his life, Clemens passed through a period of deep depression, which began in 1896 when he received word on alecture tour in England that his favorite daughter, Suzy, had died of meningitis. His wife's death in 1904, and the loss of a second daughter in 1909, deepened his gloom. Clemens had once humorously predicted that, since his birth had coincided with the appearance of Halley's Comet, his own death would come when the comet next returned. This prophecy was fulfilled when he died at his home in Redding, Connecticut, in 1910.
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