In old age Samuel L. Clemens, world-famous as Mark Twain, liked to describe how Halley’s Comet shone over his family’s cabin in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri, when he was born on November 30, 1835.
“The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by 1 per cent,” he wrote. Growing up in nearby Hannibal, Missouri, on the west shore of the Mississippi, Clemens admired the great steamboats that plied the North-South trade. Leaving school at age 11, he worked as a printer’s apprentice in his teenage years. In his 20s, he apprenticed as a river pilot and acquired his license in 1859.
The Civil War ended the river trade. After a brief stint in a quasi-Confederate outfit, he accompanied his brother out west: Orion Clemens had won a political patronage job in the Nevada Territory. Silver prospecting and other endeavors didn’t work out, and Sam Clemens got into newspaper work, winning fame for his funny stories and jokes. In 1863 he acquired his famed pen name − taken from the cry of a steamboat crewman measuring the river's depth.
The story now known as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" won him national fame in 1865, and an assignment from the San Francisco Alta California as traveling correspondent two years later took him on a voyage to Europe and the Middle East. His funny and descriptive dispatches from this trip, printed widely, got the attention of a book publisher in Hartford, Connecticut, and Clemens visited the city often during the preparation for the publication of The Innocents Abroad (1869) – which instantly became a bestseller.
In 1871 Clemens and his new wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, rented a home in Hartford. They moved into their newly built Hartford house – which biographer Justin Kaplan describes as "part steamboat, part medieval stronghold, and part cuckoo clock" – in 1874.
The two-decade span of his residence in Hartford (1871-1891) is considered the most productive time of his life – the era of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and scores of other works, both long and short, major and minor. He also wrote a mixture of travel tales, novels and embroidered memoir: Roughing It (1872), The Gilded Age (1873, with Charles Dudley Warner), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883) and A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889).
Capping them all was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn of 1874, which never fails to amaze with its tale of a rough, abused boy from a Missouri riverside town who falls into the company of a runaway slave, Jim.
Its glorious descriptions of the river's moods, its brilliant portraits of the riverside folk, the instances of humor and tragedy that Huck and the slave Jim experience along the way, the great charlatans known as the Duke and the Dauphin, the true-to-life dialogue and dialect, the subtle messages of a conclusion that seems to undermine all that went before – all these bolster Ernest Hemingway's statement that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.'"
Hartford is also the place where Sam and Livy Clemens raised three daughters in the home they built on Farmington Avenue. It was the place Clemens lived the longest, the place that provided him his fondest memories of family life.
"To us, the house was not unsentient matter," he wrote – "it had a heart & soul and eyes to see us with, & approvals & solicitudes & deep sympathies." Deeply in love with “Livy,” he saw her as the anchor and lodestone of the family.
During the productive period of his Hartford residence, Clemens also tried to emulate the inventiveness and business acumen of the good burghers of the “insurance city,” also a major manufacturing center. He failed miserably, notably in his wealth-hemorrhaging investment in a mechanical typesetting machine and a failed attempt at book publishing.
In 1891 he and Livy closed the Hartford house and went to live in Europe – in those days a way for a middle-class family to live more cheaply. The bankruptcy of the publishing house forced Clemens to return to platform lectures to pay his creditors. And in 1894 he hit on the scheme of a journey around the world for a new book, Following the Equator. The Clemenses’ travels took them to the West Coast, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.
But in their absence came tragedy: Their eldest daughter, Susy, contracted spinal meningitis and died in 1896. The family went into a period of extended mourning. His beloved Livy died in Florence in 1904, and Clemens returned to America to live in New York.
In his final years, he wrote dark stories, many of which concerned the indifference or downright malevolence of God and the evils of "the damned human race." Dark tales such as "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1900) and "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" (written 1902-08, published 1969) reflect these views.
He became a strong anti-imperialist, enraging the patriotic sensibilities of the press with bitter comments on the brutal American war in the Philippines. "King Leopold's Soliloquy," "The Czar's Soliloquy," "The War Prayer," (all 1905) and "The United States of Lyncherdom"(written 1901, published 1923) display his deep hatred of the injustice of the strong preying on the weak. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) is a racially charged tale of twins and doubles. His papers, held by the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California, Berkeley, are still mined for fresh material, and much has been published for the first time in recent years.
Finally, his fortune recouped, he built another Connecticut house, in rural Redding. He suffered the death of another daughter, Jean, late in 1909. He died just four months later, on April 21, 1910 – in a year when Halley’s comet again blazed in the sky.
An odd pair of short works written in late life, Extracts from Adam's Diary (1904) and Eve's Diary (1906), hearken back in their simple humor and lyricism to happier Hartford days. He clearly is speaking of Livy when Adam writes on Eve's tombstone: "Where she was, there was Eden."
Things You Might Not Know About Mark Twain
As a teenager, he visited Congress. As an 18-year-old traveling “printer’s devil,” Sam Clemens visited Congress on a snowy day in February 1854 and wrote a description for an Iowa newspaper. He was already cynical about politics: “The Senate is now composed of a different material from what it once was. Its glory hath departed.”
He reached his lifetime career goal at 23 – but then abandoned it. “When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.” He fulfilled this ambition in 1859, earning his pilot’s license – but abandoned the career two years later when the Civil War began.
His bestseller was a book about a Mediterranean cruise. Not Huckleberry Finn, not Tom Sawyer. All through his lifetime his first major book − The Innocents Abroad, or A New Pilgrim’s Progress − was his bestseller. It includes a classic scene of Twainian humor in which an Italian guide shows him what purports to be the corpse of Columbus. Clemens hesitates, then asks: “Is he dead?”
He lived nearly 30 years in New England and New York. The Midwest, the West, the South all claim him – but his most sustained residency was in a home in Hartford, Connecticut, from 1871 to 1891 (it still welcomes visitors as a museum). He lived in New York for several of his final years, and his last residence was in Redding, Connecticut.
He practiced storytelling on his daughters. When his daughters Susy, Clara and Jean were little, he would entertain them in the library of the Hartford house by weaving tales based on simple items arranged on the mantelpiece: paintings, decorated vases and other bric-a-brac. The stories had to include each item, and to follow the order of the items. And he couldn’t tell the same story twice, or the girls would make him go back and start again.
He was accused of being unpatriotic. In the latter part of his life he bitterly criticized American expansion into the Pacific, particularly in a brutal war waged against insurgents in the Philippines. “I know enough about the Philippines,” he said, “to have a strong aversion to sending our bright boys out there to fight with a disgraced musket under a polluted flag.” Newspapers and politicians raged at him, and told him to go back to being funny
He proposed a monument to Adam. In Elmira, New York, Livy Clemens’ hometown, he once proposed to the leading citizens a monument to the biblical First Man – saying that as he was about to be supplanted by an ape according to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, he should be memorialized. Otherwise, he said, “Adam’s very name would be forgotten in the earth.” The effort went so far as to draw significant contributions before being abandoned.