To us lovers of all things Mark Twain, today is a major red letter day. Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born as the sixth child of John Clemens and Jane (Lampton) Clemens on this day in 1835. The small town, where he was born, was Florida, Missouri, located just a couple of hundred miles from the then frontier. When Samuel was four, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, which is now known as Mark Twain’s hometown.
Samuel’s family background was steeped in the traditions of the deep south and honed in the slave-holding town of Hannibal. This background of rugged frontier and Southern values came through in many of Samuel’s famous writings. The best examples are found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and especially in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Anyone acquainted with the character, Tom Sawyer, knows that Tom is the alter-ego of Samuel Clemens. Young Sam was already a tobacco smoker by age nine. He hated school, early on. The youthful Clemens was also the ringleader of a small band of pranksters.
In March of 1847, Clemens’ father died, this led to the end of young Sam’s formal education. He became a printer’s apprentice and was employed under his older brother, Orion, at the “Hannibal Journal”. The journalism trade, at the time, was awash in frontier humor. The columnists’ grist of tall tales, jokes, and satire merged well into Clemens’ personality.
Then, to satisfy a boyhood dream, Clemens’ decided to become a steamboat river pilot. He was an apprentice under the guidance of Horace Bixby, the pilot of the “Paul Jones”. Clemens’ became a fully licensed river pilot at age 24. He worked and revelled in the riverboat captain lifestyle until 1861 when the American Civil War brought his piloting career to an abrupt end.
According to Twain’s autobiography, Clemens returned to Hannibal where he enlisted as a Confederate soldier. Very soon, he didn’t find the CSA Army at all, to his liking. Clemens deserted the rebel military and joined the thousands of young men who were seeking fortunes in the wild west. He and his brother Orion, ended up in the Virginia City, Nevada area hoping to srike it rich with silver and gold. The prospecting bug never panned out for the Clemens brothers.
Samuel Clemens was hired as a staffer at the “Virginia City Territorial Enterprise”. It was at this newspaper where he became a regionally popular, established news reporter and humoristic writer. While at this paper, in 1863, Clemensadopted his pseudomnym, Mark Twain. His pen name was derived from the river piloting term that indicates safe boating conditions. During this stretch of his life, Twain published Innocents Abroad. The critics unkindly panned the book, so he shelved his literary career for awhile. He also married Olivia Langdon in February, 1870.
The new family quickly became debt-ridden, but Innocents Abroad resurged and sold 67,000 copies. His publisher requested another book. So, at Olivia’s request, the Clemens family moved to the more laid back town of Hartford Connecticut. There, Twain documented the post Gold Rush days in Roughing It. The book was published in 1872. That same year, the couple’s son, Langdon contracted Diphtheria and died. Daughter Susan was born. However, Roughing It was not as successful as hoped, so the family came under more financial strain.
After a lecture tour of Europe, Twain and Charles Dudley Warner collaborated in the writing of The Gilded Age. The book describes the widespread corruption and exploitation by the wealthy class at the expense of the public welfare. His readers loved what they read. The book marked the new focus away from journalism onto the literary realm. The Gilded Age should be read and enjoyed by people these days, too. There is much to learn and relate to.
In 1876, with his popularity already huge, Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The tome elevated his status, sky high. In 1880, his third child, Jean, was born. Then in 1882, he published The Prince and the Pauper. And in 1885, his most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn went into print. At this stage of his life, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was critically acclaimed as the greatest character writer of his day.
At this point, I’ll include an unsolicited plug for both volumes of Mark Twain’s Autobiography. Both books are extremely long, but well worth reading for anyone who has deeply enjoyed Twain’s writings.
Twain went on to enjoy a lengthy life, he survived his wife, Olivia, and his three children, Langdon, Susan, and Jean. He was honored with several honorary literary degrees. His letters, articles, tall tales, short stories, and the balance of his books were published.
On April 21, 1910 as Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky, Samuel Langhorne Clemens passed away. “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”
The Blue Jay of Happiness loves this Mark Twain quote as his own lifestyle description. “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young.”