Literature and Life
Few writers have failed on so many things and yet made all those failures successful as Mark Twain did. He apprenticed as a typesetter and printer and then turned to mining. He penned a story he heard in a California bar with the unlikely name of “The Celebrated Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County”. It became a worldwide sensation, published in both English and French. Mark Twain became known for his wit and his satire in prose and in public speaking gained him the friendship and support of American presidents, European royalty, fellow artists and writers, as well as industrialists. He would earn a fortune and then just as easily lose it.
Mark Twain is perhaps best known for his “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” so no one should be surprised that among his favorite books he listed “Le Morte d’ Arthur” by Sir Thomas Mallory. Twain took the tales of King Arthur and spun them into the story of an American lad with a little of his second favorite book, “The Arabian Knights” thrown in for good measure. Another successful and noted American author, William Faulkner< called Mark Twain “the father of American literature” while many others consider him the greatest humorist the United States has ever had.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835 and his life was not an easy one. Three of his siblings died before reaching the age of twelve and when Twain was eleven years old, his father also died. He himself dropped out of school at age twelve to work, later educating himself at the public libraries he would frequent. His one goal in life was to become a steamboatman. “Pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary – from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.” Twain considered the pilot’s job the most important of all as the pilot had to “get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, must… actually know where these things are in the dark.”
Mark Twain did become a steamboat pilot although it took him two years to earn his pilot license. His pen name came from the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe water for a steamboat. Twain worked as a pilot on the Mississippi River until the second year of the War Between the States and then joined his brother in the Nevada Territory. In 1867, a local newspaper funded his trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East. It was on this trip that he met a young man and, upon seeing a picture of his sister, fell in love at first sight. He later married the man’s sister. The lived in New York state, Connecticut, and then Europe. Mark Twain died in New York City after the death of two of his daughters and his beloved wife.
Twain was born two weeks after Halley’s Comet’s closest approach in 1835. In 1909 he remarked upon this: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together’.” Twain was a great friend of Nikolas Tesla and the only surviving film of Twain was taken by another scientist, Thomas Edison. Twain also financed a girls’ science club in NYC.
In recent years the works of Mark Twain have been subject to censorship for his brilliant use of the colloquialisms of the period. I understand how several derogatory terms would be painful but I personally feel that serve to further educate us and exemplify the inequities that existed. Such knowledge could, if utilized, prevent future discrimination and continued politics that encourage such.
Upon hearing of Twain’s death, President William Howard Taft said: “Mark Twain gave pleasure – real intellectual enjoyment – to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come … His humor was American, but he was nearly as much appreciated by Englishmen and people of other countries as by his own countrymen. He has made an enduring part of American literature.” He wrote of the common man, used humor to unite the different social classes, and through it all, was as much a knight of the round table of the world as any that ever graced the world in literature and in life.