Mark Twain Biography | Twain's children

Mark Twain is one of America's truly unique and defining personalities. His ability to tap into American culture and humor gave him an invaluable insight in his writings and speeches. Known for his realism, memorable characters, bluntness and hatred of hypocrisy and oppression, Twain is definitely one of the most recognizable figures in American history.

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorn Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo. His parents John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton's families were originally from Virginia, and the couple had made four moves westward prior to Sam's birth. Sam was the couples' sixth child and in 1839, the family moved to nearby Hannibal, Mo. It was in this small river town that Clemens would spend his boyhood years.

During this crucial time in his life, Clemens developed a strong tie to the Mississippi River, along which Hannibal is located. Steamboats landed at the town three times a day, and these river chariots captured Clemens' imagination as he dreamed of one day becoming a steamboat captain.

Despite Clemens' love for the river, his first job was not on the mighty Mississippi, but as a printer's apprentice to Joseph Ament, who published the Missouri Courier. Clemens would take the job in 1848, a year after his fathers death. In 1851, he began setting type for and contributing sketches to his brother Orion's Hannibal Journal. During the next two years, he continued at the Journal and would take over as editor in Orion's absence. Clemens even got a few of his sketches published in the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post in 1852.

Clemens left Hannibal in 1853, but would not completely cut his ties with his hometown. While working as a printer in New York City and Philadelphia, he had travel letters published in the Hannibal Journal. He would return to the Midwest in 1854, at age 19, and spent the next four years living in several cities in the area.

One of the cities was Keokuk, Iowa, where he would reunite with his brother Orion to work on Orion's new paper, the Keokuk Journal.

In 1857, Clemens was 21 years old and looking for new adventures. He headed to New Orleans, where he hoped to find passage on a ship to South America. While there, he met steamboat pilot Horace Bixby and was able to persuade Bixby to accept him as an apprentice for a fee of $500. Clemens would spend the next two years as a cub pilot, and would receive his pilot's license in 1859.

Clemens' steamboat pilot career was short-lived. With the outbreak of the Civil war in April 1861, all traffic on the river was halted. Clemens joined a volunteer militia group called the Marion Rangers. The group would drill for two weeks before disbanding.

In the summer of 1861, Orion Clemens had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as secretary of Nevada, and Orion appointed Sam as his secretary. The two would head west together to the Nevada Territory by stagecoach. When Clemens arrived in Nevada he became enthralled with making his fortune by mining. Prospectors had come from around the country to try their hand at mining gold and silver.

Clemens traveled all around the territory trying to strike it rich. The Comstock Lode discovery in 1858, one of the largest metal deposits in the world, showed that there were precious metals around, but Clemens was unable to find it. Clemens never did strike it rich, and was forced to work in a quartz mill to support himself.

To help supplement his income, Clemens contributed humorous letters to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, and in 1862 he became a reporter for the paper. He was paid $25 a week and wrote on a wide variety of topics, from the territorial legislature to humorous pieces as well.

In 1863 he began signing his articles with the pseudonym Mark Twain, a Mississippi River phrase meaning "two fathoms deep." Clemens and his new name would move to San Francisco in 1864, to apparently avoid antiduelling laws after challenging a rival editor to fight.

Twain worked for the Call, a local paper, in San Fransico, as a reporter and was the Pacific correspondent for the Territorial Enterprise. Twain worked for a variety of publications over the next few years and met American writers Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, who would encourage and help him in his writings. In 1865 Twain rewrote a tale he had heard in the California gold fields.

The story was "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," and told of a contest gone bad when one frog was filled with lead shot so he couldn't jump. Twain's short story become a national sensation and within months the writer was know around the country.

Twain stayed in San Francisco for four years. In 1866 he took a four-month trip to Hawaii to act as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union. He wrote a series of letters during his trip known as the "Sandwich Islands" letters. Upon his return, Twain, now 30, arranged his first lecture tour.

The tour lasted two months as Twain made stops in northern California and western Nevada. It was the start of a big part of Twain's life. For the rest of his life he would be world renowned for his speeches and lectures.

In 1867 Twain lectured in New York City, and in the same year he visited Europe and Palestine. Taking from his own experiences from these trips, Twain wrote "The Innocents Abroad" (1869). The book was a humorous look at aspects of European culture that impressed American tourists.

The book was a great success, but a bigger personal success awaited Twain. In 1869, he met Olivia (Livy) Langdon, the sister of an old friend. Twain, now 33, traveled back to California for a lecture tour and he continued to publish several sketches in a wide verity of publications. The same year he also began to secretly court Livy.

The two married in 1870. Livy, 25, and Twain, 35, began living in Buffalo, New York. They stayed there briefly and then moved to Hartford, Connecticut. The marriage marked a dramatic turn in Twain's life. His life became more stable but still very active. He continued to write columns for many publications and was editor for the Buffalo Express while in New York.

In the decade to come, Twain wrote his most well-known books. During this period in 1870, however, tragedy struck the young couple. First Livy's father died; then her close friend died while staying with the Clemenses; finally, their first child, Langdon, was born premature, and lived only two years in a sickly state.

The situation stabilized the following year, when Twain rented a house in Hartford's upper class Nook Farm. He published "Roughing It", continued on lecture tours throughout the country, bought a parcel of land in Nook Farm to build a house and visited England for the first time. In March 1872 the Clemens family grew by one when Susy Clemens was born.

During the next 20 years Twain's family and fame would both grow. Twain wrote his most recognized books from his home in Hartford or at Quarry Farm, near Elmira, New York. "Roughing It" (1872) recounts his early adventures as a miner and journalist; "The Gilded Age" (1874) his first non-fiction book; "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876) celebrates boyhood in a small Mississippi River town; "A Tramp Abroad" (1880) describes Twains adventures through Germany and the Alps; "The Prince and the Pauper" (1882), a children's book; "Life on the Mississippi" (1883) Twain's recollections of his experiences as a river boat pilot and his memories of a visit back to the area more than two decades later; "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1889) a satirical look at feudal England.

In June 1874, Twain's second daughter, Clara, was born. His and Livy's third and final child, Jean, was born in 1880. Twain was now settled into his home in Hartford and as he wrote his great novels he also continued to lecture and write sketches for area publications.

Many of Twain's works during this period were tied to his childhood experiences in Hannibal. "Life of the Mississippi", "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and his most famous book "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884).

Huck 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. He is accompanied on his journey by a runaway slave named Jim. The book portrays many of the evils that are present in men and women, as well as integral conflict and a sense of ethics as Huck battles between breaking the law and helping Jim escape. The book is full of authentic language and insight into the culture of the pre-civil war South.

The same year that Huck Finn was published, Twain formed the firm Charles L. Webster & Company. The company published Twain's works and that of other writers, including American general and president Ulysses S. Grant. The company suffered a critical blow after a disastrous investment in an automatic typesetting machine. Twain's company filed for bankruptcy in 1894 and left Twain in considerable debt.

Twain's financial problems caused him to move his family to Europe in 1891. For most of the decade, the family lived in various countries throughout Europe, including France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

Even through these tumultuous times, Twain continued to write and lecture. He used a worldwide lecture tour and the book based on those travels, "Following the Equator" (1897), to pay off his debts. He also revived help from Standard Oil executive Henry Rogers. Twain payed off all of his debt by 1898.

Before he was able to rid himself of his financial troubles, a tragedy befell him and his family. While on the lecture tour that payed off his debt, his oldest daughter Susy contracted meningitis in 1896 and would die in August, in Hartford.

The death of his daughter and his business failure greatly effected Twain. During the latter part of his life Twain would become very pessimistic and bitter.

Twain's later works included "Pudd'nhead Wilson" (1894), "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc" (1896), and short stories "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899) and "The War Prayer" (1905).

At the turn of the century, Twain spent most of his time in New York City lecturing and taking an active role in the city's social scene. He received an honorary degree in 1901 from Yale University and from the University of Missouri in 1902.

Tragedy again crept into Twain's life during 1903, when Livy became seriously ill. She moved to Florence, Italy later that year after being advised by her doctor to head to a warmer climate. Twain remained in the U.S. and did not see Livy much in the last year of her life. She died in June 1904, in Florence.

After Livy's death, Twain spent most of his time in New York City. He continued to write and make public speeches. He was by this time a national hero and he used his recognition to speak out against injustice and intollerence. Clemens received another honorary degree in 1907, this one from Oxford University.

Twain's most notable writings during the final years of his life were "Extracts From Adam's Diary" (1904), "Eve's Diary" (1906), "What is Man?" (1906), "Chapters From My Autobiography" (1906/07), and "Letters From the Earth" (1909).

In his final years, Clemens lived in Redding, Conn., in a home he called Stormfield. Clemens moved into Stormfield in 1908, his final residence.

The house would not bring Clemens luck, however. His youngest daughter, Jean, developed epilepsy in the late 1890s, and on Christmas Eve 1909, she died of a seizure at Stormfield. Clemens was decimated by the passing of Jean. He grieved by writing about her passing. "The Death of Jean" would be his last substantial writing. The piece culminated his grief about Jean's death as well as that of his wife, son and daughter Susy. Once completed, Twain vowed to never write again.

Twain's health would fail him after Jean's death. In January of 1910, he went to Bermuda because of his health, but after it appeared his health wasn't improving he returned to Stormfield where he sank into a coma on April 21, 1910. That night his heart failed and he died in his bed. A large funeral procession was held in New York City two days later, and a service was at the Presbyterian Brick Church. Samuel Clemens died at age 74 and was buried next to his wife and children at Woodlawn Cemetery, in Elmira, N.Y.

At the same time of Twain's death, Halley's Comet reappeared in the April skies. The last time the comet had appeared was in November 1835, the time of Twain's birth. Twain often said the he would "go out with the comet." Remarkably, his prediction came true.

Twain's life and works were defined by America. His experiences from growing up in Hannibal to life in the West gave him insight into America's conscience and allowed him to write and depict the American experience very accurately. He was known and respected throughout the world as a humorist during his life, and since his death, his reputation has only grown. Today, Mark Twain is known as a great writer as well as a humorist and American icon.

For a list of the top books on Mark Twain, click here.

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