Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which would later
provide the setting for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. He apprenticed with a
printer. He also worked as a typesetter and contributed articles to his older
brother Orion's newspaper. After toiling as a printer in various cities, he
became a master riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, before heading west
to join Orion. He was a failure at gold mining, so he next turned to
journalism. While a reporter, he wrote a humorous story, The Celebrated Jumping
Frog of Calaveras County, which became very popular and brought nationwide
attention. His travelogues were also well-received. Twain had found his
He achieved great success as a writer and public
speaker. His wit and satire earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a
friend topresidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.
However, he lacked financial acumen. Though he made a
great deal of money from his writings and lectures, he squandered it on various
ventures, in particular the Paige Compositor, and was forced to declare
bankruptcy. With the help of Henry Huttleston Rogers, however, he eventually
overcame his financial troubles. Twain worked hard to ensure that all of his
creditors were paid in full, even though his bankruptcy had relieved him of the
Born during a visit by Halley's Comet, he died on its
return. He was lauded as the "greatest American humorist of his age,"
and William Faulkner called Twain "the father of American
Mark Twain in his gown (scarlet with grey sleeves and
facings) for his D.Litt.degree, awarded to him by Oxford University.
Twain began his career writing light, humorous verse,
but evolved into a chronicler of the vanities, hypocrisies and murderous acts
of mankind. At mid-career, with Huckleberry Finn, he combined rich humor,
sturdy narrative and social criticism. Twain was a master at rendering
colloquial speech and helped to create and popularize a distinctive American
literature built on American themes and language. Many of Twain's works have
been suppressed at times for various reasons. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
has been repeatedly restricted in American high schools, not least for its
frequent use of the word "nigger," which was in common usage in the
pre-Civil War period in which the novel was set.
A complete bibliography of his works is nearly
impossible to compile because of the vast number of pieces written by Twain
(often in obscure newspapers) and his use of several different pen names.
Additionally, a large portion of his speeches and lectures have been lost or
were not written down; thus, the collection of Twain's works is an ongoing
process. Researchers rediscovered published material by Twain as recently as
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry
Twain's next major publication was The Adventures of
Tom Sawyer, which drew on his youth in Hannibal. Tom Sawyer was modeled on
Twain as a child, with traces of two schoolmates, John Briggs and Will Bowen.
The book also introduced in a supporting role Huckleberry Finn, based on
Twain's boyhood friend Tom Blankenship.
The Prince and the Pauper, despite a storyline that is
omnipresent in film and literature today, was not as well received. Telling the
story of two boys born on the same day who are physically identical, the book
acts as a social commentary as the prince and pauper switch places. Pauper was
Twain's first attempt at fiction, and blame for its shortcomings is usually put
on Twain for having not been experienced enough in English society, and also on
the fact that it was produced after a massive hit. In between the writing of
Pauper, Twain had startedAdventures of Huckleberry Finn (which he consistently
had problems completing) and started and completed another travel book, A Tramp
Abroad, which follows Twain as he traveled through central and southern Europe.
Twain's next major published work, Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn, solidified him as a noteworthy American writer. Some have
called it the first Great American Novel, and the book has become required
reading in many schools throughout the United States. Huckleberry Finn was an
offshoot from Tom Sawyer and had a more serious tone than its predecessor. The
main premise behind Huckleberry Finn is the young boy's belief in the right
thing to do though most believed that it was wrong. Four hundred manuscript
pages of Huckleberry Finn were written in mid-1876, right after the publication
of Tom Sawyer. Some accounts have Twain taking seven years off after his first
burst of creativity, eventually finishing the book in 1883. Other accounts have
Twain working on Huckleberry Finn in tandem with The Prince and the Pauper and
other works in 1880 and other years. The last fifth of Huckleberry Finn is
subject to much controversy. Some say that Twain experienced, as critic Leo
Marx puts it, a "failure of nerve." Ernest Hemingway once said of
If you read it, you must stop where the Nigger Jim is
stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.
Hemingway also wrote in the same essay:
All modern American literature comes from one book by
Mark Twain called, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Near the completion of Huckleberry Finn, Twain wrote
Life on the Mississippi, which is said to have heavily influenced the former
book. The work recounts Twain's memories and new experiences after a 22-year
absence from the Mississippi. In it, he also states that "Mark Twain"
was the call made when the boat was in safe water – two fathoms.
Twain used different pen names before deciding on Mark
Twain. He signed humorous and imaginative sketches Josh until 1863.
Additionally, he used the pen name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass for a series of
He maintained that his primary pen name came from his
years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating
safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is
a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term
for "two." The riverboatman's cry was mark twain or, more fully, by
the mark twain, meaning "according to the mark [on the line], [the depth
is] two [fathoms]," that is, "The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and
it is safe to pass."
Twain claimed that his famous pen name was not
entirely his invention. In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:
Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or
capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical
information about the river, and sign them "MARK TWAIN," and give
them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of
the river, and were accurate and valuable; ... At the time that the telegraph
brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist,
and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner's discarded
one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign
and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on
as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in
me to say.
Twain's version of the story about his pen name has
been questioned by biographer George Williams III, the Territorial Enterprise
newspaper, and Purdue University's Paul Fatout which claim that mark twain
refers to a running bar tab that Twain would regularly incur while drinking at
John Piper's saloon in Virginia City, Nevada