Earnest Hemingway once commented that all American literature starts with Mark Twain. Known for his rebellious sense of humor, Mark Twain loved steamboats, writing, and cats. He would eventually write 28 books plus many more stories and lectures.
A Star is Born
“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” – Notebook, 1894
Born Samuel L. Clemens in 1835 in small town in Missouri, Mark Twain was the 6th of 7 siblings. His family was an average family for his time – struggling to make ends meet. His father had a number of different jobs and wasn’t very good with his money. The Clemens family was wrought with other trouble too as only Samuel and 3 of his siblings (Orion, Henry, and Pamela) would survive into adulthood. When young Samuel was 4, his family moved to a larger town right along the Mississippi, Hannibal, Missouri. It was this flavorful town that would inspire many of his later works. It was a town that was billowing with life and travelers, but also with violence. Just before Samuel would turn 12, his father suddenly died of pneumonia. Samuel had to quit school and find a job to help provide for his family. From this point forward, Samuel would always dream of getting rich and supporting his mother and siblings. He first became an apprentice at The Hannibal Courier and then by the age of 15 he worked as a reporter for a publication owned by his brother Orion, The Hannibal Western Union. He traveled all over the eastern United States writing and working as a type-setter. At the age of 21, Samuel found his dream job – working as the pilot of a riverboat. This gave him the opportunity to meet all different sorts of people and the ability to travel. The people that he met during his riverboat days would return as characters in his later novels. Samuel’s dream of being a riverboat pilot for the rest of his life was cut short by the Civil War in 1861. Civilian traffic on the Mississippi River was halted. As the people of Missouri took sides in the war, Samuel joined the Confederate Army. However, after about a week, his unit disbanded and they all fled.
Samuel Clemens Becomes Mark Twain
“I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest, and most intelligent things I know, outside of the girl you love, of course. – Mark Twain
Samuel headed west on a stage coach with the mistaken idea that he would strike it rich mining for gold. In September of 1862 he became a reporter for The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in California. He began using the name Mark Twain which in riverboat slang means that the water is 12 feet deep, a depth that meant it was safe to set sail. MarkTwain’s journey really did set sail! His work Jim Smiley and the Jumping Frog was published in 1865 and became his first work to be published all throughout the United States. This lead to his first book and first best seller being published in 1869 – The Innocents Abroad. His fame just kept rising from that point on. By the age of 34 Mark Twain was one of the most popular writers in America. He traveled the world and was deeply troubled the the injustices he saw. Slavery, the treatment of the Chinese in California, and the treatment of the indigenous people in Australia and South Africa were issues he felt strongly about. He became known as a bit of a “bad boy” because he didn’t hesitate to let his opinions be known. Mark Twain had a great love for animals (much more than he did humans) – especially cats. It was said that he always wanted the company of cats and would have several at a time. A few of his cats’ names were Bambino, Fraulien, Blatherskite, Sour Mash, Stray Kit, Sin, and Satan. If one of his cats died, there would be an elaborate ceremony and he would grieve for a long time.
The Mark Twain Persona
“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.”- Pudd’nhead Wilson
The irony of Mark Twain’s rebellious image was that he desperately wanted to be accepted by American high society. He married Olivia Langdon, daughter of a high society man as part of his own bid for acceptance. For the rest of his life he would say how much he loved her though other people were skeptical. They had 4 children together, but tragedy after tragedy would befall them; Only Clara would survive. Despite the tragedies, Mark Twain’s fame grew and grew. His novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was the first novel to be written in an ordinary American vernacular. This way of speaking didn’t go over with the social elite, so Mark Twain was careful to write some pieces that they would enjoy, such as The Prince and the Pauper. His wife was less than thrilled when he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Mark Twain unabashedly commercialized his image. He would put his image on anything if it would make him an extra dollar. His most successful project was a publishing company with which, Mark Twain was able to convince Ulysses S. Grant to write and publish his memoirs before his death. Even though the memoirs were a hot seller, the publishing company still went bankrupt. As it turned out, Mark Twain was as bad with money as his father had been. The last decade of Mark Twain’s life was marked with misery. On the outside everything looked great fro Mark Twain. He was award great honors such as degrees from Oxford and Yale and did a highly successful world tour lecturing (which paid off his debts). However, those that knew him found him to be isolated, depressed, and suffering from bouts of paranoia. In 1904, Olivia died of a long illness while Mark Twain was away on business. Finally, in April of 1910, Mark Twain passed away as well in his home in Connecticut.
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