Mark Twain (1835-1910), American humorist and novelist, captured a world audience with stories of boyhood adventure and with commentary on man's shortcomings that is humorous even while it probes, often bitterly, the roots of human behavior.
Bred among American traditions of frontier journalism, and influenced by such cracker-box humorists as Artemus Ward and by the tradition of the tall tale, Mark Twain scored his first successes as a writer and lecturer with his straight-faced, laconic recitation of incredible comic incidents in simple, direct, colloquial language. His was an oral style, and his principal contribution is sometimes thought to be the creation of a genuinely native idiom.
Some contemporaries considered Mark Twain's language uncouth and crude when compared with the well-mannered prose of William Dean Howells or the intricately contrived expression of Henry James. Though conventionally less disciplined and less consistently successful than either, Mark Twain surpassed both in popular esteem and is remembered with them as foremost in the creation of prose fiction in the United States during the late 19th century.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835, in the frontier village of Florida, Mo. He spent his boyhood in nearby Hannibal, on the bank of the Mississippi River, observing its busy life, fascinated by its romance, but chilled by the violence and bloodshed it bred. Twelve years old when his lawyer father died, he began working as an apprentice, then a compositor, with local printers, contributing occasional squibs to local newspapers. At 17 his comic sketch "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" was published by a sportsmen's magazine in Boston.
In 1853 Clemens began wandering as a journeyman printer to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, settling briefly with his brother, Orion, in lowa before setting out at 22 to make his fortune, he hoped, beside the lush banks of the Amazon River in South America. Instead, traveling down the Mississippi River, he became a steamboat river pilot until the Civil War interrupted traffic.
In 1861 Clemens traveled to Nevada, where he speculated carelessly in timber and silver mining. He settled down to newspaper work in Virginia City, until his reckless pen and redheaded temper brought him into conflict with local authorities; it seemed profitable to escape to California. Meanwhile he had adopted the pen name of Mark Twain, a riverman's term for water that was safe, but only just safe, for navigation.
In San Francisco Mark Twain came under the influence of Bret Harte. Artemus Ward encouraged Mark Twain to write The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865), which first brought him national attention. Most of his western writing was hastily, often carelessly, done, and he later did little to preserve it.
In 1865 the Sacramento Union commissioned Mark Twain to report on a new excursion service to Hawaii. His accounts as published in the newspaper provided the basis for his first successful lectures and years later were collected in Letters from the Sandwich Islands (1938) and Letters from Honolulu (1939). His travel accounts were so well received that he contracted in 1866 to become a traveling correspondent for the Alta California; he would circle the globe, dispatching letters. The first step was to travel to New York by ship; his accounts were collected in Mark Twain's Travels with Mr. Brown (1940).
In June 1867 Mark Twain left New York and went to Europe and the Holy Land, sending accounts to the California paper and to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. They were fresh and racy, alert, informed, and sidesplittingly funny. Their accent was American western humor; their traditional theme was the decay of transatlantic institutions when compared with the energetic freshness of the western life-style. Yet the humor also exposed the traveling American innocents as they haggled through native bazaars, completely innocent of their own outlandish appearance. Nor was their author exempt from ridicule, for Mark Twain usually wrote of "What fools we mortals be, " accepting his place among the erring race of man. The letters were later revised as The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim's Progress (1869), and the book immediately made Mark Twain a popular favorite, in demand especially as a lecturer who could keep large audiences in gales of laughter.
In 1870 Twain married Olivia Langdon. After a brief residence in upstate New York as an editor and part owner of the Buffalo Express, he moved to Hartford, Conn., where he lived for 20 years; there three daughters were born, and prosperity as a writer and lecturer (in England in 1872 and 1873) seemed guaranteed. Roughing It (1872) recounted Mark Twain's travels to Nevada and reprinted some of the Sandwich Island letters. Neither it, A Tramp Abroad (1880), nor Following the Equator (1898) had popular or critical reception equal to that of The Innocents Abroad.
With Charles Dudley Warner, Mark Twain wrote The Gilded Age (1873), a quizzical satire on financial speculation and political chicanery, which introduced the character of Colonel Beriah Sellers, a backcountry squire plagued by schemes which might, but never did, bring him sudden fortune. By this time Mark Twain was famous. Anything he wrote would sell, but his imagination flagged. He collected miscellaneous writings into Sketches New and Old (1875) and tried to fit Colonel Sellers into a new book, which finally materialized years later as The American Claimant (1891).
Meanwhile Mark Twain's account of steamboating experiences for the Atlantic Monthly (1875; expanded to Life on the Mississippi, 1883) captured the beauty, glamour, and menace of the Mississippi. Boyhood memories of life beside that river were written into The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1875), which immediately attracted young and old. With more exotic and foreign settings, The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) attracted readers also, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), in which Mark Twain again returned to the river scenes he knew best, was considered vulgar by many contemporaries.
"Tom" and "Huck"
Tom Sawyer, better organized than Huckleberry Finn, is a narrative of innocent boyhood play that inadvertently discovers evil as Tom and Huck witness a murder by Injun Joe in a graveyard at midnight. The boys run away, are thought dead, but turn up at their own funeral. Tom and Huck decide to seek out the murderer, and the reward offered for his capture. It is Tom and his sweetheart who, while lost in a cave, discover the hiding place of Injun Joe. Though the townspeople unwittingly seal the murderer in the cave, they close the entrance only to keep adventuresome boys like Tom out of future trouble. In the end, it is innocent play and boyish adventuring which really triumph.
Huckleberry Finn is Mark Twain's finest creation. Huck lacks Tom's imagination; he is a simple boy with little education. One measure of his character is a proneness to deceit, which seems instinctive, a trait shared by other wild things and relating him to nature—in opposition to Tom's tradition-grounded, book-learned, imaginative deceptions. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a loosely strung series of adventures, can be viewed as the story of a quest for freedom and an escape from what society requires in exchange for success. Joined in flight by a black companion, Jim, who seeks freedom from slavery, Huck discovers that the Mississippi is peaceful (though he is found to be only partially correct) but that the world along its shores is marred by deceit, including his own, and by cruelty and murder. When the raft on which he and Jim are floating down the river is invaded by two confidence men, Huck first becomes their assistant in swindles but is finally the agent of their exposure.
Jim throughout is a frightened but faithful friend. Huck is troubled by the sin which in the world's eyes he is committing by helping a slave to escape. The thematic climax of the book occurs when Huck decides that if he must go to hell for that sin, very well then, he will go to hell. And he does, as leaving the river he enters again into the world dominated by Tom, which in its seemingly innocent deceit presents an alarming analog to adult pretense. All ends suddenly; Jim has been free all the time, and good people offer to adopt and civilize Huck. But he will have none of it: "I can't stand it, " he says. "I been there before."
Whatever its faults, Huckleberry Finn is a classic. Variously interpreted, it is often thought to suggest more than it reveals, speaking of what man has done to confuse himself about his right relation to nature. It can also be thought to treat of man's failures in dealing with his fellows and of the corruption so deeply engrained that man's only escape is in flight, perhaps even from himself. Yet it is also an apparently artless story of adventure and escape so simply and directly told that Ernest Hemingway once said that all American literature begins with this book. Its language seems the instinctual language of all men—"a joyous exorcism, " one critic has said.
Mark Twain, said H. L. Mencken, was the first important author to write "genuinely colloquial and native American." Huck, who shuns civilization, seems a symbol of simple honesty and conscience. His boy's-eye view of a world distorted by pretense and knavery anticipates the use of a young narrator by numerous important American authors, including Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and J. D. Salinger. Yet Tom, not Huck, seems to have remained Mark Twain's favorite, giving title to Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), and to unpublished tales later collected in Hannibal, Huck, and Tom (1969).
Mark Twain's early books were sold by subscription; they sold well, for Twain prided himself on gauging public taste. Many were not issued until subscription agents had secured enough advance orders to make them surely profitable. As a traveling lecturer, he helped sell his books, and his books helped pack his lectures. He was probably the best-known and certainly among the most prosperous writers of his generation. Unsatisfied, he reached for more. When The Prince and the Pauper did not sell as he thought it should, he established his own publishing firm, which did well for a while.
But Mark Twain was soon in serious trouble. For several years he had been supplying large sums toward the perfecting of a typesetting machine, convinced that it would make his fortune. But in 1891 he retreated with his family to Europe, where they could live more cheaply. In 1894 the publishing company went bankrupt, and the typesetter failed in competition with less complex rivals. Mark Twain was deeply in debt.
Meanwhile, in 1893, Henry Huttleston Rogers, a director of the Standard Oil Company, had assumed control of Mark Twain's financial affairs. While Mark Twain lectured around the world to pay his debts, Rogers placated creditors, invested his royalties, and arranged new publishing contracts. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), an awkwardly constructed story of two boys, one of them African American, switched in their cradles, is sometimes remembered as Mark Twain's second-best book, but it brought little immediate financial assistance. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), a ponderous paean to innocence triumphant, was so serious that Mark Twain at first would not allow his name to be associated with it. Following the Equator (1897) was dedicated to Rogers's son.
Mark Twain and his family remained in Europe, saddened by the death of one daughter and seeking help for the apparently incurable illness of another. Like his Colonel Sellers, Mark Twain looked desperately for a scheme to recoup his fortune. Rogers finally steered him out of debt and arranged a publishing contract which ensured Mark Twain and his heirs a handsome income.
On his return to the United States in 1900, Mark Twain rose to new heights of popularity. His publicized insistence on paying every creditor had made him something of a public hero. He was widely sought as a speaker, and he seemed proud to be the genial companion of people like the Rockefellers and Andrew Carnegie, though in private he opposed the principles for which they seemed to stand. His writings grew increasingly bitter, especially after his wife's death in 1905. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900) exposed corruption in a small, typical American town. King Leopold's Soliloquy (1905) attacked hypocrisy in treatment of inhabitants of the Congo, fulminating against what Mark Twain called "the damn'd human race." What Is Man? (1906) was a diatribe of despair. Extracts from Adam's Diary (1904) had humorously presented man as a blunderer; Eve's Diary (1906), written partly in memory of his wife, showed man saved from bungling only through the influence of a good woman. Many of his later indictments of human cupidity were, he thought, so severe that they could not be published for 100 years. But when some appeared in Letters from the Earth (1962), they seemed hardly more bitter than what had appeared before.
In 1906 Mark Twain began to dictate his autobiography to Albert B. Paine (his literary executor), recording scattered memories without chronological arrangement. Portions from it were published in periodicals later that year. Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909), a burlesque Mark Twain had puttered over for years, partly disguised his pessimism with a veneer of rollicking humor as it detailed the low esteem in which man is held by celestial creatures. With the income from the excerpts of his autobiography, he built a large house in Redding, Conn., which he named Stormfield. There, after several trips to Bermuda to bolster his waning health, he died on April 21, 1910.
Mark Twain had been working over several drafts of a final bitter book, and from these Paine and his publisher "edited" The Mysterious Stranger (1916), a volume which William H. Gibson, in presenting complete texts of versions of the story in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1969), designated as "an editorial fraud." As scholars work over the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California, more volumes containing unpublished writings or correspondence will appear. Few, however, can be expected to alter the esteem and affection in which Mark Twain is held. His books have been translated into most of the languages of Europe, where with Theodore Dreiser and Jack London, he is often thought among the best to express, or expose, the spirit of the American people.
Further Reading on Mark Twain
Portions of Mark Twain's autobiography were published by Albert B. Paine, Mark Twain's Autobiography (2 vols., 1924). Parts which had earlier seemed too bitter or personal were brought together by Bernard DeVoto in Mark Twain in Eruption (1940). Charles Neider included some material not previously published in his chronologically arranged The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959). The complete text is being prepared for publication by the editors of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California.
Of the making of books about Mark Twain there seems to be no end. The authorized biography, Albert B. Paine, Mark Twain, A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (3 vols. 1912; repr. 1935), though often corrected by later writers, is still important. So are such reminiscent accounts as William Dean Howells, My Mark Twain (1910); Mary Lawton, A Lifetime with Mark Twain (1925); and Clara Clemens, My Father, Mark Twain (1931). Modern biographies are J. De Lancey Ferguson, Mark Twain, Man and Legend (1943), and Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966). Mark Twain's early years are discussed in M. M. Brashear, Mark Twain: Son of Missouri (1934), and Dixon Wecter, Sam Clemens of Hannibal (1952).
Books on specific aspects of Mark Twain's life include Ivan Benson, Mark Twain's Western Years (1938); Samuel L. Webster, Mark Twain, Business Man (1946); Edgar M. Branch, The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain (1950); Kenneth R. Andrews, Nook Farm: Mark Twain's Hartford Circle (1950); and Louis J. Budd, Mark Twain, Social Philosopher (1962). Edward C. Wagenknecht, Mark Twain: The Man and His Work (1935; 3d ed. 1967), contains valuable bibliographical material; see also Merle Johnson, A Bibliography of the Works of Mark Twain (1935).
Van Wyck Brooks, The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920; rev. ed. 1933), answered by Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain's America (1932), created a controversy about Mark Twain's literary integrity; see also Lewis Leary, ed., Mark Twain's Wound (1962). Important recent critical studies include Walter Blair, Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960); Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (1962); and James M. Cox, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966). See also the introductions to different editions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Lionel Trilling (1948) and T. S. Eliot (1950).