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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Mark Twain's life illustrates a point he makes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer-that there is no single, simple formula for success. A school dropout at eleven, he spent twenty years in a variety of jobs. He was a typesetter, but, by his own admission, not a very good one. He piloted riverboats, but the Civil War put him out of work. He tried soldiering-and deserted. He spent a disastrous year mining gold and silver.
In desperation, he became a newspaper reporter in Nevada. Running afoul of the law, he fled to San Francisco, found another newspaper job-and got fired.
Twain was thirty now, and about this time he sat in his room, pointed a gun at his head, and contemplated pulling the trigger. It was a good thing he held back. For he soon discovered that he had a talent for "literature," as he wrote his brother, "of a low order-i.e., humorous." Over the next two decades, he wrote several books, which made him rich and world famous. Among those books were two of America's most important contributions to world literature: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Surely this is the type of startling reversal worthy of Tom Sawyer-the boy who breaks every rule imaginable, longs for a romantic death, and ends up a rich and revered member of his community. How did Twain manage this feat? For an answer, you should take a close look at the man, his art, and the times in which he lived.
Twain was born on November 30, 1835, in the frontier hamlet of Florida, Missouri. His parents named the sickly child, their fifth, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. (He adopted the pen name Mark Twain in 1863.)
In 1839, John Clemens moved his family from their poor, two- room shack in Florida to Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Hannibal boasted only 450 citizens when they arrived, but the town seemed destined to thrive and raise the Clemens family's fortunes with it. Hannibal grew, but the Clemenses did not prosper. Although John Clemens became one of the town's most respected citizens, he went bankrupt, lost all his property in Hannibal, and died of pneumonia in 1847. Samuel was eleven at the time of his father's death. His mother, Jane Clemens, took him into the room where his father's coffin lay and made him promise to behave.
"I will promise anything," Twain would remember saying, "if you don't make me go to school! Anything!"
"No Sammy; you need not go to school anymore. Only promise to be a better boy," his mother said. "Promise not to break my heart."
You will hear echoes of Jane Clemens in Tom Sawyer. Twain modeled Tom's Aunt Polly after his mother, whom he called his "first and closest friend." Aunt Polly is not Jane Clemens with a different name and a frontier dialect, however. Jane Clemens was stronger and quicker than Polly. When defending the oppressed, Twain would remember, she was "the most eloquent person I have heard speak."
For two years after his father's death, Samuel worked as an apprentice to a Hannibal printer. In 1850 his older brother, Orion, bought a local newspaper. Samuel went to work for him, but Orion ran such an unprofitable operation that Samuel often went without pay.
In 1853, at age seventeen, Samuel set off on his own. For two years he worked as a typesetter in St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia before returning to the Mississippi Valley and working once more for Orion, who was now a printer in Keokuk, Iowa.
At this point, Samuel had published several short pieces in Orion's newspaper 2and a humorous sketch in a Boston magazine. Yet he had no desire to make writing his life's work. He left Keokuk in November 1856, and in the spring he persuaded a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River to teach him his trade. He spent the next few years steering steamboats up and down the Mississippi. In April 1861, the Civil War halted river traffic between the North and South and put Clemens out of work.
Clemens was unhappy to leave the river. He loved the work and its high pay. Besides, as he wrote in 1875, "A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth...."
In Chapter 6 of Tom Sawyer, Twain speaks of Huck Finn in similar terms. "Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will... he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody...."
In Iowa, Samuel's brother Orion had backed Abraham Lincoln's 1860 race for the U.S. presidency. His reward was an appointment to a high administrative post in the Nevada Territory. He went with Orion and spent a year unsuccessfully prospecting for gold and silver in Nevada. Broke, he took a job writing for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, where for the first time he began signing his pieces "Mark Twain"- the river call for a depth of two fathoms.
Precisely how he chose that name is a mystery. Clemens said he "confiscated" it from a newspaperman who wrote for the New Orleans Picayune in the 1850s. However, scholars can find no record of any writer's using that name before Clemens. In Virginia City, Clemens used the river term in a unique way. He would tell bartenders to "mark twain"- that is, to add two more drinks to his bill. Scholars believe it's likely he invented the New Orleans journalist story to disguise his pen name's link to the barroom after he became "respectable" in the East.
After fleeing to California and losing his newspaper job there, Twain wrote sketches for a humor magazine. He published a tall tale in a New York magazine in late 1865. The story-"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"- was reprinted in newspapers all over the country, and marked the true start of Twain's writing career.
In January 1867, he went to New York City to write a series of travel letters for a California newspaper. He continued writing dispatches for the newspaper after he joined a group of wealthy tourists bound for Europe and the Holy Land.
The trip took five months and had two important consequences for Twain. First, it provided him with material for a book, The Innocents Abroad, which brought him fame when it was published in 1869. Second, the trip led to his meeting Olivia ("Livy") Langdon, who would become his wife. Livy's brother had gone on the trip and introduced Twain to his sister afterwards. Twain and Livy were married in February 1870 and went to live in Buffalo, New York. Some scholars believe that Twain's description of Tom and Becky's courtship in Tom Sawyer is a parody (take-off) of his own bumpy courtship of Livy.