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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Mark Twain | Biography


Birth and Early Life

Samuel Langhorne Clemens—better known by his pen name Mark Twain—was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835 and grew up in Hannibal, Missouri. Twain, who was the sixth of seven children, moved with his family in 1839 to the frontier town of Hannibal. This location offered better financial prospects for Twain's father, John Marshall Clemens. However, during and after the early portion of his childhood, Twain spent many summers at his Uncle John Quarles's farm in Florida. The farmhouse, which had on its premises as many as 30 black slaves, was a rural paradise for Twain. He would later use these experiences, including his fondness for the slaves, in his most important books.

As a young boy Twain was sickly and was cared for by his mother, Jane Lampton Clemens. She was a fun-loving, tenderhearted woman whose love of storytelling later inspired her son to write. Unlike his wife, John Clemens was a serious person who felt great stress over the family's financial situation. He was, however, a dreamer and believed one day he would be wealthy. When John died in 1847, the family became destitute and Twain's boyhood was over.

Starting his Career

At age 13 Twain left school to become a printer's apprentice for a local newspaper owned by his brother Orion. Twain began to contribute some sketches and articles, despite friction with his older brother. When Twain turned 17 he left Hannibal and went to several large cities, including Philadelphia and New York. He continued to work for newspapers, operating as printer for a newspaper in Cincinnati, Ohio, and writing a series of letters under the pen name "Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass."

When he returned to Hannibal in 1857, Twain began learning how to pilot a steamboat on the Mississippi and became a licensed pilot in 1859. He loved the job, and it impacted his writing greatly, inspiring many articles written in The Atlantic Monthly. Later this experience would take life in books including Life on the Mississippi (1883) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In 1863 Twain wrote his first piece under the pseudonym "Mark Twain." There are a number of stories—some potentially untrue—about the origin of Clemens's most famous pen name. Clemens himself claimed he stole the name from a senior riverboat captain who signed bland descriptions of the Mississippi River under the name. However, it is most likely that the name "Mark Twain" comes from steamboat slang meaning 12 feet of water.

Travel, Newspapers, and Marriage

When the American Civil War (186165) put an end to commercial steamboat traffic, Twain made his way out West and worked for a number of newspapers. The Civil War was a four-year conflict between the United States and 11 Southern states that seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Twain first found publishing success in 1865 with a short story called "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," which was printed in newspapers nationwide. The story would eventually appear in Twain's first published book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867). His first of many travel books, The Innocents Abroad, was published in 1869 and detailed his trip to Europe and the Holy Land on the cruise ship Quaker City. The book was a major success, though the foundation for his fame had already been laid by the many letters he had published in newspapers during his five-month voyage on the Quaker City.

In 1870 Twain married Olivia Langdon and first settled in Buffalo, New York. Two years later he commissioned the construction of a mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, where he resided until 1891. During the 1870s Twain continued to write and give lectures across the country. Over the next 20 years Twain wrote some of his most famous books during summers spent at Quarry Farm, located in Elmira, New York. The farm was purchased for Twain and Olivia by Olivia's father, Jervis Langdon, when they were newlyweds. Twain published another travel book, Roughing It (1872), before turning to novels.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

In 1876 Twain's book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published. He called it a hymn to childhood. The novel included the character of Huckleberry Finn, and soon Twain decided to write a book exploring this character. That novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, did not come out until years later in 1884—other books were published in between—as Twain wrote it in fits and starts. When the book did come out, it was banned by many who did not approve of the attitudes toward religion and the protagonist's unseemly habits. Despite its critics the book sold well and later became respected as a classic of American literature and one of Twain's masterpieces.

Later Works and Legacy

Twain went on to write many more books, including the biting satirical work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and the antislavery novel The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). He continued to tour the country and abroad, having become famous not only as a writer but as an entertaining lecturer. In his later years, he suffered personal tragedies and financial difficulties, which ultimately led him to declare bankruptcy and sell the Hartford home. His writings and thoughts on life turned pessimistic, though he retained his sense of humor as witnessed in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, and Other Stories and Essays (1899), as well as the posthumous Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1969).

Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut. Although he struggled financially during his lifetime, Twain has remained one of the most beloved American writers. His books are consistently reprinted, taught in schools, and celebrated around the world as a uniquely American style of literature.

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