Mark Twain: Biography, Achievements, Major Works, & Facts

Samuel Clemens

Mark Twain – biography and achievements

This American humorist, novelist and lecturer produced some of the most important works in the history of modern literature. With more than twenty novels to his name, many of them well-received as well, Mark Twain thus became an influential public figure and one of the greatest American writers of all time. This notion is supported by American writer and Nobel Prize in Literature winner (1949) William Cuthbert Faulkner (1897-1962), who described Twain as “the Father of American literature”.

World History Edu takes a quick look at the early life, education, career, achievements, and major facts about Mark Twain.

Mark Twain: Fast Facts

Real name: Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Date of birth: November 30, 1835

Birthplace: Florida, Missouri, U.S.

Died: April 21, 1910

Place of death: Redding, Connecticut

Buried: Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, New York, United States

Aged: 74

Parents: John Marshall Clemens and Jane Clemens

Siblings:  Six, including Orion Clemens and Henry Clemens

Wife: Olivia Langdon (married in 1870; died in 1904)

Children: Langdon, Susy, Clara and Jean

Notable Works: The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer Abroad

Awards: Hall of Fame for Great Americans (1920)

Occupation: Humorist, novelist, public moralist, political philosopher, travel writer, publisher, and lecturer

What is Mark Twain most famous for?

The Florida, Missouri-born humorist and novelist is most famous for works such as the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Prince and the Pauper (1881).

Twain is also famous for penning the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a book which is sometimes called “The Great American Novel”. The book is a sequel to his other famous book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).

With works such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865), Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was also known for his mastery of spoken language, wit and satire.

How was Mark Twain educated?

His schooling ended when he was in the fifth grade because he took up an apprenticeship training at a printer’s shop. He also trained as a typesetter at his older brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal.

The lack of an advance formal education did nothing to inhibit his literary prowess as he educated himself in public libraries in Missouri.

What was Mark Twain’s childhood like?

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, age 15, better known by his pen name Mark Twain

Mark Twain was of English, Cornish and Scottish descent. He had six siblings; however only three made it past childhood. The three were Orion (1824-1897), Henry (1838-1858), and Pamela (1827-1904).

He was born in Florida, Missouri, but he spent much of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, a port town that inspired the fictional place St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and later the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

What did Mark Twain write?

Mark Twain drew a lot of his material from his childhood experiences in Hannibal, Missouri. His inclination to infuse slavery into books like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stemmed from the fact that slavery was legal in Missouri during his childhood.

Mark Twain is famously known for his published works The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Prince and the Pauper. He was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, United States.

Birth and early life

Mark Twain’s Old Times on the Mississippi (1875) affectionately recounts his childhood memories in Hannibal.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain grew up with six siblings in Florida, Missouri. When he was around four years old, his family’s financial woes forced them to immigrate to Hannibal, a lively port town along the Mississippi River in the state of Missouri.

Twain, who was born two months prematurely, struggled for the first decade or so in his life. Many home therapies were used by his mother to give the young Twain some semblance of a normal life. His sickly nature meant that he was treated with somewhat of a kid’s glove. He is said to have had a knack for being mischievous child.

His mother Jane Clemens had the greatest impact on him as a child. He most likely got his sense of humor from his mother, not his father John Marshall Clemens (1798-1847). His father was quite a stern and serious parent, often times not displaying any kind of affection to the young Clemens or his siblings.

After moving to Hannibal, John Clemens set up a store; he would later go on to become a justice of the peace (i.e. a local magistrate). Hannibal was not very kind to the Clemens as their financial woes continued. His family penned a great deal of hope on a 70,000-acre land in Tennessee, hoping it would be their ticket to stable lifestyle. As Twain would later write, the land ended up being a bad investment like many other speculative ventures of his father’s.

As a child, Twain’s active imagination was evident right from the get go. He and his friends would act out stories from many fabled adventures, including Robin Hood. Often times, he would visit the labyrinthine McDowell’s Cave and go swimming in the river near Glasscock’s Island. In his book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the island becomes Jackson’s Island.

During the summer holidays, Twain would spend time at his uncle John Quarles’ farm in Florida, Missouri, where he have a great deal of fun with his cousins. As kids, they would listen to the captivating stories told by a slave called Uncle Daniel, a man who Twain transformed into the character Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

His childhood experiences with friend Tom Blankenship was the inspiration for his book character Huckleberry Finn.

Tragedies suffered during his childhood

It was not all fun and sunshine during his childhood. Twain had his fair share of personal losses. One of his siblings, Margaret, succumbed to a disease when Twain was still toddler. His brother Benjamin died when Twain was around seven years old. Then, at the age of eight, he acquired measles during the epidemic. His childhood was also marred by the cholera epidemic that claimed the lives of over 20 people in the town. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of his childhood came in 1847, when his father, John Clemens, passed away due to pneumonia.

The death of his father further exacerbated the family’s financial problems. The family was forced to sell a great deal of their possessions, including the only slave, Jennie, they owned. Yes! Mark Twain’s family, who lived in the slave state of Missouri, owned a slave. It was the mid-1850s; slavery hadn’t been abolished at time. As a kid, Twain was told by his elders that slaves were chattel that God sanctioned for people to own. In his adult years, Twain struggled to with the guilt and shame of his family’s possession of a slave.

The port town of Hannibal, Missouri, also had its fair share of violent activities that left a scar on the mind of the young Clemens. He once saw a man gunned down a Hannibal merchant. He was also shocked by level of abuse slaves in Missouri endured at the hands of their owners. One time, he and his friends, while playing in the river, found a dead slave body floating in the river.

Authors and works that influenced Mark Twain

Growing up, Samuel Clemens was influenced by writers such as Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and American author and novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). The latter author was most famous for writing novels of frontier adventure, including The Pioneers (1823) and The Pathfinder (1840).

During his writing career, Mark Twain, being an excellent raconteur, penned down the fond stories he had as a child in Hannibal, Missouri. Such stories appeared in his 1875 book “Old times on the Mississippi”. Twain also credits the port town’s buzzing and colorful nature for shaping his imagination.

The labyrinthine McDowell’s Cave in Hannibal was featured in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as McDougal’s Cave.

What jobs did Mark Twain have?

Before taking up writing as a full time job, Mark Twain worked in a variety of jobs. In the years after his father’s death, he began working to supplement his family’s meager income. In 1848, he was employed as a printer’s apprentice for the Missouri Courier. Then in 1851, he was employed as typesetter in his brother Orion’s Hannibal newspaper, the Journal. It was probably around this time that Twain began to hone his talents in writing. He would sometimes write sketches and articles for the journal. His sketch titled “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter” (1852) received quite a number of followers as it was carried in many local newspapers.

Mark Twain’s older brother Orion purchased the Hannibal Journal in 1850. Twain got employed in the newspaper as a typesetter. He also worked as an editor when his brother was not available.

Towards his late teens, he resigned from his brother’s journal and pursued his own endeavors, including being a typesetter in St. Louis in 1853. He worked for a number of printing businesses in the east, including in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York City. He worked as a laborer for many years, until he was almost 40, when according to him got up one day and entered into the writing profession proper.

Twain spent a great number of years travelling through many states in the East. His journeys enriched his literary mind, allowing him to gain a very wide perspective of the world that he lived in.

Time as a steamboat pilot

In 1857, he became an apprentice for a riverboat captain called Horace Bixby. He is said to have paid $500 in apprentice fee. He studied the Mississippi River and desired nothing than to acquire a pilot license.

Working with other veteran pilots, Samuel Clemens quickly learned the trade. He took quite a lot of pride in being a steamboat pilot. Back the steamboat pilot was very well respected, even more than the captain. Steamboat pilots earned good wages in addition to the respect they received from the society.

Twain saw the job as one that gave him a great deal of freedom and self-sufficiency, believing that the job also instilled in him discipline, a sense of purpose and direction. He was a member of the Western Boatman’s Benevolent Association. By 1859, he had received his pilot’s license.

Mark Twain’s wife and daughters

Olivia Langdon

Mark Twain’s wife – Olivia Langdon in 1869

While traveling through Europe in the late 1860s, he met Charles Langdon, who later introduced Twain to his sister Olivia Langdon. Mark Twain noted that he fell head over heels for Olivia, who was the daughter of a businessman from Elmira, New York. The two tied the knot in February 1870.

With some bit of help from his wife’s father, the couple were able to buy one-third interest in the Express of Buffalo, New York.

Mark Twain’s daughters (L-R): Susy, Clara, and Jean

After making their home in Buffalo, New York, Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon had four children, one son and three daughters: Langdon, Susy (1872-1896), Clara (1874-1962), and Jean (1880-1909). Langdon died (of diphtheria) in 1872, before turning two.

Twain’s marriage to Olivia Langdon spanned for 34 years until she died in 1904.

Personal tragedies suffered by Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s losses weren’t only financial. The acclaimed writer suffered a series of personal losses in the last decade of the 19th century and the early 20th century.

His daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis in 1896. His daughter’s death was a huge blow to him and his wife, who was plagued by an awful sickness by then. Twain committed himself to his work in an attempt to mitigate the pain. That same year, his other daughter Jean was diagnosed with epilepsy. The family visited many European countries looking for a remedy.

On June 5, 1904, his wife died, sending him into an even deeper depression. His book Eve’s Diary (1906) – which talks about the love between Adam and Eve – was in honor of his deceased wife.

On December 24, 1909, his daughter Jean succumbed to complications from her epilepsy.  Twain wrote the book “The Death of Jean” (1911) to honor her. About six months prior to Jean’s death, his very close friend Henry Rogers died.

All of those personal tragedies made him sad and lonely in his final few years.

Mark Twain during the American Civil War

He worked on the steamboat until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. For a brief period, he served in the Confederate Army, however, he later deserted, stating that he was not made to be a soldier.

“The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” – a sketch in 1885 – a fictional memoir – his time in the Confederate Missouri State Guard in Marion County, Missouri – group of inexperienced militiamen called the Marion Rangers

Mark Twain and his brother Orion fled from Hannibal to the Nevada Territory. His brother was a Republican and supported Abraham Lincoln’s presidential bid. For that, Orion Clemens was appointed territorial secretary of Nevada.

While in Nevada Territory, he took trading in silver, timber and gold in the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada. Success was a hard to come by as a miner. With the help of a newspaper editor Joseph Goodman, he became a reporter at the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. Many of the stories he covered the city’s endemic corruption and moral decadence. He performed his job diligently, even at the risk to his life.

It was around this time that he started going by the pen name “Mark Twain”.  He also grew into his literary profession. Some of his articles appeared outside the territory, in places like New York.

In a brash act of immaturity, he challenged the editor of a San Francisco newspaper to a duel. After realizing how reckless his action was, he fled the city out of fear. In the mid-1860s, Twain headed to San Francisco to work as a full-time reporter for the Call. He also worked with the Golden Era.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865)

One of Mark Twain’s most famous short stories, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865), was inspired by his experiences after he had fled San Francisco to Tuolumne foothills in the U.S. state of California.  The story was a huge success, bringing the humorist critical acclaim.

In 1866, he took up a job with the Sacramento Union as a reporter. He work in Hawaii (the Sandwich Islands) would later serve as important material for his first lecture tour.

In 1867, he worked as a traveling correspondent for the San Francisco Alta California. The newspaper paid for his trip to Europe and the Holy Land on the condition that he writes travel stories for the newspaper. Those letters are what turned into the travel book The Innocents Abroad (1869) (also known as The New Pilgrims’ Progress), which proved to be a huge success.

Mark Twain, born Samuel L. Clemens, attained worldwide acclaim with his very popular books. He was also famed for his lecture tour, which fetched considerable amount of money, especially in his later years.

Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla

The writer and novelist Mark Twain was said to have been a big fan of technology and science. Out of this curiosity, he formed a strong friendship with inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla. Twain even got to patent a number of inventions that had made, including a detachable straps for garments.

Twain’s association with Nikola Tesla rubbed off a bit in the novelist’s works. For example, in his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain writes about a fictional American time traveler who finds himself in the age of King Arthur and tries to help the people with modern technology.

Twain was also an acquaintance of Thomas Edison, one of Tesla’s arch rivals in the scientific world. In 1909, Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, visited Twain at his home in Connecticut and took a motion picture of him.

Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, in the laboratory of Nikola Tesla, early 1894

Mark Twain’s publishing house

In 1884, Twain established his own publishing company. He partnered with nephew and businessman Charles L. Webster. The publishing company, which was known as Charles L. Webster and Company, experienced severe financial problems and then went bust in 1894. In spite of his determined efforts to keep the company afloat using his own personal money, the publishing house still folded up.

The publishing house still made history with its first two publications: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and former US president Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir – the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885). Both books received a lot of critical acclaim. Twain’s publication of U.S. Grant’s memoir helped lift the former U.S. general and POTUS out of a financial misery. After the death of Grant, Twain presented a whopping $450,000 to Julia Grant, the wife of Grant.

Read More: 10 Military Achievements of U.S. Grant

Mark Twain and James W. Paige

An avid admirer of science and technology, Mark Twain invested heavily in the Paige Compositor, an invention by James W. Paige (1842-1917). For someone who was once a typesetter, Twain bought into the invention that was made to make human typesetter obsolete.

Unfortunately, technical problems in the design caused the machine to be a huge flop on the market. Mark Twain invested about a quarter of a million USD into the machine that never turned a profit. The horrible venture marked the beginning of the writer’s financial woes.  By 1891, Twain had given up on the project. The financial crisis of 1893 further compounded his mounting debt problem, causing him to file for personal bankruptcy.

With the help of Wall Street business executive and financier Henry Huttleston Rogers, Twain was able to turn things around. His world lecture tour and book sales helped him to pay all his debts.

Note: In today’s dollar, the amount ($300,000) Mark Twain spent on the Paige Compositor is the equivalent of about $ 9.5 million.

Most famous Mark Twain’s works

American humorist and novelist Mark Twain authored more than 20 novels | Image: Twain, age 31

Mark Twain is undoubtedly the greatest humorist in modern American literature. He once described humor as his “strongest suit”. The author believed that humor is a call to literature of a low order. The following are the most famous works by Mark Twain:

  • The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867)
  • Roughing It (1872) – a semi-autobiographical travel book by Mark Twain
  • The Gilded Age (1873) – a book that exposed the financial corruption in the U.S.
  • A True Story (1874) – published in the Atlantic Monthly.
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) – Mark Twain described it as a “hymn” to his childhood. The book, which is full of nostalgia, follows the story of a mischievous boy. The book is still in print, as both young and old readers can relate to it.
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)Mark Twain began writing this book in 1876. The novel, a sequel to Tom Sawyer, follows the story of Huck Finn, a character from the book Tom Sawyer.
  • The Prince and the Pauper (1881)
  • Life on the Mississippi (1883)
  • Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895/96)
  • Following the Equator (1897)
  • What Is Man? ( 1906)
  • King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905)

World lecture tour

In 1895, Mark Twain went on a world lecture tour in an attempt to raise money to pay his creditors. The writer visited places in Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Australia, among others.

He was able to author a book primarily using the experiences of his tour in India. The book was titled Following the Equator (1897).

When and how did Mark Twain die?

Mark Twain was born shortly after the passing of Halley’s Comet. Interestingly, he died a day after the comet passed by the Earth again. The humorist had stated that he was bound to “go out with it”.

On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died in his Stormfield home in Redding, Connecticut. The humorist and novelist was aged 74, and was survived by his daughter Clara.

Then-U.S. president William Howard Taft sent his heartfelt condolences to Twain’s surviving relatives. The president paid homage to his contribution American literature, heaping praise on his works for giving enormous pleasure to millions of people across the world.

The last work he was working on – “Etiquette for the Afterlife: Advice to Paine” – was posthumously published in 1995. It is a short humorous sketch.

Death of Mark of Twain

Mark Twain was buried at a family plot in Elmira, New York, alongside his wife, his son, and two daughters. He left an estate valued at almost half a million USD (about $13 million in today’s dollars). | Image: Twain and his wife are buried side by side in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery

Mark Twain’s real name

Origin of Mark Twain's pen name

Origin of Mark Twain’s pen name | Other pen names of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) included Quintius Curtius Snodgrass, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass and Josh, among others. In the end, he picked Mark Twain as his pseudonym.

Unbeknownst to many people Mark Twain is actually the pen name of Samuel Clemens. But why did Samuel Clemens choose the pen name Mark Twain?

Before settling on “Mark Twain”, the writer used a number of different pseudonyms, including “Josh” and “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass”. The first time he used a pen name was in the early 1850s when he signed a sketch in his brother’s newspaper “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins”.

The name “Mark Twain” emerged during his years working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. Mark twain is the nautical term for water found to be two fathoms – i.e. 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep. Thus mark means “measure”, while twain means two”.

Mark Twain also acknowledged that his famous pen name was used by Captain Isaiah Sellers before he adopted in his literary profession.

Mark Twain quotes

The following are 5 major quotes by Mark Twain, the writer who is commonly regarded as the greatest humorist in the history of the United States.

Mark Twain quotes

More Mark Twain Facts

The following are six more facts about Mark Twain:

Image: Twain in his gown (scarlet with grey sleeves and facings) for his D.Litt. degree, awarded to him by Oxford University in 1907

  1. The asteroid 2362 is named after Mark Twain.
  2. William Dean Howells, his friend and author and critic, described him as the “sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature” in the book My Mark Twain (1910).
  3. Ernest Hemingway writes in The Green Hills of Africa (1935), “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”.
  4. In January 1901, he became the vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League of New York – January 1901
  5. He received Honorary degrees from Yale University in 1901; the University of Missouri in 1902 (honorary Doctor of Laws); and Oxford University in 1907.
  6. He convinced his younger brother Henry Clemens to join the steamboat job. Unfortunately, Henry died on June 21, 1858 after getting severely injured in an explosion on the steamboat. Twain would forever feel guilty for the death of his brother Henry.

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