Samuel Langhorne Clemens
November 30, 1835. Halley’s Comet burned brightly in the night
sky. The little town of Florida,
Missouri was quiet. In one home, however, lights were shining and
people hurried about inside. This was the
night that Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born.
Sam spent his childhood on the banks of the Mississippi
river. Although he was born
in the town of Florida, he grew up
in Hannibal, Missouri. Hannibal
was the inspiration for the setting in Mark Twain’s masterpieces Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. As a
child, Sam dreamed of becoming one of the steamboat men who operated the river
boats that churned up and down the Mississippi.
When Sam was eleven, his father passed away, leaving the family
with little financial support. Sam
became an apprentice to a printer. In
1850 Sam began to work for his brother Orion, who ran the Hannibal
This exposure to words helped to develop in him a love for
writing. In 1852 Sam published his first
story. “The Dandy
Frightening the Squatter" was published in the Boston Carpet-Bag.
During his time as a printer, Sam refined his humorous
writing style. By 1856, he was
proficient enough to be hired by the Keokuk Saturday Post to write about
his upcoming trip to South America. As he traveled down the Mississippi,
however, Sam changed his mind and apprenticed himself to be a riverboat
pilot. For four and a half years, Sam
Clemens rode up and down the Mississippi
fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a steamboat man.
In 1861, Clemens joined the Confederate Army after the Civil
War halted traffic on the Mississippi. He spent a few uneventful weeks as a
volunteer before he deserted to join his abolitionist brother Orion in Nevada.
It was in Nevada
and later in California that
Samuel Langhorne Clemens transitioned into Mark Twain. Clemens got the idea for his pen name from
the call for safe water when he worked as a riverboat pilot. “Mark Twain” means two fathoms, or the safe
water depth. Some, however, speculate
that “Mark Twain” is a reference to his wild drinking habits.
In 1864, Clemens moved to California
where he worked as a newspaperman. One
newspaper he worked for was The
Californian, published by the famous author Bret Harte. Three years later, Clemens embarked on a
grand tour of Europe and the Middle East. It was this trip that served as the
inspiration for his first best-seller: The Innocents Abroad.
The same year that Sam left for his grand tour, he was
introduced to the fragile sister of a friend.
Olivia Langdon suffered from tuberculosis of the spine throughout her
teenage years, but she was a model of gentility and grace. Sam worshipped Olivia and courted her with
hundreds of love letters. He wrote one
such letter on May 12, 1869: “Out of the
depths of my happy heart wells a great tide of love and prayer for this
priceless treasure that is confided to my life-long keeping. You cannot see its intangible waves as they
flow towards you, darling, but in these lines you will hear, as it were, the
distant beating of the surf.”
In February of 1869, the couple announced their
engagement. They were married the
following year in Olivia’s hometown of Elmira, New
A year later, the newlyweds moved to Hartford,
Connecticut where Sam had built a
nineteen-room Gothic Victorian mansion for his bride. It was here that their four children were
born: A boy who lived only a year,
followed by Suzy in 1872, Clara in 1874, and Jean in 1880. During the nineteen years the family lived at
Hartford, the mansion became a hub
of the literary circle surrounding Mark Twain as he grew even more famous. While he lived at Hartford,
Sam wrote a large percentage of the body of his works. Tom
Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the
Pauper, and Huckleberry Finn were
all written during that time.
In1891 the fairytale ended when the Clemenses’
lavish lifestyle caught up with them. Hartford
house was closed and the entire family moved to Europe. In 1896 Sam embarked on a world tour
accompanied by his wife and second daughter, attempting to regain some of the
fortune which had been lost to debt and bad investments. During the tour, Sam received word that his
favorite daughter Suzy had died of spinal meningitis. She was twenty-three years old.
The family remained in Europe until
1902, when they moved to Riverdale, New
another tragedy loomed on the horizon when Olivia’s health began to
deteriorate. Doctors advised that she be
separated from Sam, so the couple spent months at a time without seeing each
other. It was recommended that Olivia
travel to the warmer climate of Italy
in order to regain her health. After six
months, however, Olivia passed away in June of 1904.
The loss of
both his daughter and wife plunged Sam into a dark depression. In an essay on God, he expressed his anger
and despair at the seeming absence of a loving Creator. “If men neglected “God’s poor” and “God’s
stricken and helpless ones” as He does, what would be come of them? The answer is to be found in those dark lands
where man follows His example and turns his indifferent back upon them: they get no help at all; they cry, and plead
and pray in vain, they linger and suffer, and miserably die.” (From “Thoughts of God”)
Twain’s writing style evolved from one of light-hearted
colloquial humor to one of dark satire directed at hypocrisy and vanity in his
fellow men. Halfway through this
process of literary evolution, Twain published his masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, which expressed his
passionate views that all men are created equal. He was also an avid member of the
Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the annexation of the Philippines
by the United States.
Already deeply depressed, Twain was not prepared for yet
another tragedy to strike. His youngest
daughter Jean had always been frail and shy.
She suffered from epilepsy, which worsened after the death of her
mother. She spent much of her life in
sanatoriums. During the later part of
her life, she served her father as his personal secretary at their home in Conneticuit. On
Christmas Eve 1909 Jean died in the bathtub from an epileptic attack. She was twenty-nine years old.
Broken in soul, Clemens lived only five months after Jean’s
death. On April 21, 1910 he died of angina pectoris. Halley’s Comet shone brightly in the
Twain was survived by his middle daughter Clara, who lived
until 1962. Clara’s daughter died in
1966 as the last direct descendant of the literary genius Mark Twain. I am proud to be a distant relative of Samuel
Clemens. He was related to my mother’s mother. This connection has given me an insatiable
curiosity to know more about this man:
the lighthearted humorist he is remembered to be and the brooding cynic
Upon hearing of Twain's
death, President 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."
Biography of Olivia Langdon and the Clemens’ daughters
Story of Sam and Olivia’s courtship
Wikipedia biography of Mark Twain
Mark Twain biography
PBS biography of Mark Twain