In Focus: Mark Twain

Quick-witted and brutally honest, Mark Twain is regarded as one of America’s most loved authors

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On 18 February 1885, author Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story of a young boy called Huck, who runs away from Mississippi in an attempt to get a slave, Jim, to the free states. It is commonly described as one of the ‘Great American Novels’.

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Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on 30 November 1835, in the small town of Florida, Missouri. When he was four, his parents, John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens, moved Samuel and his five siblings to Hannibal, a port town situated on the Mississippi River. It would be the inspiration for the fictional town of St Petersberg in Huckleberry Finn.

The river would become a fascination, particularly the steamboats and the people who travelled on them. When he was 12, his father died of pneumonia. Samuel left school and become a printer’s apprentice in order to support his family. Moving on to a newspaper owned by his brother, Orion, his love for writing grew. 

Becoming Mark Twain

Aged 18, Samuel moved to St Louis and trained to become a riverboat pilot. He loved his job but it didn’t last long. When the Civil War began in 1861, Samuel left the rivers and worked as a newspaper reporter across America, starting in Nevada. It was around this time that he took up the pen name Mark Twain. His first novel, The Innocents Abroad, was published in 1869 but it was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that propelled him to fame.

On a trip to the Mediterranean, Twain met a man called Charles Langdon. The two became friendly but when Langdon showed Twain a photograph of his sister, Olivia, Twain’s life changed. He was instantly besotted and insisted on meeting her when they returned to America. In 1870, they were married and were together for 34 years.

An outspoken man in his later years, Twain was an active supporter of the abolition of slavery but he was also an increasingly surly and depressed man. He had lost his son in infancy and then two of his daughters, Susy and Jean, died in 1896 and 1909 respectively. His beloved wife Olivia passed away in 1904. He never recovered from these losses and died of a heart attack on 21 April 1910.

5 Facts

1) He adopted his pen name, Mark Twain, during his time as a riverboat pilot. The term ‘mark twain’ was used on the riverboats when the depth of the water was being measured. It meant two fathoms (12 feet) and was a safe depth for the boats.

2) Twain joined a Confederate militia in the early days of the Civil War, but it was disbanded after two weeks.

3) He was a great friend of inventor and electrical engineering revolutionary Nikola Tesla. They would spend a lot of time in Tesla’s lab, and Twain was all too happy to volunteer for Tesla’s experiments.

4) In 1856, he started using another pen name for a series of humourous articles for the Keokuk Post. His pseudonym was Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.

5) His birth coincided with the closest approach of Halley’s Comet to Earth in approximately 76 years, and he would joke that he would “go out with it too”. He died a day after its next pass.

5 Quotes

Mark Twain was loved for his humourous writings and observations as well as his novels. Here are five of his best…

1) “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

2) “I would rather have my ignorance than another man’s knowledge, because I have so much more of it.”

3) “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

4) “When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.”

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5) “Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”