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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, one of America’s most popular and humorous authors, was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. As a young child, his health was poor, but he outgrew his health problems and turned into a mischievous boy, much like Tom Sawyer.
In 1839, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he spent his boyhood years, swimming and fishing in the Mississippi River and playing in the nearby woods. As an adventurous child, he ran away from home and almost drowned in the Mississippi several times. He often spent his summers at his Uncle Quarles farm, where he was involved in the pranks of a “gang” of boys, much like the ones found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. During his stays at the farm, he also witnessed some disturbing incidents, like slave beatings and murder, events that he would later incorporate into his novels.
In 1847, Sam’s father died, and the young Sam was forced to leave school and become a printer’s apprentice in order to help support his impoverished family. In 1853, he left Hannibal to pursue his printing work in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Iowa. From 1857 until the Civil War broke out in 1861, he served as the pilot of a riverboat on the Mississippi River, an experience that he later used in creating his novels. After the war, he went to Nevada with his brother Orion to prospect for silver and gold, but he did not like the rigors of the West. He returned to the East where he worked as a reporter.
On February 2, 1863, Samuel Clemens’ writings first appeared in a newspaper, under the pseudonym of “Mark Twain,” which was a boating phrase that indicated two fathoms of water and that he had heard as a boy. In 1864, he went to San Francisco, where he worked as a reporter and wrote for local magazines. In 1865, the New York Saturday Press printed one of his stories and introduced him as an author in the East.
Having more financial resources at his command, Samuel Clemens began to travel extensively. In 1866, he went to Hawaii, and the next year he toured Europe and the Holy Land, the basis for his travel book entitled Innocents Abroad. Wherever he went, Clemens observed life and people in order to gather material for his writings. He most appreciated the comedy he saw around him, but at times he also had a gloomy outlook. Both these views of life are developed in his novels.
On the European voyage, Clemens met Charles Langdon, who later introduced him in 1867 to his sister Olivia. Clemens immediately fell in love with her and married her in 1870 after a long courtship. They had a son who died in infancy and three daughters. The family lived in Hartford, Connecticut from 1871 until 1891, the period of Mark Twain’s best writing. In 1872, he published his first book Roughing It (about his experiences in the western United States), quickly followed by his first novel, The Guilded Age, in 1873. In 1876, he published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Then came A Tramp Abroad about his walking trip in Europe (1880), The Prince and the Pauper which satirizes England (1882), Life on the Mississippi about his time as a riverboat pilot (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn considered to be Twain’s masterpiece of writing (1885), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court which is another satire about human insensitivity (1889).
The last twenty years of Samuel Clemen’s life were not happy ones. Despite his extra-ordinary sense of humor, he grew depressed and melancholy, wrestled with his belief in God, and shifted between liberal and conservative social ideas. He also invested in many financial schemes, almost all of which were failures. In order to pay back his debts, he went on an extensive lecture tour in Europe in 1895 and 1896. During the tour, his favorite daughter, Suzy, passed away. His wife Olivia, whose health had never been strong, grew worse and died in 1904. His youngest daughter, Jean died in 1909. As Twain grew bitter about his losses and his own failing health, his writing became pessimistic, attacking U. S. governmental policies and man’s basic selfishness.
Despite his worsening condition in the 1900’s, Mark Twain received many honors and much recognition for his writings. In 1901, he received an honorary degree from Yale and in 1902, from the University of Missouri. In 1907, he received an honorary degree from Oxford. His last steady pleasure was endless games of billiards that he played with his biographer, Alber B Paine. Clemens died of Angina on April 21, 1910.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876 and in the same year, Twain began its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he called “another boy’s book.” He and William Dean Howells, the editor of Atlantic Monthly, had a debate about Tom Sawyer that centered around the idea of having Tom “drift into manhood.” Twain later gave up the idea of carrying Tom beyond boyhood; instead, he chose to develop the character of Huckleberry Finn.
Twain seemed to take little interest in the Huck Finn book and wrote it “more to be at work than anything else.” He set it aside for four years. In 1880, he took it out and wrote a little more, only to abandon it once again. He firmly believed in the theory of unconscious composition and that a book should write itself and not be forced; the book, which he referred to as Huck Finn’s Autobiography, refused to comply. In the summer of 1882, he was possessed with a burst of literary energy that was more intense than anything he had experienced for a number of years. It is possible that this was due to the visit to the Mississippi that he had made earlier in the year. No matter the reason, Twain felt rejuvenated and again turned to the writing of Huckleberry Finn. By the summer of 1883, he wrote to his publisher, “I’ve just finished writing a book and modesty compels me to say its a rattling good one too.” Others have judged it as more than rattling good. Ernest Hemingway remarked that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”