TWAIN, MARK pseud. of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910, American author, b. Florida, Mo. As humorist, narrator, and social observer, Twain is unsurpassed in American literature. His novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a masterpiece of humor, characterization, and realism, has been called the first (and sometimes the best) modern American novel.
Early Life and Works
After the death of his father in 1847, young Clemens was apprenticed to a printer in Hannibal, Mo., the Mississippi River town where he spent most of his boyhood. He first began writing for his brother’s newspaper there, and later he worked as a printer in several major Eastern cities. In 1857, Clemens went to New Orleans on his way to make his fortune in South America, but instead he became a Mississippi River pilot—hence his pseudonym, "Mark Twain," which was the river call for a depth of water of two fathoms. The Civil War put an end to river traffic, and in 1862 Clemens went west to Carson City, Nev., where he failed in several get-rich-quick schemes. He eventually began writing for the Virginia City Examiner and later was a newspaperman in San Francisco.
Soon the humorist "Mark Twain" emerged, a writer of tall tales and absurd anecdotes. He first won fame with the comic masterpiece "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," first published in 1865 in the New York Saturday Press and later (1867) used as the title piece for a volume of stories and sketches. When he returned from a trip to Hawaii financed by the Sacramento Union in 1866, Twain became a successful humorous lecturer. The articles he wrote on a journey to the Holy Land were published in 1869 as The Innocents Abroad. In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon of Elmira, N.Y., and settled down in Hartford, Conn., to be "respectable," although Roughing It (1872) presented anecdotes of his less genteel past on the Western frontier.
In Hartford, Twain wrote some of his best work: The Gilded Age (1873), a satirical novel written with Charles Dudley Warner about materialism and corruption in the 1870s; two evocations of his boyhood in Hannibal, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a novel for children that blends the simplicity of a fairy tale with realistic social criticism; and the nonfictional Life on the Mississippi (1883). He also produced a travel book, A Tramp Abroad (1880), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), in which satirical overtones reflect a profound seriousness.
Later Life and Works
Some of Twain’s later works are forced attempts at humor— The American Claimant (1892) and two sequels to Tom Sawyer. His distinctly bitter Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) underscores his increasingly melancholy attitude. Over the years Twain had invested a great deal of money in unsuccessful printing and publishing ventures, and in 1893 he found himself deeply in debt. To recoup his losses he wearily lectured his way around the world, being funny at whatever cost, and recording his experiences in Following the Equator (1897).
His later life was shadowed by the deaths of two of his daughters and by the long illness and death in 1904 of his wife. Some critics think that the fierce pessimism of his later works derives from these tragedies. Whatever the reason, he abandoned the optimistic tone of The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), and wrote such somber works as The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899), What Is Man? (1905), The Mysterious Stranger (1916), and Letters from the Earth (1962). The strange contradiction in personality between the genial humorist and the declared misanthrope has long intrigued commentators and makes Twain a fascinating biographical subject.
Twain’s Masterpiece: Huckleberry Finn
Twain’s literary reputation rests most particularly on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In its hero, a resourceful, unconventional boy with an innate sense of human values, Twain created one of the most memorable characters in fiction. The narrative device of a raft carrying Huck and a runaway slave down the Mississippi enabled Twain to achieve a realistic portrait of American life in the 19th cent. Through his use of authentic vernacular speech he revolutionized the language of American fiction and exerted a great influence on many subsequent American writers. In 1990 a handwritten manuscript of the first half of the novel was discovered that includes a number of minor changes and an episode that was left out of the original published version; these passages were included in an edition published in 1996.
See his collected letters, ed. by E. M. Branch et al. (1987); his correspondence with William Dean Howells, ed. by F. Anderson et al. (1967); his notebooks, ed. by F. Anderson et al. (3 vol., 1975-80); his autobiography, ed. by C. Neider (1959); biographies by J. Kaplan (1966, repr. 2003), A. Hoffman (1997), F. Kaplan (2003), and R. Powers (2005); studies by W. D. Howells (1910), B. De Voto (1932), H. N. Smith (1967), V. W. Brooks (rev. ed. 1933, repr. 1970), and W. Gibson (1976); F. Anderson and K. M. Sanderson, ed., Mark Twain: The Critical Heritage (1972).