Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was born on November 30, 1835 in the small town of Florida, Missouri. He was the sixth of seven children born to Jane Lampton Clemens and Marshall Clemens.
His father worked as a lawyer and judge while his mother was a homemaker. Sadly, when Twain was only 4 years old his father passed away from pneumonia which left the family in financial difficulty. A few years later in 1847, his mother also died from tuberculosis.
Table 1. Mark Twain’s Parents and Siblings
After the death of his parents, Twain and his siblings were taken in by family and friends. While staying with his cousin, he fell in love with the small town of Hannibal, Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi River. Hannibal would later be the inspiration for the fictional town of St. Petersburg in his iconic novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Twain had a very rough childhood marked by poverty and hardship. However, those experiences shaped his perspective and greatly influenced the stories and novels he wrote as an adult.
Early Career and Travels
In 1848, Twain left school at age 12 and began working as an apprentice printer at the Hannibal Courier newspaper. He educated himself at the newspaper offices he worked at throughout his teens and early adulthood. Twain worked as a printer in St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, Iowa, and Cincinnati over the next several years.
During this time, Twain also began submitting humorous short stories and sketches to newspapers under the pseudonym “Mark Twain” – a reference to a riverboat term he had learned about when training as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
In 1857, Twain achieved the coveted position of steamboat pilot, guiding large ships up and down the Mississippi. Riverboat pilots were a prestigious group with salaries higher than even doctors or lawyers. This experience provided Twain with material for some of his most beloved works. However, his career as a pilot was cut short in 1861 when the American Civil War led to the halting of most riverboat traffic.
In 1861, Twain’s brother Orion was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Twain initially went along with his brother to serve as his secretary. However, after a short stint, Twain set out on an overland journey across the American frontier from the Midwest to Nevada and finally California. This journey would become the book Roughing It – an early work of travel literature documenting the culture of the American Old West.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, Twain traveled often, writing letters and chronicles for newspapers about his adventures. Some of these trips include voyages across Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as an 1867 pleasure cruise aboard a ship to the Holy Land. His travelogues, filled with vivid descriptions of people and places, were very popular with American readers.
Marriage and Family
In 1870, Twain married Olivia “Livy” Langdon after first meeting her two years earlier in 1867. Livy came from a wealthy New York family that was ambivalent about their marriage due to Twain’s early poverty and bohemian lifestyle. However, the couple settled in Buffalo, New York – Livy’s hometown – where they would stay with family for a few years.
Table 2. Mark Twain’s Children
|1870 (died at 2 months)
Twain and his wife had four children: a son named Langdon who died as an infant, and three daughters named Susy, Clara, and Jean. For much of the 1870s and 1880s, the Twain family lived in an ornate mansion in Hartford, Connecticut.
Despite lucrative book sales, Twain made some poor financial investments in new inventions and technologies which eventually caused him to declare bankruptcy. To pay off debts, the family was forced to close their mansion and move to Europe in 1891 where the cost of living was lower.
Twain’s daughter Susy died suddenly of meningitis while he was traveling in 1896, which left him grief-stricken. And while living in England in 1909, his wife Livy also passed away. Twain said that with her death all the happiness had gone out of his life.
Twain’s experiences working as a printer and steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River were inspiration for his earliest published works like “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter” (1852) and “The Carnival of Crime in Connecticut” (1876).
However, his first major work was “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” published in 1865. This comical short story about a frog who was a talented jumper brought Twain national attention.
In 1867, Twain kicked off a multi-city speaking tour where he delivered comical lectures to packed theater halls. These humorous public performances both entertained crowds and promoted his growing reputation as an author.
Over the next two decades Twain achieved fame and literary renown:
- In 1869, his travel letters were compiled into The Innocents Abroad – a humorous travelogue mocking American tourists in Europe and the Middle East. It was instantly popular in the U.S. and put Twain on the map as a celebrity author.
- In 1871, Twain published a sequel comedic memoir called Roughing It about his travels out West through frontier towns of the Sierra Nevada and Nevada.
- In 1873 came the short novel he is most remembered for – The Gilded Age – which satirized greed and political corruption in Washington D.C. Twain co-authored this book with Charles Dudley Warner.
- In 1876, he published arguably his greatest work, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – a coming of age story about a mischievous young boy growing up in a quaint Mississippi River town.
- In 1881, Twain published The Prince and the Pauper – an adventure novel that follows two identical-looking boys who trade lives: a poor beggar boy and a prince of the royal family.
- His most celebrated work – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – came in 1885. The book follows Huck Finn and an escaped slave named Jim as they raft down the Mississippi River. It is renowned for its social commentary on racism and criticism of Southern culture preceding the Civil War.
Despite huge success as a popular author, large royalty checks, and nationwide speaking tours…Twain made numerous poor investments that led him into bankruptcy. To pay off debts and bills, he gave lectures in America and abroad, and continued releasing memoirs recounting tales from his youth and extensive travels. Some later notable works include Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), and The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899).
In his final years, Twain settled in Redding, Connecticut where he died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910 at age 74. He was remarkably prolific throughout his life, writing stories, novels, memoirs, letters, and essays to wild acclaim. At his funeral W.D. Howells observed that “Mark Twain was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Twain not only captured regional culture and dialect as an author, but also exposed universal human truths across his works – securing his legacy as one of the greatest writers in American history.
What were Mark Twain’s family members like?
Twain had a difficult childhood marked by the early deaths of his parents which left his family in poverty and fractured his family structure. He had two brothers and three sisters but was often shifted around to the homes of various relatives for care.
In adulthood, Twain married Livy Langdon and had four children but continued to face hardship and loss over the years. His eldest son died as an infant and eldest daughter Susy died suddenly as a teenager which was a crushing blow. His wife also passed many years before him in middle age. Despite fame and success, Twain endured substantial personal tragedies over the course of his life.
How did Mark Twain get his famous pen name?
Early in his writing career, Twain sent letters, humorous sketches, and short stories to various newspapers under the name “Mark Twain” – a reference that readers would recognize to steamboat slang on the Mississippi River. Specifically, it referred to the second mark on a line that measured depth, indicating it was safe for steamboats toCopy
Mark Twain led an extraordinary life filled with adventure, fame, friendship, heartbreak, and prolific creativity. From his early days growing up along the Mississippi River to his later years publishing some of the most beloved stories in American literature – Twain left an indelible mark on the nation.
His living conditions as a child were difficult, but instilled a fiery spirit of resilience. Twain endured devastating tragedies, including the deaths of all but one of his immediate family members over his lifetime. However, from this hardship sprung inspiration that fueled his writing. His books held up a mirror to America, reflecting back cultural flaws and societal evils like racism, greed, and corruption in an era of great change and growth.
Twain was far from perfect, making mistakes in business that led him into debt, while simultaneously building a legacy as one the country’s sharpest satirists and social critics. His body of travelogues, novels, and memoirs captured dialect and landscapes like no writer had done before. The characters created – like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim – embodied the frontier yet also highlighted timeless coming-of-age themes.
Over a century since his passing, Mark Twain’s stories have not aged a day. They continue to capture imaginations and nurture souls young and old. Twain was a consummate storyteller and jokester, with a pen that spoke profound truth in the most light-hearted and whimsical way. His words echo through our culture even today, solidifying Twain as an American icon who will never fade.