Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Final Paper (Mark Twain)
3 December 2014
Mark Twain: A True American Philosopher
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Sam was the sixth of seven children of John and Jane Clemens, with only two of his siblings surviving childhood; his brother Orion and sister Pamela. When he was four, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a town on the Mississippi River, and inspiration for St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As Missouri was a slave state, he became well acquainted with slavery, and grew to resent it, as shown in his later work. At age 11, his father died of pneumonia. In 1848 he became a printer’s apprentice, and gained a love of the medium. He became a contributor to the Hannibal Journal, a paper owned by his brother Orion. When he was 18, he left Hannibal and worked as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis (Hoffman).
His pen name Mark Twain originates from his childhood desire to become a steamboat pilot, as this was the dream of most boys he knew at the time. He describes in Life on the Mississippi, "[ the piloget up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, must ... actually know where these things are in the dark..." Steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby took on Twain as a "cub" pilot to teach him the river between New Orleans and St. Louis. It took him more than 2 years to gain his license, and by that point he was going by Mark Twain in his writings, coming from the cry of the leadsman declaring a water depth of 2 fathoms, enough for a riverboat to navigate. During his training, he convinced his brother Henry to work with him. This decision proved to be fatal, as a steamboat Henry was
working on exploded in 1858, killing him. Twain had seen his brother’s death in a dream a month earlier, igniting an interest in parapsychology, a study of paranormal phenomenon. Twain never got over his brother’s death, and was riddled with guilt the rest of his life. He remained a river pilot until the Civil War, when Mississippi trade was shut down. He enlisted briefly in a Confederate unit, but left after 2 weeks (Hoffman).
In 1861, he joined his brother Orion in Nevada as a miner. He failed as a miner, but his writing career took off during this time. His tall tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published in the New York weekly The Saturday Press. It brought him national attention, and allowed him to do his writing professionally, first as a reporter, then a lecturer and author (Mark Twain House).
In December 1867, Twain met Olivia Langdon through her brother Charles. They corresponded through 1868, and were eventually engaged after she rejected the first proposal. They married and moved to New York, meeting “socialists, principled atheists and activists for women's rights and social equality,” including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. They had a son (Langdon), but he died of diphtheria at the age of 19 months. They had 3 daughters, and their marriage lasted 34 years, until Olivia’s death in 1904.
Twain always loved science and technology, desiring to be cutting edge in every aspect of his life (as shown by his friendship with both activists and scientists). He became close friends with Nikola Tesla, and would be one of the first Tesla showed his inventions. He wrote a science-fiction book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which is about a time traveler
from the contemporary US going to King Arthur’s court and bringing modern technology to Medieval England.
His love of science and technology was almost his ruin. He never stopped being a businessman, and in fact became rather famous because of his lack of success in investments. He invested in many seemingly promising such as the Paige typesetting machine, an early typewriter. He invested $300,000 ($8.2 million in modern currency), and the machine failed spectacularly, as models were prone to failure and extremely expensive to repair. It was made obsolete by the Linotype, and all money invested was lost. Twain also lost the equivalent of millions on his failed publishing house Charles L. Webster and Company. He and his family had to move to Europe in 1891, as they could no longer afford their relatively large estate (and believed European baths would help the family’s declining health). He bounced back, however, as he declared bankruptcy and built his fortune back up through successful lectures and writings.
His devotion to honesty and reliability is perhaps best illustrated through his around-the-world tour he embarked on in July 1895. He desired to pay back every single one of his creditors, despite no requirement to do so. He spent most of this tour sick with a cold and a carbuncle. He returned to America in 1900, with enough money to pay all his creditors. When he arrived, he became the country’s most prominent anti-Imperialist, mentioning it regularly in his speeches and lectures, and becoming vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League in New York.
He also became known as perhaps the father of stand-up comedy, as he would perform solo humorous lectures, with an emphasis on jokes more than education. His biggest fans included the Prince of Wales, and he was made an honorary member of the Savage Club in
London. He was a major proponent of the healing power of humor, stating “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
In addition to the lifelong guilt of his brother’s, he had a period of deep depression beginning with the death of his daughter Suzy in 1896. The loss of Olivia and Jean strengthened this, causing his later years to be spent not on humor, but activism and altruism. He formed a club in 1906, the Angel Fish and Aquarium club, for girls he viewed as surrogate grand-daughters. He exchanged letters and brought them to concerts and the theatre. He wrote that the club was his “life’s chief delight (LeMaster).”
In 1909, Mark Twain stated “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'.” His prediction came true, as he died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, one day after the comet’s closest passing (NYT). His estate at his death was estimated at $471,000 ($12 million in modern currency), although his manuscripts were given no value, nor were his copyrights.
We cannot know just every work he wrote as many were under other pseudonyms, and many are still being discovered. His writings began as light-hearted verses, with little commentary. However, much like himself, his writings became darker and heavier in their subject matter. His mid-career piece of Huckleberry Finn combined a wonderful story with biting social commentary. Perhaps his greatest quality was his ability to render colloquial speech
accurately. This was perhaps to his detriment, as his desire to have his characters speak with every mannerism and swear intact led to his censorship, as many libraries and schools refused to allow his books(Murray). Chiefly among the reasons for removal was his frequent use of the word “nigger.” His constant use of the word was driven by the desire to show the regular dehumanization of Black people in the 19th century South. This censorship and refusal to confront their past by the schools and libraries proves his point: people would rather pretend their ancestors are flawless, and that everyone else’s barbarians. These people often had no qualms keeping the writings of Gone With the Wind, a book showing the American South as justified in the Civil War, and yet a book showing real life in Missouri as one Samuel Clemens saw it was (and still is) violently opposed.
His political views changed as he traveled. He began as an ardent Imperialist, but as he traveled the world, he saw firsthand the effects of foreign invasion and colonialism on the indigenous people. He was never afraid to see the other side of an argument, decide if it’s worth something, and making fun of it either way. Although considering himself a Christian and attending church services throughout his life, he was extremely critical of organized religion, especially missionaries. One of his largest controversies was his harsh criticism of Dr. William Scott Ament, as he and other missionaries collected indemnities after the Boxer Uprising in China (Twain “To my missionary critics”). Some of his writings was held back by his family, as they were seen as heretical. He dwelt regularly on the afterlife, often unsure of his fate.
His legacy lives on in the form of endless awards, namesakes, and depictions in television, movies, etc. He’s known for his humor, but in the process he helped people think about the world and examine their own behavior.
"Clemens Family Tree." Mark Twain House & Museum -. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
Hoffman, Andrew Jay. Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. New York: W. Morrow, 1997. Print.
"A Life Lived in a Rapidly Changing World: Samuel L. Clemens‚ 1835-1910." Mark Twain House & Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
LeMaster J. R., The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis, 1993 p. 28
"Mark Twain is Dead at 74. End Comes Peacefully at His New England Home After a Long Illness.” The New York Times. April 22, 1910.
Murray, Stuart A. P. “The Library: An Illustrated History”, New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012, p. 189.
Twain, Mark. "To My Missionary Critics", The North American Review 172. April 1901.