Mark Twain’s Biography | Northern Illinois University Digital Library

Biography of mark twain

biography of mark twain

by gregg camfield, phd, university of california-merced

on november 30, 1835, almost thirty years before he took the pen name mark twain, samuel langhorne clemens was born in florida, missouri, a village about 130 miles northwest of st. louis, and 30 miles inland from the mississippi river. His father, John Marshall Clemens, had moved the family there from Tennessee earlier that year. In Tennessee, he had amassed much land, a couple of slaves, a wife, and five children, but his efforts as a local lawyer, merchant, and politician did not produce the wealth he desired. Like many of his contemporaries, he decided that the path to a successful future was to move west. His brother-in-law, John Quarles, had established a farm in the new Florida town and invited John Marshall Clemens, his wife, Jane Lampton Clemens, and their children to the new country.

Trained to be a country lawyer, John Marshall was not a farmer, and while Americans were extraordinarily litigious, it would take time (and a denser population) to build a law practice that could support a family. he fell back on storing provisions, and again failed. Since the river was where a trader had access to markets, John Marshall moved his family to the as-yet-unincorporated town of Hannibal, about 30 miles east-northeast of Florida. there, too, his business ventures, in his dry-goods store, in his dealings with the land, even in his efforts to trade slaves, did not prosper. The family found themselves slipping into poverty, so desperate, in fact, that they had to sell their furniture, before finally John Marshall’s political ambitions led to his election as Justice of the Peace. while the fees he earned in this office were not enough to make the family fortune, they were the difference between poverty and competition. However, with fortunes finally improving, John Marshall Clemens fell ill and died in 1847. The rest of the Clemens family (Mother Jane, Sister Pamela, and brothers Orion, Samuel, and Henry) had to make their way by hook or by crook. orion was already in st. louis, working as a journeyman printer. the wages he sent home kept the family afloat. Yet within a year, young Samuel could no longer afford the luxuries of childhood, school, and play. Instead, he began his first apprenticeship with printer Hannibal William Ament, publisher of the grandly named Missouri Courier.

Hannibal, Missouri in the 1840s

Working for Ament, Sam learned about printing, the first mass production industry, almost as it had been practiced from the beginning. In a rural print shop, a printer had to do everything from the editorial side, to typesetting, printing work, and distributing the finished product. there was no division of labor, and only hints of the industrial revolution. however, brother orion in st. Louis worked for a major printing company, as a composer rather than a printer. Orion, in accordance with the principles of the craftsmen’s guild, wanted to be his own teacher, so in 1851 he returned to Hannibal, bought one of Hannibal’s other newspapers, the equally named Western Union, and took his younger brothers, Samuel and Henry, as his apprentices. He soon combined his struggling paper with the Hannibal daily, but even a merger couldn’t turn a local paper into a good life, especially for an owner whose politics weren’t entirely Hannibal-friendly.

Neither of the younger siblings really appreciated working for their quirky older brother. Orion fancied himself a new Benjamin Franklin, and he used to tease his younger siblings with Franklin’s aphorisms about industry, efficiency, temperance, and frugality. frugality was dictated by the fact that such an antiquated printing press was not profitable, even though it was a central part of the social fabric of small-town America. Young Samuel accepted the impulse toward industriousness and temperance, even when the younger brother Henry rebelled by being lazy and careless in his work. Orion’s response to Henry’s poor work was often to put more into Samuel. Naturally, Sam also came to resent his position. In 1853, he ran away and headed first to St. louis to work as a typesetter and then leave the mississippi valley for the first time to work as a typesetter in various eastern cities, including new york and philadelphia.

His mail house shows how much he accepted his responsibility to his mother, promising her part of his salary, however his exposure to the new industrial economy of big cities prevented him from making much financial progress in his work. demoralized by not being able to make his fortune, he reunited with his family, which, meanwhile, had also abandoned Hannibal. his sister had already moved to st. Louis when in 1851 she married William A. moffet, a successful trader. his brother orion had sold his hannibal printing press to move to muscatine, iowa, to free ground, where his abolitionist ideas were not a threat to his livelihood or his health. Samuel at this point was not opposed to slavery; His attitudes were shaped primarily by those of his Missouri neighbors, especially his father and his Uncle Quarles. Although his father never owned many slaves, and due to financial necessity he was forced to sell, he helped maintain slavery in Missouri. His uncle was a farmer whose success depended not only on his own labor, but also on the labor of his slaves. In the years before he began learning from him, Sam had spent many summers on the Quarles farm. but orion time in st. Louis had put him in touch with organized labor which, while often quite racist in his perspective, opposed slave labor as a system that lowered wages. When he moved to Iowa in late 1853, he was active in anti-slavery politics, which eventually led him to work for the Lincoln election in 1860.

Sam’s return to the Mississippi Valley in the late spring of 1854 was not a return to his childhood home. Now that he lives in a free state, but with strong family ties to Missouri, his return to work for his brother was a stopgap. in fact, at the end of that year and the beginning of 1855, he worked at st. louis before returning to muscatine. In 1856, he left home again, this time to work as a composer in Cincinnati. Itinerant as ever, Clemens was briefly satisfied in Cincinnati, and when he was returning home in 1857, he decided instead to change careers to become a riverboat pilot. to do so, he had to pay $500, half upfront, with the balance to be paid out of his first salary when he finished his apprenticeship. (Multiply these numbers by 25 to find a rough equivalent to today’s dollars.) he had to borrow the down payment from his brother-in-law. Young Sam didn’t have good role models for how to spend money, but given how poor he was, the amount he was willing to borrow says something about how much he wanted to become a riverboat pilot.

Slightly fictionalized, “Old Times on the Mississippi” tells the story of this apprenticeship. with the addition of the story of his successful efforts to get his younger brother Henry a job on a steamboat and his younger brother’s death in a steamboat accident, found in chapters 18-20 Of Life on the Mississippi, Twain’s own account of his days as an apprentice on a steamboat, and his account of the social and political circumstances of steamship, is one of the best accounts of river life ever written. . but he left the story to the end of his apprenticeship, and it tells us almost nothing about his brief and successful career in sailing. when he is fully licensed as a pilot at the st. louis to business in new orleans, sam clemens found regular and lucrative employment, which allowed him to not only pay off his debts and help support his mother, but also gave him enough extra income to indulge himself.

I can “bank” in the neighborhood of $100 a month. . . and that will satisfy me for the moment. . . . bless me! . . . what respect prosperity commands. why, six months ago, you could walk into the “rooms” [of the western boatmen’s charity] and receive only the usual brotherly greeting, but now they say, “how are you, old friend? did you get on?” and the young pilots who used to tell me, condescendingly, that I could never learn the river, can’t help but show a little displeasure at seeing me so far ahead of them. . . . I must confess that when I go to pay my dues, I’d rather let the damn scoundrels take a look at a hundred dollar bill peeking out from the smaller bills.

Not surprisingly, one of his chief indulgences was to speculate in commodities, buying and shipping them as he went up and down the river. True to family form, he lost money.

But his newfound wealth and the company he began to keep helped him leave the world of his mother and brother, both emotionally and physically. he was a major player in an industry that was so modern and cosmopolitan that he figures in stories like t.b. Thorpe’s “The Great Bear of Arkansas” and Herman Melville’s Henchman, as a symbol of America: of its politics, its commerce, its industry, its cultural and ethnic diversity, of its inexorable changes. Letters from his time show him giving up his restless spirit by taking advantage of the amusements of two of America’s great cities. From things as innocent as learning to dance, which according to his mother’s strict religion encouraged sin, to learning to drink and swear, which were culturally normal but came under regular attack in an evangelical and Reform era, Clemens explored behavior and the attitudes. they were new to him. and the powers of observation required of him as a pilot certainly helped him as he turned to journalism and later to writing novels, sketches, and stories.

Had the Civil War not disrupted river trade, Samuel Clemens might have spent his life as a pilot, writing only the occasional joke in a newspaper. Clemens was not a hothead on either side, in part because his livelihood depended on trade between north and south along the great river. In the 1860 election, Sam Clemens voted his bread and butter. Contemptuous of both the Democratic Party and the New Republican Party, Clemens voted for Bell and Everett of the Constitutional Union Party. But when the war began, Clemens’s vague leanings toward states’ rights and slavery came to light. first, he hid with his sister’s family in st. Louis, fearing he would be impressed as a union transport or gunship pilot. then, in the late spring of 1861, he answered the call of the state’s rights governor of missouri, c.f. Jackson, to form militias to “repel the invader.” Technically, Missouri never joined the Confederacy, so Clemens’ brief stint as an irregular soldier can’t be classified as a time as a Confederate soldier, but since Clemens and his fellow militiamen knew full well they were going to fight the Confederate troops In the United States Army, such semantic distinctions are not important. the important thing is that clemens was not sure enough of his actions for his brother orion to know about them.

We will never know exactly what happened in that very brief period. He has given us a highly colored account, complete with misrepresentations of his age, in “A Private History of a Campaign that Failed.” Indeed, he was never fully candid about why he joined in the first place, but no doubt the intense feelings that moved so many young men to enlist and fight savagely for years did not move young Clemens. He deserted from the militia and joined Orion on a trip out West. Orion had worked energetically to support Lincoln’s election, and as a reward, he was given a government appointment, to work as the secretary of the Governor of the newly formed Nevada Territory. This was important work to the new government. Nevada provided silver on which the government was counting to keep it solvent, and to establish a firm union presence to help keep California in the Union was equally important. Orion’s position was essentially to be second in command, even serving as acting governor in the governor’s absence. For Samuel to abandon his states’ rights service to instead act as his brother’s private secretary reinforces our sense that Sam’s politics were lukewarm at best."By the Mark Twain!"

The civil war radically transformed the nation and many of the lives in it, and that was almost as true for sam clemens as it was for so many others. Sam Clemens planned to spend the few months the war was expected to last in the West, living off his savings while panning for silver and gold. as the war progressed, his savings dried up. he didn’t get rich, and faced with poverty again, he returned to the printing industry, this time on the publishing side. Partly because he was a gifted writer and partly because he had good political connections, the Virginia City Land Company hired him as a reporter. there he served another apprenticeship, this time in literary work. There he first used his famous pen name, “Mark Twain”, derived from his days on the river. the so-called “mark twain” literally means “at this point, two,” meaning that at a given point, the river is two fathoms (twelve feet) deep. this was the usual depth for the safe passage of a mississippi river steamboat. (Although in Virginia City, some of his friends interpreted “Mark Twain” to represent Clemens’ tendency to order two drinks at a time and mark them on the bar at his bar.) There he began working as an itinerant reporter, and the reputation he gained in Nevada spread until newspapers from California to New York sent him around the world to report on politics, art, fashion, business, anything that might entertain or inform. to the readers. His life as a reporter and later as a literary writer led him to make his home in Nevada, California, Washington, D.C., New York, Connecticut, England, Germany, France, and Italy, but never again in the Mississippi Valley. p>

While the war started a chain of events that physically removed Samuel Clemens from the Mississippi Valley, it did not imaginatively remove him. If anything, the war also forced Clemens to rethink what he believed. as he put it in a letter to his missouri friend jacob h. Burrough in a letter dated November 1, 1876,

The way he describes me, I can imagine what he was like, twenty-two years old. the portrait is correct. You think I’ve grown a little; I give you my word that there was room for it. you have described an inexperienced fool, a self-sufficient donkey, a mere human insect. . . . ignorance, intolerance, selfishness, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful giggle. . . . that’s what I was at 19-20; & that’s what the average 60-year-old southerner is today.

The process that began in 1860 did not end until his death in 1910, and in his imagination he endlessly revisited the Mississippi Valley, in one literary work after another, including the Golden Age (1871) “Old Times on the Mississippi” ( 1874), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins (1893), a series of sequels to Tom and huck stories and in “chapters of my autobiography”.

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