A pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens American writer and humorist, whose best work is characterized by broad, often irreverent humor or biting social satire. Twain’s writing is also known for realism of place and language, memorable characters, and hatred of hypocrisy and oppression.
Born in Florida, Missouri, Clemens moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, a Mississippi river port, when he was four years old. There he received a public school education. After the death of his father in 1847, Clemens was apprenticed to two Hannibal printers, and in 1851 he began setting type for and contributing sketches to his brother Orion’s Hannibal Journal. Subsequently he was a journeyman printer in Keokuk, Iowa; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and other cities. Later Clemens was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the American Civil War brought an end to travel on the river. In 1861 Clemens served briefly as a volunteer soldier in an irregular company of Confederate cavalry. Later that year he accompanied his brother to the newly created Nevada Territory, where he tried his hand at silver mining. In 1862 he became a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1863 he began signing his articles with the pseudonym “Mark Twain,” a Mississippi River phrase meaning two fathoms deep. After moving to San Francisco in 1864, Twain met the American writers Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, who encouraged him in his work. In 1865 Twain reworked a tale he had heard in the California gold fields; within months the author and the story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” had become national sensations.
In 1867 Twain lectured in New York City, and in the same year he visited Europe and the Holy Land. He wrote of these travels in The Innocents Abroad, a book burlesquing those aspects of Old World culture that impress American tourists. In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon. After living briefly in Buffalo, New York, the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Much of Twain’s best work was written in the 1870s and 1880s in Hartford or during the summers at Quarry Farm, near Elmira, New York. Roughing It recounts his early adventures as a miner and journalist; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer celebrates boyhood in a town on the Mississippi River; A Tramp Abroad describes a walking trip through the Black Forest of Germany and the Swiss Alps; The Prince and the Pauper, a children’s book, focuses on switched identities in Tudor England; Life on the Mississippi combines an autobiographical account of his experiences as a river pilot with a visit to the Mississippi nearly two decades after he left it; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court satirizes oppression in feudal England.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the sequel to Tom Sawyer, is considered Twain’s masterpiece. The book is the story of Huck Finn, a boy who flees his father by rafting down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave, Jim. The pair’s adventures show Huck the cruelty of which men and women are capable. Another theme of the novel is the conflict between Huck’s feelings of friendship with Jim, who is one of the few people he can trust, and his knowledge that he is breaking the laws of the time by helping Jim escape. Huckleberry Finn, which is almost entirely narrated from Huck’s point of view, is noted for its authentic language and for its deep commitment to freedom. Huck’s adventures also provide the reader with a panorama of American life along the Mississippi before the Civil War. Twain’s skill in capturing the rhythms of that life help make the book one of the masterpieces of American literature. In 1884 Twain formed the firm Charles L. Webster and Company to publish his works and other writers’ books, notably Personal Memoirs by the American general and president Ulysses S. Grant. A disastrous investment in an automatic typesetting machine led to the firm’s bankruptcy in 1894. Twain’s successful worldwide lecture tour and the book based on those travels, Following the Equator, paid off his debts.
Twain’s work during the 1890s and the 1900s is marked by growing pessimism and bitterness—the result of his business reverses and, later, the deaths of his wife and two daughters. Significant works of this period are Pudd’nhead Wilson, a novel about miscegenation and murder, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a sentimental biography. Twain’s other later writings include short stories, the best known of which are “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” and “The War Prayer” ; philosophical, social, and political essays; the manuscript of “The Mysterious Stranger,” an uncompleted piece that was published posthumously in 1916; and autobiographical dictations.
Twain’s work was inspired by the unconventional West, and the popularity of his work marked the end of the domination of American literature by New England writers. He is justly renowned as a humorist but was not always appreciated by the writers of his time as anything more than that. Successive generations of writers, however, recognized the role that Twain played in creating a truly American literature. He portrayed uniquely American subjects in a humorous and colloquial, yet poetic, language. His success in creating this plain but evocative language precipitated the end of American reverence for British and European culture and for the more formal language associated with these cultures. His adherence to American themes, settings, and language set him apart from many other novelists of the day and had a powerful effect on such later American writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, both of whom pointed to Twain as an inspiration for their own writing.
In Twain’s later years he wrote less, but he became a celebrity, frequently speaking out on public issues; he came to be known for the white linen suit he always wore when making public appearances. Twain received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1907. When he died he left an uncompleted autobiography, which was eventually edited by his secretary, Albert Bigelow Paine, and was published in 1924.