Samuel Langhorne Clemens or otherwise known as Mark Twain, has remained central to American literature and in American life for over a century. A humorist, journalist, lecturer, and novelist whose deceptive and relaxed writing style has impacted many generations of American writers who have followed his footsteps. Despite his death on April 21, 1910, he continues to be celebrated now more than ever before, and his works have been translated into 72 languages. A master at captivating his readers and creating scenarios, Mark Twain’s use of the common vernacular set him apart from authors of his era giving his readers a sense of familiarity and emotional connection to his characters and himself.
Born November 30, 1835 in a small village in Florida, Missouri, Mark Twain was the sixth child of John and Jane Clemens. His father, John Clemens, was a very stern and serious man who rarely demonstrated any affection. “His temperament was affected by his worries over his financial situation, made all the more distressing by a series of business failures” (history.com).
Those business failures along with the family’s diminishing fortunes were serious enough that John Clemens took the family and moved them to the port town of Hannibal where they were hoping for greater opportunities. John had purchased a land in Tennessee hoping one day he would see his fortunes change and earn some money from it since his debt continued to accumulate but things weren’t looking very bright. John had instilled in his children the hope one day that land will make them wealthy and although it never reached that plateau, Mark Twain still reflected on this promise that became a disappointment later on in his life.
“It put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us-dreamers and indolent…It is good to begin life poor; it is good to begin life rich- there are wholesome; but to begin it prospectively rich! The man who has not experienced it cannot imagine the curse of it” (history.com). John Clemens passed away not long after their move to the new city when Mark was just eleven years old. Left with no choice but to quit school, Mark began working in order to help the family earn money.
The family’s move to Hannibal provided Mark with a wealth of inspiration that were often passed on his writings. “He (Mark Twain) immortalized Hannibal as St. Petersburg in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The geographical features are real. The Mississippi River and its islands, Cardiff Hill, the great cave South of town, are all features visitors can explore today” (biography.com). In addition to the geographical features, the characters in many of his writings especially in Tom Sawyer came from actual friends and family. “He used his mother, Jane Clemens, as Aunt Polly.
His sister, Pamela, and bother, Henry, became Cousin Mary and Cousin Sid. The real girl, Laura Hawkins, who lived across the street from the Clemens family inspired Becky Thatcher. And Tom Blankenship from a poor family spawned Huckleberry Finn. Sam’s childhood is spent playing in the hills, on the river, and in the cave spread across the pages of Tom Sawyer” (biography.com). That was not the only time the city and/or his home experience appear in his works. Several other works such as The Innocents Abroad, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, and Pudd’nhead Wilson.
As previously mentioned, a lot of the experiences he has had in life have been passed on to his stories. One of those is his brief stint in the Civil War. Although he left the war after just two weeks of service, he still wrote about it. The state of Missouri was split between those who supported the Union and those who supported Confederacy. Mark Twain joined the Confederate Army as a volunteer until that unit parted ways. Some men joined other units but Mark Twain along with a few other decided to scatter. Prior to the Civil War, a restless and a very ambitious Mark Twain, while booking passage in 1857 on a steamboat bound for New Orleans and then to South America where he hoped to find his fortune, caught up to the captain of the riverboat and persuaded him to take Twain as an apprentice.
Mark Twain knew obtaining a pilot’s license is the ultimate goal, the path to getting it would not be easy. Under the supervision of the captain, Twain learned everything there is to know about the Mississippi River and about the operation of a riverboat. Two years later and after learning the profession thoroughly, Twain eventually acquired his license. That didn’t last long due to the Civil War and “fearing that he might be impressed as a Union gunboat pilot”, Twain decided the best thing to do is to bring his years on the river to a halt. His time on the river also made it in a satirical sketch of his, River Intelligence (1859).
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