America’s famous literary icon Mark Twain was born as Samuel Langhorne Clemons on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. His family moved four years later to the nearby town of Hannibal, a growing port city on the Mississippi and a stop for steamboats making their way from St. Louis and New Orleans.
Twain discovered a love of writing when he went to work for his brother Orion’s newspaper at age 13, after their father died of pneumonia. At 17, he took a printer’s job in St. Louis, where he became a river pilot’s apprentice, then got his river pilot’s license. From this experience, he took the pseudonym “Mark Twain” from a river term meaning waters two fathoms (12 feet) deep, safe enough to navigate.
The Civil War brought river trade to a halt, and Twain worked as a newspaper reporter across the United States. In 1865 his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County,” appeared in the New York Saturday Press and started him on the road to fame. The Innocents Abroad was published in 1869, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885. Twain went on to write 28 books along with essays, travelogues, sketches, letters, and short stories. He was also known for his entrepreneurial spirit, his fascination with technology, and his public speaking.
In 1909, Twain said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ ” On April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to Earth, Twain departed the planet.
To Name This Day . . .
Twain is known for his wit, using humor to hold interest while at the same time critiquing society. To honor him today, choose a societal problem that you find unconscionable, and write your own line(s), sincere or satirical, that get to the heart of what’s wrong about it … or how it could be made right. You can use these quotes of his for inspiration:
“When I am king they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books, for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.”
— from The Prince and the Pauper
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
— Draft manuscript (c.1881), quoted by Albert Bigelow Paine in Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)
“Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”
― from Christian Science
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― from The Innocents Abroad
“Jim said that bees won’t sting idiots, but I didn’t believe that, because I tried them lots of times myself and they wouldn’t sting me.”
― from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spencer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I’m not feeling so well myself.”
― Speech to the Savage Club, June 9, 1899, in Mark Twain’s Speeches (1910), ed. William Dean Howells
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect),” wrote Twain in a notebook in 1904. Even when we don’t find ourselves on the side of the majority, it can be tricky to tease out what values of ours ring true to our souls and which ones we picked up and continue to follow because of the opinions of our peers.
Jot down or share with a friend 5-10 of your most strongly held positions. (If you do this exercise with a friend, they may want to share theirs with you, too.)
Pick one of these positions and explore — in writing or with your friend — how much it is truly your own and how much you have been influenced by those around you. Perhaps you will even discover some humor in the strange contradictions of human behavior.