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. His 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 proven especially popular among modern readers.
I feel that many of Mark Twain’s writings are greatly influenced by experiences that he had to deal with throughput his life. In fact, Twain centers several of his stories around his boyhood dreams on the Mississippi. This is the very subject that his pen name which means two fathoms, a river boat term. He goes on to record much of his time in the western areas of the Unite States and Hawaii in Roughing It, which has many autobiographical accounts of Twain.
Twain humorously describes 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 influences these stories with his real life experiences. In Roughing It, Twain relates a severe case of stage fright that overwhelmed him before his first professional appearance on the lecture platform. According to Twain he had a growing fear that the audience would not recognize his jokes. This fear actually drove him to strategically place his friends throughout the audience to laugh loudly at the jokes people thought were indistinct. Twain became convinced that no one would attend and, arriving early for the show, sat backstage consumed with horrors. Twain then writes, “Then I heard a murmur; it rose higher and higher, and ended in a crash, mingled with cheers. It made my hair raise, it was so close to me, and so loud. There was a pause, and then another; presently came a third, and before I well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The house was full, aisles and all!” Twain’s account makes wonderful reading, but it is very unlikely that he was so ill-prepared for success. Although it is this writing that many people can relate to and learn from.
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. He used this experience when he went to work for a newspaper and printing firm in 1847 after his father died in debt. This is where Twain gained much of his knowledge since he had little formal schooling. 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, 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. It was on this trip that Twain made a decision with important consequences for his life and career. He met a pilot named Horace Bixby who revived Twain’s boyhood dream of learning the river. So, instead of traveling to South America, Twain persuaded the riverboat pilot to teach him the skills of piloting. By April 1859, Twain had become a licensed riverboat pilot and he continued with this job until secession of the South from the Union closed the river. Mark Twain served briefly in the Marion Rangers, a militia company which disbanded before it could be mustered into the Confederate service. In the 1880’s, Mark Twain established and operated his own publishing firm. He also became interested in various investments, especially an elaborate typesetting machine. He lost an investment of almost $200,000 in the machine between 1881 and 1894. This led to his publishing company declaring bankruptcy in April 1894.
In January 1895, Twain found himself publicly humiliated by his inability to pay his debts. Twain eventually recovered from his financial difficulties through his continued writing and a successful lecture tour in 1895 and 1896. Although he had recovered from his financial problems by 1898, Twain then began to experience tragedy in his personal life. Susy, his oldest daughter, died of meningitis in 1896, while her parents and sister Clara were abroad. In 1903, Twain sold the beloved house he owned in Hartford, which for him had become too closely associated with Susy’s death. His wife Olivia had developed a heart condition and died on June 5, 1904. His youngest daughter, Jean, died on Dec. 24, 1909. Despite his business and personal difficulties, Twain managed to continue writing. But as his career progressed, he seemed to become increasingly removed from the humorous, cocky image of his younger days. More and more of his works came to express the gloomy view that all human motives are ultimately selfish. These works also reflected Twain’s lifelong doubts about religion and his belief that all human acts are predetermined and free will is an illusion. Twain died of heart disease on April 21, 1910 leaving behind numerous unpublished manuscripts.
Most of Mark Twain’s familiar works seem to emphasize his love for the Mississippi area and his boyhood dreams and ambitions. He had a way of capturing the child that lives in every one of us using his experience as a pilot on the Mississippi. Twain could recreate the small-town boyhood he had known by the Mississippi River in the peaceful years before the Civil War. Twain’s approach to literature was slow. He was twenty-seven when he became a professional journalist, thirty-one when he began lecturing and thirty-four when he published his first real book. From the start, Twain’s newspaper work included what would now be called feature writing. He quickly tired of straight reporting unless it had some element of humor.
The experiences which changed him from clever amateur to real professional came from a Hawaiian tour in 1866. Until then he had dealt with people and scenes familiar to his readers. Hawaii showed him people and places totally different that challenged him to convey the difference in print. A subsequent Quaker City tour continued what he learned in the Hawaiian tour. Twain had now mastered his style which he was able to use when preparing The Innocents Abroad. He further used his newly perfected style over whole sections of the Alta letters with only slight revisions. This style went on to establish a pattern visible in much of his subsequent work. The pattern is simply– a journey in space. This pattern is shown in Innocents by the itinerary of the excursion. It also served in Roughing It (1872), as well as in the more labored A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1896). The most striking use of this adventurous pattern is, of course, Huckleberry Finn.
Twain approached fiction gingerly with his first attempt, The Gilded Age (1874). He wrote this work in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner as a contemporary social satire. Meanwhile a visit from Will Bowen, a boyhood crony, had reminded Twain of youthful escapades in Hannibal. After two or three false starts he found the right approach and worked on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer during intervals throughout 1874 and 1875. While Tom Sawyer was still unfinished, Twain happened to mention some of his piloting experiences to the Rev. Joseph Twichell. Twichell encouraged him to write out the material which W. D. Howells immediately bought for Atlantic Monthly. It appeared as “Old Times on the Mississippi” until it later was collected and became chapters 4 to 17 of Life on the Mississippi. Not only did Twain write about things that he remembered as a young boy, he also wrote some things taken directly from his experiences. As seen 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. In Following the Equator (1897), Twain recounted his experiences on his overseas lecture tour of 1895 and 1896. After Twain had finished Tom Sawyer he went on to slowly finish Huck. Among the books which took precedence over Huck was The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Twain’s first attempt at historical romance.
On the other hand, his most serious effort at historical fiction came with Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc. Joan was Twain’s last major work. During the earlier part of his struggles with bankruptcy he had attempted to revive his greatest books, with Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), but the magic could not be recalled. Despite his struggles with money he continued to write. His works during his final years included The American Claimant (1892), about an impractical character named Colonel Mulberry Sellers. The novel was based on an unsuccessful play he wrote with author-critic William Dean Howells in 1883. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) is a detective novel set in the village of Dawson’s Landing, another name for Hannibal. He wrote the story The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899), in which he described a practical joke that exposed the greed of the smug leaders of a town. In his closing years Twain published a number of short stories and some of his finest satire.
Twain was a great humorist that was not afraid to take his life experiences and turn them into great, entertaining stories. His stories were very real which is probably the very reason that his stories can capture every one’s attention.