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All About Mark Twain


All About Mark Twain

Mark Twain, in his grumpy later years.

Mark Twain, An Overview:

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in the small town of Florida, Missouri, Mark Twain is often called the "father of American literature." According to Time magazine, he was "one of the best-known living Americans, the first writer to enjoy the kind of fame reserved until then for Presidents, generals and barn-burning preachers." However, in his time, he was best-known as a travel writer. (While this wasn't his preference, it probably beat both barn-burning and preaching.)

Early Life:

In 1839, Twain moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, where he enjoyed a typical childhood until the death of his father in 1847 forced him to leave school in order to earn a living. He shuttled through various occupations, including apprentice printer, apprentice riverboat pilot, Confederate soldier, and silver prospector, until finding his way to journalism, a field that suited his restless temperament. He launched his career with a series of missives from Hawaii for the Sacramento Union and then followed this up with similar trips to New York City, Europe, and the Holy Land.

Marriage and Career:

Twain met and fell in love with Olivia (Livy) Langdon, the daughter of wealthy coal merchant, and married her in 1870. The sales of his travel book The Innocents Abroad allowed him to quit journalism to focus on travel books, but he was never able to fully make the second jump, and support the family by writing fiction. With the death of his daughter Olivia Susan, the death of his wife, and the emotional collapse of another daughter, Twain's work grew increasingly pessimistic and misanthropic. He eventually settled in New York City and died in 1910 near Redding, Connecticut.

Memorable Fiction:

According to Ernest Hemingway, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn . . . ," and some would argue that it's still one of our best books. In addition to Huckleberry Finn, Twain wrote more than a dozen books, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. In addition, he published hundreds of stories, essays, and nonfiction pieces.

Quotes from Mark Twain:

  • "A discriminating irreverence is the creator and protector of human liberty."
  • “High & fine literature is wine, & mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”
  • "They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce."
  • "When I’m playful, I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic ocean for whales. I scratch my head with the lightning and purr myself to sleep with the thunder."

For More Info:

  • Mark Twain left behind the biggest collection of letters and manuscripts of any 19th century author; eventually much of this will be online at the Mark Twain Project.
  • "The Seriously Funny Man," in Time.
  • More on his travel writing can be found in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
  • Read about the appearance of previously unpublished work by Mark Twain. And for critical perspectives, try Mark Twain, edited by Harold Bloom.
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