Study Guide

Mark Twain Biography

  • Biography

    "I am not an American, I am the American."

    We're impressed. We get misanthropic if someone eats with their mouth open, or tries to make small talk, or tries to make small talk whilst eating with their mouth open, or literally breathes near us...

    ...Huh. Yeah, that might be something we need to work through.

  • Childhood

    In November 1835, Halley's Comet streaked through the sky, delighting crowds around the world. 

    Two weeks later, on November 30th, 1835, John and Jane Lampton Clemens welcomed their sixth child into the world.

    No word on whether crowds around the world were delighted by some random baby being born. 

    John and Jane named their son Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Three years after Samuel came into the world, his parents' seventh and final child was born, a son named Henry. 

    Seven children. And to think, we get tired after particular tiring bowel movements. Hats off to Jane.

    A year after that, the family moved from Florida, Missouri to Hannibal, Missouri. Hannibal served as the inspiration for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn's fictional hometown of St. Petersburg. Like Huck and Tom, young Samuel spent his days running around with a group of other local boys, engaging in all sorts of hijinks and tomfoolery.

    Thanks to its place right on the bank of the Mississippi River, the small town was a frequent stop for steamship pilots and their passengers traveling up and down the river. Samuel Clemens was enamored with the steamboat pilots from an early age and hoped to join their ranks when he was older.

    In 1847, Samuel's father died of pneumonia. Jane Clemens was left alone to support the family's four surviving children. Again, hats off to Jane. Sure, Mark wrote some good stories, but Jane might've been an actual superhero.

    As soon as they were old enough though. the Clemens children had to work. By the age of 16, Twain had left school for a job as an apprentice to a printer in Hannibal. Within a few years, he was traveling up and down the East Coast as a freelance printer. The river, however, was always in his heart. 

    Samuel returned to Missouri in 1857 to begin a two-year apprenticeship to become a steamboat pilot. He loved the work, as well as the intriguing characters he met along the river. "When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river," 

    Despite the tragedy, Twain continued to work as a riverboat pilot until 1861. When the Civil War broke out, all traffic along the river was halted, putting Twain out of a job. It was time to find a new adventure.

  • San Francisco & Roughing It

    Unlike Ken Burns's Civil War, Mark Twain's was a short one. 

    Zing. Burnin' the Burns. 

    Twain trained for two weeks with a Confederate militia which then disbanded, effectively ending his military career. In 1862, his older brother Orion was offered a job as the personal secretary to the territorial governor of Nevada. He asked Twain if he would like to come along as his assistant, and Twain jumped at the chance. "I had never been away from home, and that word 'travel' had a seductive charm for me," 

    You know what they say: behind every great man is a great woman, rolling her eyes and saying, "Mark, you can't write three fart jokes in one chapter, have some self-control."

  • Classics

    Picture it: 1866. No television, no radio, no internet, and no telephones. People are shivering in the streets. The pigeons have revolted and taken over the White House. President Andrew Johnson is being held hostage by the pigeons. Johnson issues a desperate plea, saying it would be "coo coo to disobey our new pigeon overlords." The pigeons do not appreciate the pun. 

    ...Okay, most of that was fake, and clearly we have some issues with pigeons. 

    However, the entertainment sources we know and love today? They were a long ways away. The only real way to get entertainment back then was to go see it live. Lectures were a popular pastime, and one in which Twain excelled. His comedic delivery was a hit with live audiences, and he kicked off a lecturing career that would span the next few decades and rival any stand-up special currently on Netflix. These lectures, along with his books, made Twain a celebrity.

    In 1869, Twain published his first book, The Innocents Abroad, a nonfiction account of his travels to Europe. The book introduced readers to Twain's trademark brand of wit and observation. "The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate a-- he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate a--," he wrote. "If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother."blank" href="">Huckleberry Finn. However, it made its mark as one of the first novels to explore time travel, and has been called one of the earliest science fiction novels. 

    Twain's real-life time as a Connecticut Yankee was limited. After several bad business investments, his finances were a mess. The Clemenses sold their house in Connecticut and moved to Europe, where the living was cheaper.

    We bet they bragged about it every chance they got, too. Whoop-dee-doo, you lived abroad. 

    No one cares.

  • Personal Tragedy

    Fair warning: if you're looking for a happy story, you probably shouldn't read a section titled "personal tragedy." Seriously, this section is about to make Old Yeller look like a fluffy rom-com. 

    You've been warned.

    In 1894, the publishing company that Twain had founded with his nephew Charles L. Webster finally went belly-up after ten difficult years of constant financial strain. Twain was nearly bankrupt. "The calamity that comes is never the one we had prepared ourselves for,"blank">The Lion King.

  • Death

    "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835," Twain said in 1909. "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.'" 

    And what a road it was.

    • Family

      Father: John Marshall Clemens (1798-1847)
      Mother: Jane Lampton Clemens (1803-1890)
      Brother: Orion Clemens (1825-1897)
      Sister: Pamela Clemens (1827-1904)
      Brother: Pleasant Clemens (1828-1829)
      Sister: Margaret Clemens (1830-1839)
      Brother: Benjamin Clemens (1832-1842))
      Brother: Henry Clemens (1838-1858)
      Wife: Olivia Langdon (1845-1904)
      Son: Langdon Clemens (1870-1872)
      Daughter: Susy Clemens (1872-1896)
      Daughter: Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch (1874-1962)
      Daughter: Jean Clemens (1880-1909)

    • Work Experience

      Printer (1851-1853)
      Steamboat Pilot (1857-1861)
      Reporter (1862-1866)
      Writer (1865-1910)
      Secretary, Senator William Stewart (1867)
      Public lecturer (1866-c. 1905)
      Co-owner, Charles L. Webster & Co. publishing company (1884-1894)

    • Fiction

      "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County" (1867)
      The Gilded Age (1873)
      The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
      The Prince and the Pauper (1882)
      The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
      A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)
      The American Claimant (1892)
      The £1,000,000 Bank Note and Other New Stories (1893)
      The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)
      Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)

    • Nonfiction

      The Innocents Abroad (1869)
      Roughing It (1872)
      A Tramp Abroad (1880)
      Life on the Mississippi (1883)
      How to Tell a Story and Other Essays (1897)
      Following the Equator (1897)
      "To the Person Sitting in Darkness"(1901)
      King Leopold's Soliloquy (1905)
      "The War Prayer"(1905)
      Mark Twain's Autobiography (1924)

    • Awards

      Honorary degree, Yale University (1901)
      Honorary degree, Oxford University (1907)