Mark Twain is one of the most influential writers of the 19th century and his work is relevant till today. His books are taught to schoolchildren all over the world and his work is celebrated in literary circles for his great wit and sense of adventure. He greatly influenced generations of American writers and left an indelible mark in world literature. Almost every student from every part of the globe has read his timeless classic books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
His iconic works remain relevant as he dealt with universal themes in his writing. Prominently featured in his work were the themes of freedom, nature and individual conscience. His sense of morality and his sense of humour is apparent from his writing and will continue to be a part of literary history for ages to come.
Mark Twain, pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens was an American humorist, journalist, lecturer, and novelist who acquired international fame for his travel narratives, especially The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi (1883), and for his adventure stories of boyhood, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). A gifted raconteur, distinctive humorist, and irascible moralist, he transcended the apparent limitations of his origins to become a popular public figure and one of America’s best and most beloved writers.
Samuel Clemens, the sixth child of John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens, was born two months prematurely and was in relatively poor health for the first 10 years of his life. His mother tried various allopathic and hydropathic remedies on him during those early years, and his recollections of those instances (along with other memories of his growing up) would eventually find their way into Tom Sawyer and other writings. Because he was sickly, Clemens was often coddled, particularly by his mother, and he developed early the tendency to test her indulgence through mischief, offering only his good nature as bond for the domestic crimes he was apt to commit. When Jane Clemens was in her 80s, Clemens asked her about his poor health in those early years: “I suppose that during that whole time you were uneasy about me?” “Yes, the whole time,” she answered. “Afraid I wouldn’t live?” “No,” she said, “afraid you would.”
Insofar as Clemens could be said to have inherited his sense of humour, it would have come from his mother, not his father. John Clemens, by all reports, was a serious man who seldom demonstrated affection. No doubt his temperament was affected by his worries over his financial situation, made all the more distressing by a series of business failures. It was the diminishing fortunes of the Clemens family that led them in 1839 to move 30 miles (50 km) east from Florida, Missouri, to the Mississippi River port town of Hannibal, where there were greater opportunities. John Clemens opened a store and eventually became a justice of the peace, which entitled him to be called “Judge” but not to a great deal more. In the meantime, the debts accumulated. Still, John Clemens believed the Tennessee land he had purchased in the late 1820s (some 70,000 acres [28,000 hectares]) might one day make them wealthy, and this prospect cultivated in the children a dreamy hope. Late in his life, Twain reflected on this promise that became a curse:
The next few years were important for Clemens. After he had finished writing the jumping-frog story but before it was published, he declared in a letter to Orion that he had a “ ‘call’ to literature of a low order—i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of,” he continued, “but it is my strongest suit.” However much he might deprecate his calling, it appears that he was committed to making a professional career for himself. He continued to write for newspapers, traveling to Hawaii for the Sacramento Union and also writing for New York newspapers, but he apparently wanted to become something more than a journalist. He went on his first lecture tour, speaking mostly on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866. It was a success, and for the rest of his life, though he found touring grueling, he knew he could take to the lecture platform when he needed money. Meanwhile, he tried, unsuccessfully, to publish a book made up of his letters from Hawaii. His first book was in fact The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867), but it did not sell well. That same year, he moved to New York City, serving as the traveling correspondent for the San Francisco Alta California and for New York newspapers. He had ambitions to enlarge his reputation and his audience, and the announcement of a transatlantic excursion to Europe and the Holy Land provided him with just such an opportunity. The Alta paid the substantial fare in exchange for some 50 letters he would write concerning the trip. Eventually his account of the voyage was published as The Innocents Abroad (1869). It was a great success.
The Gilded Age was Twain’s first attempt at a novel, and the experience was apparently congenial enough for him to begin writing Tom Sawyer, along with his reminiscences about his days as a riverboat pilot. He also published A True Story, a moving dialect sketch told by a former slave, in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1874. A second daughter, Clara, was born in June, and the Clemenses moved into their still-unfinished house in Nook Farm later the same year, counting among their neighbours Warner and the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Old Times on the Mississippi” appeared in the Atlantic in installments in 1875. The obscure journalist from the wilds of California and Nevada had arrived: he had settled down in a comfortable house with his family; he was known worldwide; his books sold well, and he was a popular favourite on the lecture tour; and his fortunes had steadily improved over the years. In the process, the journalistic and satirical temperament of the writer had, at times, become retrospective. “Old Times,” which would later become a portion of Life on the Mississippi, described comically, but a bit ruefully too, a way of life that would never return. The highly episodic narrative of Tom Sawyer, which recounts the mischievous adventures of a boy growing up along the Mississippi River, was coloured by a nostalgia for childhood and simplicity that would permit Twain to characterize the novel as a “hymn” to childhood. The continuing popularity of Tom Sawyer (it sold well from its first publication, in 1876, and has never gone out of print) indicates that Twain could write a novel that appealed to young and old readers alike. The antics and high adventure of Tom Sawyer and his comrades—including pranks in church and at school, the comic courtship of Becky Thatcher, a murder mystery, and a thrilling escape from a cave—continue to delight children, while the book’s comedy, narrated by someone who vividly recalls what it was to be a child, amuses adults with similar memories.
In the summer of 1876, while staying with his in-laws Susan and Theodore Crane on Quarry Farm overlooking Elmira, Clemens began writing what he called in a letter to his friend William Dean Howells “Huck Finn’s Autobiography.” Huck had appeared as a character in Tom Sawyer, and Clemens decided that the untutored boy had his own story to tell. He soon discovered that it had to be told in Huck’s own vernacular voice. Huckleberry Finn was written in fits and starts over an extended period and would not be published until 1885. During that interval, Twain often turned his attention to other projects, only to return again and again to the novel’s manuscript.
Twain believed he had humiliated himself before Boston’s literary worthies when he delivered one of many speeches at a dinner commemorating the 70th birthday of poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. Twain’s contribution to the occasion fell flat (perhaps because of a failure of delivery or the contents of the speech itself), and some believed he had insulted three literary icons in particular: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The embarrassing experience may have in part prompted his removal to Europe for nearly two years. He published A Tramp Abroad (1880), about his travels with his friend Joseph Twichell in the Black Forest and the Swiss Alps, and The Prince and the Pauper (1881), a fanciful tale set in 16th-century England and written for “young people of all ages.” In 1882 he traveled up the Mississippi with Horace Bixby, taking notes for the book that became Life on the Mississippi (1883). All the while, he continued to make often ill-advised investments, the most disastrous of which was the continued financial support of an inventor, James W. Paige, who was perfecting an automatic typesetting machine. What distinguishes Huckleberry Finn from the others is the moral dilemma Huck faces in aiding the runaway slave Jim while at the same time escaping from the unwanted influences of so-called civilization. Through Huck, the novel’s narrator, Twain was able to address the shameful legacy of chattel slavery prior to the Civil War and the persistent racial discrimination and violence after. That he did so in the voice and consciousness of a 14-year-old boy, a character who shows the signs of having been trained to accept the cruel and indifferent attitudes of a slaveholding culture, gives the novel its affecting power, which can elicit genuine sympathies in readers but can also generate controversy and debate and can affront those who find the book patronizing toward African Americans, if not perhaps much worse. If Huckleberry Finn is a great book of American literature, its greatness may lie in its continuing ability to touch a nerve in the American national consciousness that is still raw and troubling.
Twain died on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74. He was buried in Elmira, New York.The Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, is now a popular attraction and is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Twain is remembered as a great chronicler of American life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing grand tales about Sawyer, Finn and the mighty Mississippi River, Twain explored the American soul with wit, buoyancy and a sharp eye for truth.