Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Man of Many Words

Magnet # 406:  Mark Twain Portrait, Quote

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Me

Two weeks after Halley's Comet had made its closest approach to the Sun in 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on this day to a merchant family in tiny Florida, Missouri.  His birth many not have been as publicized as that of the famous celestial body, but over the course of his life, he would outshine even that phenomenon under the pen name of Mark Twain.  With his wit, humor, and unmatched ability to point out the hypocrisies and vanities of his time, he became the most beloved American writer of his day.  And some have gone so far as to call him the father of American literature.  It's hard to define just how important Mark Twain was to developing the literary identity of our country, but it would be tough to overestimate the noteworthy contributions that have appeared both during his life and since his death.

Clemens was born the six of seven children, but only four would live past childhood.  The family moved to Hannibal, Missouri just off the Mississippi River when he was four and it would later serve as the model for his fictional town of St. Petersburg.  There, his father worked as a judge until he died when Clemens was eleven years old.  For much of his childhood, he was confined inside due to poor health, but as he grew older, his condition improved.  He soon became a printer's assistant and by eighteen, was traveling to major cities for work.  Determined to learn more, he frequented public libraries by night, learning all he could from their books.  He soon moved back to Missouri, where he decided to become a steamboat pilot on the mighty Mississippi, working for two years to earn his license.  During this time, he persuaded his brother Henry to enter the field and Clemens had a peculiar dream where he saw his brother die.  A month later, his dream came true when the Pennsylvania exploded with Henry on it.  The tragedy both haunted Clemens for the rest of his life and inspired a long-lasting fascination for parapsychology in him.  Later, he branched out, traveling West to try his luck as a miner and working as a journalist.  In 1865, he had his first success with his story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."  By then, he had taken the pen name of Mark Twain, although it wasn't his first - he'd also tried out Josh and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.  Two years later, he was sent to the Mediterranean for his work, where he met Charles Langdon, who who showed him a picture of his sister, Olivia.  Twain reportedly fell in love just at the sight of her.  He met her a year later and for their first date, they attended a reading by Charles Dickens in New York City.  By 1870, they were married.  The couple's only son was their first child, Langdon, who die when he was only a year and a half old.  Over the next eight years, they had three girls and Twain's renown grew greater still.  In 1874, the family moved into a 19-room Victorian Gothic mansion that had been built for them in Hartford, Connecticut.  There, Twain wrote some of his greatest works - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  But life wasn't always easy for him there.  Twain made bad financial investments with the considerable sum he had earned through his writings, most notably when he supported the Paige typesetting machine, which could rarely perform at peak and was passed over in favor of the Linotype.  To recover, the Twains boarded up their home and traveled the world as he raked in money giving lectures.  But when their daughter Susy returned to their home in 1896 and died there without them of spiral meningitis at twenty-four, it dealt her parents a blow from which they would never recover.  And Twain's depression only worsened when he lost his wife and another daughter.  By 1909, despite all of his literary success, he was ready to pass on, writing that Halley's Comet was on its way back and it would be the greatest disappointment of his life if he didn't go out with it.  He got his wish, passing April 21 of 1909, one day after the comet reached its perihelion and was closest to the Sun.  The United States and the world mourned his passing, and President Taft correctly predicted that Twain's work would be loved by many in the future, but he probably never imagined just how popular the writer would remain.

In his final years, Mark Twain wrote his autobiography, a work in which he frankly expressed his true feelings and pulled no punches.  Yet he realized that what he had to say might shame and embarrass those he loved, so he decided not to just wait until after he was dead to have them published, but to wait until 100 years after his death to release them.  The move might not have worked with some, but it proved to be an incredible success for Twain.  And we're living at just the right moment - the first of the three volumes was released on November 15 of this year and has met with considerable success. And it's given Twain the singular honor of being a bestselling author in three centuries - the 1800s, the 1900s, and the 2000s.  In the coming years, we'll find out all of what Twain had to get off of his chest with his final work.  Even after his last words are released, it's pretty unlikely that the literary world will ever be done with Mark Twain - in fact, it's been suggested that he was not just an American but the American.


  1. In high school I read "Huckelberry Finn". It was so funny. I remember sitting in by bedroom laughing out loud.

  2. Not many authors could make a work that funny and still have such sobering issues in it. Twain really was one of a kind.