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Biography of


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 Journal.  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 York.


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 York.  Yet 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 sky. 


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 he became.    


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