David Stuart Davies looks at the man that William Faulkner described as 'The father of America ...
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. "
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was an American humorist, satirist, lecturer and writer. Born on 30 November 1835, Clemens (better known by his pen name Mark Twain) is most renowned for his novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He was described as ‘the father of American literature’ by the American author William Faulkner.
Born in Florida, Missouri to a Tennessee country merchant, Twain was the sixth of seven children, although only three of his siblings survived childhood.
When he was four, his family moved to Hannibal, a port town on the Mississippi River, that would serve as the inspiration for the fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) The character of Tom Sawyer was modelled on Twain as a child, with traces of two schoolmates, and the book draws on Twain’s youth in Hannibal. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn solidified him as a noteworthy American writer, and has led to it being called ‘the first Great American Novel’. Tom Sawyer Detective (1896) is a sequal to the 1876 novel, in which Tom attempts to solve a mysterious murder. Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) features Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in a parody of Jules Verne-esque adventure stories.
In 1847, when Twain was eleven, his father died of pneumonia. A year later, Twain became a printer’s apprentice, before working as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
On a voyage to New Orleans down the Mississippi, Twain was inspired to pursue a career as a steamboat pilot. He studied 2000 miles of the Mississippi before obtaining his steamboat license in 1859. Life on the Mississippi (1883) is a memoir by Mark Twain of his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Having convinced his younger brother Henry to come and work with him, Twain was distraught when Henry was killed in a steamboat explosion and held himself responsible for the rest of his life. Twain had foreseen Henry’s death in a dream a month previous to the accident, and this piqued his interest in parapsychology. He was an early member of the Society for Psychic Research.
In 1867, a local newspaper funded a trip to the Mediterranean. During his tour of Europe and the Middle East, he wrote a popular collection of travel letters, which were later compiled as The Innocents Abroad (1869). Whilst travelling as a journalist, Twain met Charles Langdon, who showed him a picture of his sister Olivia – Twain claimed to have fallen in love at first sight. They met in 1868, were engaged a year later and married in February 1870 in New York. The couple lived in Buffalo, New York, where Twain owned a stake in the Buffalo Express, and worked as an editor and writer. They had a son, Langdon, who died of diphtheria at nineteen months.
In 1871, the couple moved to Connecticut, where Twain arranged the building of a dramatic house for them. Locals saved the house from demolition in 1927 and it was eventually turned into a museum focused on his life. Whilst living in Connecticut, Olivia gave birth to three daughters, Susy, Clara and Jean, two of whom Twain outlived. The marriage lasted 34 years, until Olivia’s death in 1904.
The deaths of his wife and daughters caused Twain to fall into a deep depression. Twain was born two weeks after the closest approach to Earth of Halley’s Comet, and in 1909, he is quoted as saying, "I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are those two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together’."
His prediction was accurate – Twain died of a heart attack on 21 April 1910, one day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth. He is buried in his wife’s family plot in Elmira, New York.
TITLES BY MARK TWAIN