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date: 16 May 2022

Twain, Markfree

(30 November 1835–21 April 1910)

Twain, Markfree

(30 November 1835–21 April 1910)
  • Louis J. Budd

Mark Twain

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-28785).

Twain, Mark (30 November 1835–21 April 1910), author and lecturer, was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, the son of John Marshall Clemens, a lawyer, and Jane Lampton. Though he would intimate in good faith that his father descended from the gentry, his paternal grandparents were slave-owning farmers in Virginia, and his maternal grandparents in Kentucky, while better educated and more prosperous, were not wealthy. His father, having moved to Kentucky, was licensed to practice law in 1822. His parents moved in 1823 to Tennessee, where John Clemens accumulated a huge tract, perhaps as much as 75,000 acres, that would for decades figure in family councils as a potential fortune. He had minimal success as an attorney and speculator. In 1835 he embarked on various ventures in tiny Florida, Missouri, the home of John Adams Quarles, a capable farmer and storekeeper married to Jane Clemens’s younger sister.

In 1839 John Clemens moved his family to Hannibal, Missouri. As late as 1830 Hannibal had about thirty inhabitants; it was not incorporated until 1845. Subsequently, however, it boomed with industries, churches, Sunday schools, several private schools, newspapers, cultural societies, and good contact with St. Louis as the local metropolis. The young Samuel Clemens’s experiences ranged from the near-frontier with its rawness, violence, and speculative fevers to the domesticity of a thriving village. Incongruities abounded for an alert observer puzzled, furthermore, about his own family’s declining status. His father sold his last slave in 1842 and let various holdings go at auction to pay debts, and in 1846 his mother took in meal-boarders.

Samuel Clemens emerged from early frailty into a lively boyhood, though episodes of sleepwalking indicated strong tensions, probably increased by the deaths of a sister and then a brother. His parents, while apparently compatible, struck him as sharply different. His father, careful to come across as a gentleman, was a principled Whig and essentially a freethinker in theology who intimidated him, seeming stiff and austere; his mother, resilient, warm, comfortably religious, and playful, impressed him as a nonconformist. Hindsight cannot discover unusual promise (or lack of it), though his novels suggest that his boyhood involved much imaginative drama. Highly detailed reminiscences almost fifty years later proved that even casual events were embedded in his psyche. His distinctive way of processing experience was forming, and he remembered his surprise when his spontaneous opinions and phrasings first struck others as humorous. Boyhood ended before his twelfth birthday, when his father died. He attended school sporadically for two more years, took various odd jobs, and apprenticed with a printer, with whom he boarded. In 1851 he changed to typesetter and editorial assistant for his brother Orion’s newspaper, which soon published his first known sketch. As his self-confidence rose, he placed a humorous yarn in a Boston periodical, already demonstrating the energetic ambition that drove his career despite the pose of laziness. His early writing showed instinctive exuberance, egalitarianism, irreverence, and boldness.

River Piloting on the Mississippi

In 1853 he joined his married sister in St. Louis, uprooted not only by adventurousness but also by the family’s sense that they could not prosper in Hannibal; Jane Clemens and two other sons soon moved to Iowa. Then he tried to find a steady job as a typesetter in New York City and Philadelphia while writing a few travel letters to Orion’s Muscatine (Iowa) Journal. In 1855 he joined Orion’s next enterprise, a print shop in Keokuk, Iowa, but he was soon planning, with friends, to seek a fortune in South America. Instead, he wandered to Cincinnati, working there as a typesetter for five months until April 1857 and selling two travel letters that clearly aimed to be comic rather than informative. He departed for New Orleans by steamboat, still heading to South America—a surprisingly naive plan for somebody with the experience of his last four years and with so little money that he had to borrow to pay the river pilot who agreed to train him. Significantly, while alert to the forty-niners who had streamed through Hannibal and to later migrants, he had never gone west.

Until licensed in April 1859, he apprenticed under several pilots, absorbing the trauma of the lingering death of his younger brother in a steamboat explosion. A blocked love affair was both decorous and brief, while the ideal of self-betterment motivated him to study French and make time for serious reading, establishing a lifelong pattern. He joined a Masonic lodge and maintained his good standing for ten years. Contrary to later hearsay, he proved competent as a pilot, regularly getting hired for trips between New Orleans and St. Louis, now the home of his family. Well paid and spending freely, he nevertheless escaped the undertow, the gambling and prostitution, of the steamboat world. He probably would have kept at piloting if the Civil War had not closed down traffic on the Mississippi.

Twain’s Western Years

Samuel Clemens favored holding the nation together above all, but after secession he chose the South; only gradually, out west, would his loyalty shift toward the Union. Having endured two feckless weeks in the countryside with the self-named Marion Rangers, a band of his Hannibal friends and supposedly Confederate militia, he was satisfied by July 1861 to slip away as private secretary to Orion, himself the secretary of the new Nevada Territory. From St. Joseph, Missouri, to Carson City they traveled memorably by stagecoach. Clemens went west not as a pioneer but to strike a bonanza and, grimly persistent, did actual prospecting, staked out mining and timber claims, and speculated in local stocks. He also freelanced for local newspapers as well as with travel letters until needing cash so badly that he accepted in September 1862 a full-time job on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. His ebullient later yarning obscures the fact that his job involved much straight reporting, especially of the sessions of the territorial legislature. Beyond providing this inside look into how politics operated, his stint on the Territorial Enterprise plunged him into all levels of a society more volatile and turbulent, more anarchic and sometimes dangerous, than that in any part of the Mississippi Valley. Yet Virginia City had so quickly imported the framework of eastern culture that his public and private letters transmit a montage of roistering, dancing at well-behaved soirees, fundraising for a church or school, trading in wildcat stocks, chuckling at another fight, and snacking on milk and homemade pie.

In February 1863 Samuel Clemens started using the pen name Mark Twain, most simply explainable as the leadsman’s call for two fathoms, or a depth of twelve feet. Visits to San Francisco, where a bohemian literary coterie with its own periodicals had developed, intensified his swagger but also opened more prestigious outlets for his writing, already spread by “exchange”—the practice of reprinting choice items from other newspapers. When Charles Farrar Browne (“Artemus Ward”) toured Virginia City, he encouraged Twain’s professionalism, already stimulated by Dan De Quille (William Wright), a fellow reporter and talented hoaxer and satirist. But freewheeling success led to such overreaching that in May 1864, having insulted the leading matrons of Carson City by joking that they had raised money “to aid a ‘miscegenation’ or some other sort of Society in the East” and having broken a recent law, during the war of words that resulted, by challenging a rival editor to a duel, he decamped to San Francisco, doubtless surprised by how many newspapers jeered at his blunders; masterful in any battle of wits, he had not realized that his victims were eager for revenge. Despite the sunny heartiness of Roughing It (1872), his western years, already a comedown from the panache of piloting, brought humiliations that exacerbated his anxiety about the future.

Hired in San Francisco as a workaday reporter, Twain soon rebounded into prominence among a more sophisticated circle that included Bret Harte. Next, too effective at ridiculing the local police for incompetence, petty graft, and callousness, he veered off to prospect, both literally and figuratively, the foothills in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. On returning to San Francisco in the spring of 1865, he fleshed out a yarn heard when the weather had discouraged pocket mining and sent “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” eastward. Widely reprinted, it emboldened him to aim for a career beyond the region while still reluctant about “seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures. Poor, pitiful business!” Along with establishing not only a byline but an antic yet likable persona, he had impressed newspaper editors as dependable enough to support for four months as a correspondent from the hard-to-reach Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and his travel letters expertly blended statistics, landscape, local history, oddities, and clowning. By age thirty his treasury of exotic experiences already surpassed Tom Sawyerish daydreams.

The Innocents Abroad (1869)

Having managed to please audiences several times since a first speech in Iowa, Twain ventured to charge for a lecture in San Francisco about the Sandwich Islands. The lecture went over well, and he was encouraged to tour northern California and Nevada. As correspondent for a newspaper, late in 1866 he sailed back to the East, crossing Central America through Nicaragua for another exotic experience. After a visit with his family and lectures in St. Louis, Hannibal, and elsewhere, he performed in Manhattan and Brooklyn with aggressive élan. A collection of tales and other pieces, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867) had poor sales. Meanwhile, however, the San Francisco Alta California had agreed to pay his fare on an expensive, much-publicized excursion. When the Quaker City set out in June 1867, Twain carried offers from New York City dailies too. A whole series of then-rare experiences rushed him through North Africa, southern and western Europe, the Crimea, Palestine, and Egypt. He dashed off travel letters while interacting with upper-middle-class passengers. Meanwhile came the offer to become private secretary to hard-driving William M. Stewart, senator from the fledgling state of Nevada.

After hurrying down to the capital, Twain soon reverted to journalism because the Quaker City letters had boomed his reputation. Not just western but New York and Chicago newspapers wanted his byline columns. Better still, several feelers about a book led to his signing with the American Publishing Company, potentially a very profitable arrangement because the company sold by “subscription”—that is, by soliciting orders door to door. Visits to its director started developing Twain’s ties to Hartford, Connecticut. When in Washington, he churned out both semiserious reporting and topical sketches, some clearly pro-Republican. But the decision to concentrate on a book sent him back west in March 1868 to negotiate for the copyright on the Quaker City letters. While out west he revised them sweepingly, grateful for a detailed critique from Bret Harte, and covered his always prodigal expenses by lecturing in California and Nevada towns before presenting a farewell speech in San Francisco. He never insisted on returning again, preferring the prestige and amenities achievable in the Northeast.

Twain thoroughly admired the sober elegance of Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, who had settled in Elmira, New York, since 1845 and become wealthy from Jervis’s dealings in lumber and coal. The Langdons were open-minded about religion, humane in their politics, intellectually earnest, and perceptive enough or just so doting as to let their daughter Olivia Louise (born in 1845) eventually marry Twain. She had been introduced to him by her young brother, whom he had dazzled on the Quaker City. Twain showered Olivia, just emerging from years of enforced bed rest, with florid, pious, worshiping letters that were so sincere as to almost parody the ideal Victorian courtship. Nevertheless, during the 1868–1869 lecture season his travelogue “The American Vandal Abroad” subordinated seriousness to farce and reverence for the old or sacred to Yankee Doodle pertness. In August 1869, with money lent to him by his prospective father-in-law, he bought a one-third ownership of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Express, which brought his bustling debut as an editor and topical columnist and supposedly ended sixteen years of near-vagabondage.

The Innocents Abroad (1869) was attracting so many buyers as to justify grander projects than a middling-sized newspaper. Analyzing how Twain reworked the letters rushed off en route, later critics have tried to elicit a disciplined pattern for the book. But it was shaped—and lavishly illustrated—for readers who would enjoy it episodically. Its guiding attitude assured them that Mark Twain, while unpredictable from day to day, had reacted to Europe with the self-respecting curiosity and to the Holy Land with the guarded awe they would have felt. Benefiting from his years of playing to, and sometimes misjudging, audiences, the book negotiated the right compromise of democratic contempt for pretense, hostility to state churches but reverence for the basic images of Christianity, quickness to spot frauds, sarcasm for Old World backwardness but awe of antiquity, gusto for fresh experiences, and colloquial breeziness competing with hard-breathing eloquence. The dynamic I-narrator, always visible and audible, bridged the inconsistencies. Twain’s lectures during the 1869–1870 season both profited from and restoked the popularity of The Innocents Abroad, which would remain his truly distinctive book for many of his contemporaries.

Adjusting to Domestic Life

His marriage in February 1870 included a fairy-tale surprise from his wife’s parents—a completely furnished house in Buffalo along with horse and carriage. The next month he contracted for a monthly column in the flourishing Galaxy magazine, and his feeling of inexhaustible creativity projected three more books for the subscription trade. But difficulties set in with the lingering death of his father-in-law, the frail health of a son born in November 1870, and his wife’s slow recovery. Other problems further dimmed the charm of householding, especially when the daily routine for the Buffalo Express turned out to be numbing rather than fulfilling, much less triumphant. On the positive side, he was integrating changes in his emotional life that would deepen and enrich his literary persona. In 1871, after his first summer of writing at “Quarry Farm,” the Elmira home of Olivia’s sister (by adoption) Susan and her husband Theodore Crane, the Twain family moved to Hartford, which attracted him as a cultured, stable community and where Olivia had close friends. The profits from future books and his lectures, which were reviewed warmly during the 1871–1872 season, convinced him that they could afford the spacious neighborhood called Nook Farm. Driven as much by pleasure in his ingenuity as by duty toward the march of progress, he applied for the first of his patents with an adjustable garment strap; his one profitable invention, Mark Twain’s Self-Pasting Scrapbook, was registered in 1873.

Roughing It (1872) enriched Twain’s reputation as a carefree, footloose humorist whose books built on interesting subjects. Constructed more carefully than The Innocents Abroad, its unity nevertheless depends on the infolded I-persona, a tenderfoot recalled by a seasoned observer who exaggerates his lost naiveté. Readers tend to remember not any ideas but rather episodes animated by zest for the incongruous and virile delight in the varieties of humankind, though the book’s title has come to mean a generic experience. Only after its tall tales and flights into burlesque have been assimilated does analysis weigh its contradictory, sardonic, or Whiggish moods. Wary readers of today notice the denigration of the local Indians and Chinese.

After adjusting to the birth of daughter Olivia Susan (or Susy) and the death of his son, both in 1872, Twain predictably decided on a book to counter the British travelers whose opinions had long stirred resentment in the United States. But a visit to Great Britain to amass details uncovered a readership pulsing with hospitality. He returned to Hartford to buy a large lot and to contract for an expensive house, then took an entourage of five back to England. Olivia and he were sought out by cultural and literary figures, while—in an age when standards reached high—his after-dinner speeches were triumphs. They led to lectures so popular that, having guided his family home, he rushed back to encore their success. By then, contempt for aristocracy through birth was softened by gratitude toward a lucrative British audience.

The Gilded Age (1873)

At the end of 1873 The Gilded Age appeared simultaneously—to protect the copyright—in the United States and Great Britain. Written jointly with Charles Dudley Warner, it was soon identified more with Twain for its biting satire of political thievery, postbellum glitter, and topicalities major and minor. Its title would achieve a generic (in this case, historical) currency; for decades, furthermore, its Colonel Sellers was instanced as the New World’s newest kind of dreamer—kindhearted but laughable while tirelessly fantasizing about schemes such as a railroad that would instantly create thriving cities in the hinterlands.

In 1874 the pattern for Twain’s own magnificently productive years until 1891 emerged. His sister-in-law built him a gazebo overlooking Quarry Farm, itself on a commanding hill; a second daughter (Clara) thickened the web of domesticity; and placing “A True Story” in the Atlantic Monthly started a climb in prestige, quickened by installments of “Old Times on the Mississippi” in 1875. Before then the family had moved into their striking house designed, with much customized furniture and decorations, by a fashionable architect. They would refurbish it expensively several times while always alert for kindred objects d’art and the latest appliances, such as telephones or burglar alarms.

The hubbub at their Nook Farm home—usually counterpointed by summers at Quarry Farm—echoed Twain’s expanding career as author, celebrity, entrepreneur, and activist citizen both locally and nationally. He had the psychic energy and depth to take close interest also in three daughters (Jean—christened Jane Lampton—was born in 1880), sharing their concerns and inventing games while deferring to his wife’s judgment on how to mold them toward ladyhood. Olivia (or Livy) had proved to be grave-minded yet physically affectionate, mild in stating a firm code of ethics, as demanding of herself as she was tolerant of others. Though sometimes imploring her husband to invite fewer guests, she enjoyed her expected roles; in ways, such as donating Christmas baskets, she surpassed what he thought she should and could do. Reared to manage servants, she coordinated as many as seven with, ordinarily, goodwill from both sides. She also functioned as his editor of first resort, not as censor but the judge of allowable limits that Twain needed and wanted. Still, the enthusiasm with which such an impulsive personality played the role of paterfamilias doubtless caused more crises than Victorian reticence admitted.

Along with Warner, neighbors included Harriet Beecher Stowe and feminist Isabella Beecher Hooker, both of whom attracted eminent visitors besides their brother, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. Hartford itself surpassed the average level of wealth, learning, civic zeal, and moral strenuousness. Twain pulled his weight in the Monday Evening Club, which discussed essays by its members; he helped organize the equally serious Saturday Morning Club for young women; and when Olivia’s friends formed a Browning Society, he served diligently as their reader. Though many men and women would recall his warm sincerity and even tenderness, his crony was Joseph Hopkins Twichell, genial and sanguine pastor of the Congregational church nearby. Improbably, they stayed lifelong friends. During courtship Twain had professed to rekindle the Christianity learned in Sunday school and later transmuted into a vague deism, but that fervor had again cooled as, despite the genuine contentments of the Hartford years, cynicism and a mechanistic determinism spread into his ongoing search for a philosophy to live by. More specifically, his reading in the current debate landed him on the side of science against doctrinal religion, which he believed impeded intellectual progress and the advance of technology. He amused himself with manuscripts that would have enraged fundamentalists, though among his friends he did not preach nihilism before the later 1890s.

Literary Friends

The Twain home attracted a swelling, almost daily parade. Literary houseguests included Bret Harte, with whom he cobbled a play before they quarreled irreparably, in essence because of an increasing professional jealousy and a widening incompatibility of character; George Washington Cable, recruited later for a joint, ballyhooed lecture tour; and Grace King, who grew close to Olivia. The most welcome guest was William Dean Howells. At their 1869 meeting in the office of the Atlantic Monthly, the two newcomers to the East discovered many bonds of attitude as well as background. With Olivia’s gratitude, Howells drifted into screening and even proofreading, unpaid, several of Twain’s books. They tried to collaborate, especially on a play because Twain had received huge royalties from Colonel Sellers, a farce eked out of The Gilded Age. Their relationship, punctuated with frequent laughter, was vibrantly personal, and their letters constitute a monument to the dynamics of friendship.

Among the firsthand judgments, My Mark Twain (1910) is uniquely compelling if the reader can accept Howells’s loving awe, which concludes that “Clemens [as he always addressed him] was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Though Howells’s forte as a novelist lay in deciphering character, Twain “was apt to smile into your face with a subtle but amiable perception; you were all there for him, but he was not all there for you.” Yet, paradoxically, his honesty outclassed “all the people I have known” because he was “so promptly … so almost aggressively truthful,” so “absolutely without pose.” This spontaneity caused not only instant, extreme loyalty to friends but matching hatred for enemies that boiled on beyond their deaths, which “seemed to deepen their crimes” like a “cowardly attempt to escape.” Professionally, Howells appreciated Twain, for his lithe, kinetic, natural-sounding prose and his related artistry, as “the most consummate public performer I ever saw,” marveling once that “you were as much yourself before those thousands as if you stood by my chimney-corner.” Of the premier critics, Howells tries least to separate Samuel Clemens from Mark Twain.

Because Twain lived so publicly while behaving so viscerally, he left clashing impressions. Fits of arrogance, real or protective, increased with success, which attracted bores, psychopaths, a gallery of petitioners, and con men. He of course sensed his swelling power as opinion maker or just spender; putting brother Orion on a monthly pension made him absentee head of his old family. Forgivable or not, his notorious bursts of anger signaled tensions under the glow of the Nook Farm years. His conscience, which indicted him for sins and crimes that ordinary minds rationalize away, multiplied the pretexts for reproach; his self-doubt now gnawed on his never feeling totally accepted by New England genteelists and yet also guilt for wanting their approval. More simply, as his prestige mounted, the fear of falling grew keener; occasionally he worried that his happiness was just a dream, a fantasy of wish fulfillment. Nevertheless, reality kept reassuring him munificently, liberating his primal instincts. In the words of Carl Van Doren, “His comic energy, while his powers were at their height, was his nature rather than his purpose or weapon” (Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 20).

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

Howells would steadfastly claim laudable purpose for Twain, even announcing that Sketches, New and Old (1875), a jumble of strained burlesques, showed a deepening seriousness. He puffed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) as “realistic in the highest degree,” as “instructive” for the “grown-up.” More darkly, modernist critics expound the quizzicality of Tom Sawyer toward the adult values of St. Petersburg—physically recognizable as Hannibal. However, the novel quickly became the classic evocation of barefooted, mischievous boyhood. Nostalgic readers conflate it with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) as they shepherd their children through the restored sites expecting to feel a Norman Rockwell ambience. Translation into more and rarer languages continues, and Tom and Huck, often with Becky Thatcher, caper regularly on film, whitewashing the fence or exploring a cave.

After Tom Sawyer, Twain, seldom certain about how well he had written, turned back to his dependable genre with “Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion,” exploiting a holiday in Bermuda with Twichell. Then 1877 ended shakily after his intricate, risky sketch, delivered at a banquet for John Greenleaf Whittier, was condemned by some newspapers as irreverent toward the current literary demigods of New England. All the more vulnerable to advice to display his finer side, he projected a didactic fable about a Tudor boy-king but stopped for a family tour of Europe that ended in England, where he met Charles Darwin, to their mutual pleasure, in August 1879. Understandably, he had gathered material for a successor to The Innocents Abroad, which, he gloated, “sells right along just like the Bible.” Though the family had to unpack the trophies of vigorous shopping and resolve various problems from being abroad seventeen months, Twain soon scintillated at banquets as far away as Chicago. In those heady years any spells of fatigue were short; until old age took hold, he liked to deny ever getting sick.

Having supported Rutherford B. Hayes for president in 1876 through a cautiously modulated interview, Twain orated for James A. Garfield in 1880 with the confidence of an influential citizen, if only because A Tramp Abroad (1880), after resisting closure, was selling briskly. Adjusted to his changing image and to his continual, ambitious self-education through reading and simply less inspired, it was tamer than his veteran admirers hoped for, but it achieved characteristic flights of hilarity and dragged in irrelevant yet memorable yarns. While finishing thorough research (by his standards) into the reign of Edward VI, he kept diversifying his activities boldly. He hired a young nephew as business manager, started to back a mechanical typesetter and other inventions, made a gamut of investments that seldom paid off, and traveled to Canada to protect The Prince and the Pauper (1882) against “pirates” who had cut deeply into his royalties since the mid-1870s. Such was his power to concentrate when necessary that it would create his best disciplined book, though devotees of the raucous “native” humorist or flippant “literary comedian” were surprised by the sentimentality, often indulged before but never so insistent. Culturally earnest parents vague about British history welcomed a suspenseful narrative they could urge on the young, and its changelings who demonstrate that undergoing pain and injustice can teach humaneness still attract translators around the world in contrasting political climates.

Twain’s Masterpiece

The next book should have come easily, all the more because the superb “Old Times” chapters—with the “great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun”—were already done. Twain had long intended to produce the “standard” work about his river. Revisiting it by steamboat helped to sharpen his senses and to net fresh anecdotes, enough to please some readers of Life on the Mississippi (1883). But the opinions expressed in the book about the postbellum economy along the entire valley interested fewer, and very few cared for its statistics and secondhand ballast. While Twain, always judging by sales, groused about his new publisher, his pace left no time for reflective self-appraisal as artist. Having again picked up a planned sequel to Tom Sawyer, he also spun out forgettable burlesques, worked (and played) with Howells on a dead-end farce, tried to convert his novels for the stage, brainstormed as impresario for a tour with Cable, planned his own publishing firm, and dashed off (in a handsome script) more of the thousands of letters that delight both biographers and collectors. He declared for the Mugwumps in 1884, proudly offending the Republican regulars he had usually marched with since 1868. Gifted in all degrees of irony, he would leave dedicated enemies in Hartford too.

Early in 1885 Twain’s firm—set up as Charles L. Webster and Company—released its first book, using the subscription channel. The opening (“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter.”) and the closing (“But I reckon I got to light for the Territory ahead of the rest because aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”) are the most explicated set of sentences in world literature. Before Adventures of Huckleberry Finn proved to be a classic that escapes its author’s definition of “a book which people praise and don’t read,” it pleased few literary critics, particularly not the guardians of uplift. It challenged reticence about backwoods squalor and common ignorance, and it frustrated pious clichés. For later taste, its plot staggers before finishing lamely. Yet tens of millions of readers, even of translations that lose not only the crosscutting of the vernacular but the idiomatic lilt, have delighted in its onrushing humor of character and phrasing, its escapist tableaux, its positive warmth where deserved, and its myth of inborn virtue (in 1895 Twain’s notebook explained that a “sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision”) along with its sardonic profiles of meanness and greed. The original plates added the minstrel-show level of the illustrations that Twain supervised. Despite that, in 1885, when racial prejudice was reestablishing itself as legal, whites could learn better from the sound heart, mind, and conscience of the runaway slave Jim.

While Twain’s masterpiece sold satisfyingly, his firm’s next venture unfortunately let him feel himself to be a genius at his latest trade. Long acquainted with Ulysses S. Grant, because everybody wanted to meet Mark Twain, he had captured the dying general’s Memoirs. The two-volume set paid off so hugely that he could back an inventor with $3,000 monthly for an always more intricate typesetter without cutting down on intentional charities such as subsidizing at least three black college students. The impressive public tributes for his fiftieth birthday probably surprised him little. He was getting so many invitations—petitions, actually—to speak that nobody could reasonably mind being refused. Confident that his golden touch for business made his next book “my swan-song, my retirement from literature permanently,” he gestated a tendentious fantasy about sixth-century England, encouraged to believe that the public wanted his judgments on major contemporary issues. In 1888 Yale University conferred an honorary M.A.; in 1889 young Rudyard Kipling, hailing from the other side of the globe, sought him out in Elmira to pay homage; Edward Bellamy, suddenly famous for Looking Backward, traveled to Hartford when invited.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)

As much as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) outraged devotees of the Tennysonian legend, it pleased anti-British egalitarians with its enemy of privilege, drawn cleverly by Daniel Carter Beard. Moreover, the jaunty idiom of the I-narrator lightened the hortatory passages. Twain’s genius shone at its brightest in autobiography, whether fictional or ostensibly his own. Beneath the knockabout comedy, A Connecticut Yankee spelled out his social philosophy: universal suffrage rooted in education freed of prescribed religion, laissez-faire economics softened by the right to unionize against any tyrannical corporations, the nurturing of industry by protecting patents, a civil service staffed through merit rather than patronage, a stable currency, and free trade—Manchester liberalism with an American face. The results of progress instituted from the top and bloodily enforced have darkened post-totalitarian criticism of A Connecticut Yankee, in which, worse than elsewhere in Twain’s fiction, stated intention clashes with its results and with inferences that a reasonable mind may draw, especially concerning the climactic battle, which some later critics have read as indicting technology or even as perpetrating “genocide,” while the author meant rather to crush a hereditary, oppressive aristocracy. But historians of science fiction praise its use of time travel in reverse, and the general reader still enjoys its case for technology, anger toward advantages of class, and irreverent farce. Its profits did not, however, solve the cash flow problems of Twain’s publishing firm, which had overlooked the traps in selling an eleven-volume edition of Library of American Literature and carrying an inventory of semi-reference books. Legal fees also drained him; his sense of personal justice beyond any self-interest directed much time, fuming, and money into actual or threatened litigation. By 1891 the monthly check for the typesetter had to stop. Meanwhile, rheumatism was torturing his right arm, and despite our feeling that his prose flows like talk, it failed to do so for a dictaphone. In June Twain and his family left for Europe to stay until their income again matched their extravagant habits. Though Olivia would buy more furnishings for the Hartford house, the family never revitalized it with their interplay. In fact the two older daughters started struggling to emerge from under their father’s fame and devotion.

Of course Twain had contracted for travel letters to be sent from France, Germany, Switzerland, and Marienbad (the famous spa in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Settled in Berlin for the winter of 1891–1892, he compiled the too hopefully named Merry Tales and reactivated Colonel Sellers for The American Claimant, his closest approach to a realistic novel and his dullest book. After moving, with detours, to a villa in Florence, he aimed squarely for royalties with Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and perhaps with what became The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy, Those Extraordinary Twins (1894) while cogitating his biography of Joan of Arc as a long-deferred labor of love. Opinion has divided over whether Pudd’nhead Wilson is a hurried botch or a jagged upthrust of his fascination with twins, changelings, reverses of identity, and disguises. While giving his most synoptic look at the antebellum South, it wavers between nature and nurture, between the determinisms of heredity and environment. More troublesome, it dramatizes both a warmer sensitivity toward blacks and approval (seconded by the illustrations) of the comic stereotypes then believed by most whites. Likewise, the humor oscillates between buffoonery and corrosive satire.

Tour around the World

Twain worried continually about income, though the family’s scale of activity in Europe shows that Olivia’s inheritance made a sturdy floor. With the American economy sputtering just when he most needed credit, he rushed back several times to prop up his firm and the typesetter. Luckily, a friendship developed with Henry Huttleston Rogers, an insider of the Standard Oil Company and a feared operator on Wall Street. Along with his hunts for capital Twain shone at so many social events as to get nicknamed the “Belle of New York.” The year of reckoning was 1894. He gave Rogers his power of attorney, assigned his copyrights to Olivia, and in April announced the bankruptcy of his publishing house. To complete the rout, the typesetter broke down at its crucial test. Accepting Rogers’s advice to assume business debts that were legally voided, he decided to remount the lecture platform. As the family moved back from Paris, their most recent perch, that idea expanded into a showy “tour around the world.”

In July 1895 he set out from Cleveland with Olivia and daughter Clara. After engagements in the upper tier of states they embarked for Australia and New Zealand. The format settled into the billing of “At Home”—an adjustable chain of field-tested anecdotes and passages from his writing, supposedly unified by the theme of moral growth. Interviewers, deferentially sympathetic, played up his age and ailments besides his financial heroism. Still, parading on to acclaim in India, Ceylon, and finally South Africa, he enjoyed the sights and even most of his performances, adjusting deftly to local problems and national differences. The expected reunion in London collapsed with the death at Hartford of his daughter Susy, just twenty-four years old and endowed, her parents judged, for creative achievements. Twain began to formulate a determinist metaphysic for his lifelong moods of pessimism. While the family mourned in rigid seclusion, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) met with many mixed reviews, some of which preferred competing biographies or chided the quality of its research, which had nevertheless been unusually systematic for Twain. Its most original feature evoked Joan’s pastoral girlhood; its sentimentality and near-piety puzzled his core audience; and his own biographers interpret it as enshrining his ideals of virginal purity and total, selfless loyalty. Meanwhile, to distract his brooding he labored toward enough manuscript for Following the Equator (1897), titled More Tramps Abroad in the tidier British edition. Much of its humor was forced, steadily pumped up on cue. Still, the countries it sampled were exotic for Western readers, and his irrepressible curiosity shone through. Most reviewers acknowledged its political commentary; while ambivalent about the British raj, Twain had snapped alert to imperialism or, more particularly, its seizures of territory and its exploitation and even slaughter of native peoples.

By the summer of 1897 the family had regenerated enough energy to leave London, settling next in Vienna because Clara had decided on a career in music. Both the press and reigning socialites welcomed them with unexpected enthusiasm, and Clara and her father, often without Olivia, were soon attending parties and recitals. Twain’s tireless interest in current events produced several marketable essays about conflicts within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his yearnings as playwright restirred, though more solemnly than before. As soon as Rogers had cleared his debts, Twain was negotiating for another world-scale invention, admitting, defiantly but cheerfully, that he could not merely coast along. Still, the writing project that engaged him the most fundamentally, the Eseldorf version of the Mysterious Stranger fable, preached a somber philosophy. Outwardly, the family’s sociability swirled on, reaching its high point with the private audience that Emperor Franz Joseph granted Twain before the family returned to London in May 1899. By then his practice of embellishing autographs with one of his maxims, first featured in Pudd’nhead Wilson, had become an applauded habit.

Return to the United States (1900)

The British lionized Twain further, though the family wanted privacy since all four had problems with or worries about their health, which improved little with treatments at a Swedish sanatorium. Growing hostile to British foreign policy, especially in South Africa, Twain was restrained not just by personal ties or the firming Anglo-American alliance but also by awareness that his criticism would rate headlines, as did simply his heralded arrival back in the United States—never to leave, he vowed. His rise to celebrity had been aided by his habitually cultivating reporters, insisting that he was at heart still “one of the boys.” Empathetic with their daily foraging, he had tried to supply usable material even when not plugging a book, lecture, candidate, or fundraiser. As his prestige swelled to match his self-assurance, reporters let him control the flow of subjects. Every major New York City newspaper and syndicate covered him in October 1900 at dockside, where he radiated vitality and patriotism yet also announced his anti-imperialism.

Despite his choosing to stay abroad most of the time since 1891, the public embraced Twain as the quintessential American who had sallied forth to win the homage of the world. Friends, would-be acquaintances, and journalists besieged the family’s brownstone in lower Manhattan; the House of Harper bought the serial rights to his writings for a year at twenty cents a word, and Yale University conferred a D.Litt. Organizers of social events begged him to show up for at least a while; the anti-Tammany coalition in New York City featured his support while he cooperated with gusto. Sharing the euphoria, his family could face up to their qualms about resurrecting the Nook Farm idyll, and Twain probably wanted a wider stage; they rented a house near Manhattan. Without apparent strain he moved deeper into the doubleness that fascinates biographers. His anti-imperialism, which now explicitly challenged American policies also, rang out in righteous essays; yet some manuscripts spun tragic, crushing fantasies that offer only the escape of being a dream. He cruised on Rogers’s luxurious yacht, playing poker, and made his speeches the most enjoyable course of a banquet; yet he interacted tensely with his daughters. For his sixty-seventh birthday he let George Harvey, who headed Harper’s as the protégé of J. P. Morgan, orchestrate a banquet at an exclusively expensive club just as he was deciding that finance capital had corrupted the Eden of his childhood. When the muckrakers and district attorneys were exposing the history of Standard Oil, he declared that “for eleven years” Rogers “has been my closest and most valuable friend.” Actually, Rogers gave Twain, intangibly as well as directly, more than he exacted.

The divided life swept on. When the University of Missouri honored Twain with an LL.D., he visited Hannibal and St. Louis nostalgically but nestled back into the modernity of Manhattan. In 1903 Harper’s made him financially secure by cornering at last the rights to all his books and guaranteeing $25,000 annually for the next five years; but Olivia, whose health required the climate of Italy, had to be shielded from his nihilistic side. Returning to their villa near Florence, he yarned his autobiography with comic undertones while agonizing until Olivia’s death in June 1904. Nobody has charged him with infidelity during his many absences from home, and Olivia never regretted stepping into his whirlwind. If critics grumble that his fiction portrays marriage as mutual devotion, he could claim experience of it. Yet his élan surged back through his grief. While summering in New Hampshire he composed not only the nightmarish “3,000 Years among the Microbes,” but also, partly in tribute to Olivia, the whimsically humorous “Eve’s Diary.” Still loudly inconsolable, he leased a house near Washington Square in Manhattan. While fleshing out a more phantasmagoric version of the Mysterious Stranger, he socialized amiably. His formal mourning ended with a gala seventieth-birthday banquet for 172 guests selected by Harvey. Countersigning his literary immortality, he accepted Albert Bigelow Paine’s petition for the office of biographer and made room for him in the Fifth Avenue house, where an adoring spinster tidied up his domestic, literary, and business affairs while a stenographer took down more of his reminiscing.

Literary Immortality

Having proclaimed an earned right to willfulness in his widely reprinted speech for the birthday fete, Twain drank heavily, played billiards almost compulsively, raged at enemies real or imagined, and lorded over his retinue. However, spurning any fee, he shone at do-good meetings, occasionally proved that his civic conscience smoldered on, fanned the flames of democracy abroad with “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” stretched his hatred of inhumanity as far as the Belgian Congo with the booklet “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” and lobbied at the capital for a better copyright law, unveiling for the cause his instantly famous white suit as winter wear. Conflicted pairings abound. Published anonymously, What Is Man? (1906) compressed his struggles with a tirelessly accusatory conscience into a dialogue arguing that humankind operates machinelike from egoistic motives, whether rationalized crudely or civilized into the desire for self-approval. But the installments of autobiography sold to the North American Review recalled autonomous if eccentric personalities along with many pleasurable episodes. Lonesome beneath the stroking at his Fifth Avenue court, he revisited Bermuda with Twichell and summered youthfully in 1907 with the Rogers family, leaving to upstage the ceremony where Oxford University bestowed an enviable Litt. D. and to strut through both starchy parties and the tabloids. Joking broadly about the imminence of death, he rounded off some manuscripts. Christian Science (1907) completed ten years of half-chortling, half-fuming about the rise of Mary Baker Eddy; “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” focused his decades of lofty musing about the myopia of ethnocentrism and the commonsense flaws in the vision of a domesticated, earthlike eternity. Contemplating eternity, he nevertheless commissioned an elaborate country seat near Redding, Connecticut.

In June 1908 Twain occupied “Innocence at Home,” soon renamed “Stormfield.” It helped amplify contact with his daughters, particularly Clara, who was having some success as a vocal soloist. It also helped interest his “Angelfish,” an “Aquarium” of prepubescent girls whom he wheedled for letters and visits. But, cooperating daily with Paine, he kept rooted in the adult world, demanding proper fees for an essay; the Mark Twain Company was set up primarily to protect his estate, whose probate value would reach $540,000. Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909) leaned heavily toward the refurbished theory that Francis Bacon wrote the famous plays; “Letters from the Earth” typified his copious writing for private amusement, which grew saturnine as he elaborated still more fancifully his skepticism toward the dogmas of Sunday school in Hannibal. Twain could never accept the stern, demanding God of the Old Testament or ignore Him. Clara’s marriage at Stormfield to Ossip Gabrilowitsch, later a distinguished musician, pleased him, but epileptic Jean died there accidentally the morning before the Christmas of 1909. While contemplating her several tragedies, Twain realized abashedly that his comic spontaneity would nevertheless rebound. But it was increasingly stifled by heart disease, overdue for an incessant smoker (who had, he drolled, given up cigars many a time). Trips to Bermuda helped little before his death at Stormfield.

Twain’s reputation, on the rise throughout his career, held steady. Paine, starting with a massive biography in 1912, would guard it as his own chief asset while editing Twain’s letters, notebooks, and other texts. Though severe on socio-aesthetic grounds, Van Wyck Brooks’s The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) did not rout Twain’s readership, which kept growing, especially for the two great Tom-Huck novels sometimes reprinted as a unit. After death ended Paine’s possessiveness, Bernard DeVoto, the next literary executor, began opening the family archives, and his successor, Henry Nash Smith, made them fully available. So Mark Twain lives on in a uniquely double way. He remains popular as an author and a cultural icon, and he fascinates a circle of scholars and critics delving into his works, mind, personality, and career.


The main archive of Twain’s notebooks, unfinished manuscripts, correspondence, business documents, and miscellanea is housed at the Mark Twain Project, University of California, Berkeley, which has steadily inventoried these materials for easier use, acquired copies of materials in other depositories, and built up its library of secondary works. In the next range of importance stand the archives of manuscripts, letters, and first editions at the New York Public Library and the libraries of Yale University and the University of Virginia; the Vassar College Library holds material descended through Twain’s sister. The Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford, Conn., the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies, and the Mark Twain Boyhood Home Foundation collect relevant materials; in 1993 the Mark Twain Research Foundation was moved to Florida, Mo., and reorganized. Every general research library holds rare editions and some autographed letters. Nick Karanovich holds the outstanding private collection.

Besides Twain’s full-length books he published volumes such as Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1904) and many collections such as A True Story and the Recent Carnival of Crime (1877), sometimes with a new item added as in The Stolen White Elephant (1882) and Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Other Stories (1896). Pamphlets, some authorized, with one or more sketches appeared throughout his lifetime; the most notorious is [Date 1601] Conversation, As It Was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors (1876, 1880). Starting in 1967 the Iowa-California Edition and the parallel Mark Twain Papers Edition have issued authoritative texts of his writings and his heretofore unpublished (except selectively) notebooks and manuscripts. The Library of America edition of Mark Twain’s Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (2 vols., 1992) is selective but comprehensive. The Oxford Mark Twain, under the general editorship of Shelley Fisher Fishkin (29 vols., 1996), is made up of facsimiles of first editions, with prefaces and afterwords by contemporary writers, critics, and scholars.

A. B. Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (1912), records many personal details not available otherwise. Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966), won several major prizes. Louis J. Budd, Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality (1983), traces his career as popular hero. Everett Emerson, The Authentic Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens (1984), combines analysis of his texts and his character. John Gerber, Mark Twain (1988), is a brief critical biography within the format of a series. Guy Cardwell, The Man Who Was Mark Twain: Images and Ideologies (1991), is sternly interpretive rather than documentary. Alan Gribben, Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction (2 vols, 1980), is indispensable for any study of intellectual tastes and sources.

Emerson and Gerber give selective but expert bibliographies. American Literary Scholarship: An Annual, starting in 1963, has a chapter on Mark Twain. Among the four active newsletters, the Mark Twain Circular, founded in 1987, has increasingly stressed bibliography. After the Mark Twain Journal came under the editorship of Thomas A. Tenney in 1983, it focused on substantive articles. Tenney’s Mark Twain: A Reference Guide (1977) was authoritative when published and has had supplements in periodicals; its revision will make it the single most useful resource. J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson, eds., The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), has much dependable information and analysis. R. Kent Rasmussen, Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings (1995), is comprehensive and precise.

Twain’s death touched off an avalanche of tributes, reminiscences, and essays, in both the United States and Great Britain, climaxed by a public meeting in Carnegie Hall of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, reported in detail in Harper’s Weekly, 17 Dec. 1910.