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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Mark Twain | Biography


Early Childhood

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. In 1839 Twain, who was the sixth of seven children, moved with his family to the frontier town of Hannibal because it 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 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.

Striking Out on His Own

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 to the paper 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 a printer 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 River and became a licensed pilot in 1859. He loved the job, and it greatly influenced his writing, inspiring many articles written in The Atlantic Monthly and key books such as 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 Twain's most famous pen name. These include his own claim that he stole the name from a senior riverboat captain who used to sign his bland descriptions of the Mississippi River with the name Mark Twain. However, it is most likely that Twain adopted the name from steamboat slang meaning 12 feet of water, the safe depth for steamboat passage.

Literary Career

When the Civil War (1861–65, fought between northern and southern states over slavery and states' rights) put an end to commercial steamboat traffic, Twain made his way out West and worked for a number of newspapers. Twain first found publishing success in 1865 with a short story called "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," which was printed in newspapers across the country. 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, Innocents Abroad, was published in 1869 and detailed his trip to Europe and the Holy Land (Palestine, including parts of Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank) 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), about his experiences many years before in Nevada, California, and Hawaii (then the Sandwich Islands) before turning to novels.

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. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) did not come out until years later—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 its 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.

Twain went on to write many more books, including the satirical work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). While living in Europe, he wrote the antislavery novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, which was serialized in Century Magazine beginning in December 1893 and published in book form by the American Publishing Company in late 1894. He continued to tour the country and abroad, having become famous not only as a writer but also as an entertaining lecturer.

In his later years Twain 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. The novella first appeared in the December 1899 issue of Harper's Monthly. It was included in two book collections: The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, and Other Stories and Sketches (1900) and My Debut as a Literary Person, with Other Essays and Stories (1903). Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts was published posthumously in 1969.

Death and Legacy

Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut. His works, since translated into more than 75 languages, are considered part of the canon of classic American literature. Numerous biographies, films, and television shows have been dedicated to his life or have featured Twain as a character. In addition, many sites today still celebrate Twain's life and legacy, including Mark Twain's Boyhood Home and Museum (Hannibal, Missouri), the Mark Twain State Park (Florida, Missouri), the Mark Twain Riverboat (Hannibal, Missouri), and the Mark Twain House and Museum (Hartford, Connecticut).

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor has been presented annually at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. since 1998. It recognizes an individual who has had an impact on American society similar to that of Twain.

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