Sometimes I reach for organization and plan a series of blogs, then something happens to totally knock me off course. Take my bald eagle blog of March 17. I’d fully intended to tell you about a guy with a hole in his head but couldn’t resist sharing that eagle cam. By the way, the babies are hatched and healthy if you wanna snare a quick peek
So… when I found out today is the hundred-year anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, well, duh. The American Lit teacher in me screamed out. The guy was born in 1835 when Halley’s Comet was making its infrequent sojourn around the universe, and the ever-witty Samuel Langhorne Clemens always said he wouldn’t leave this world until Halley’s came around again. He was right, passing away on April 21, 1910, in Hartford Connecticut.
Born in Florida, Missouri of good Virginia and Kentucky stock, the puny, determined boy survived two stronger siblings. In 1839, the family moved to Hannibal along the Mississippi River. Today, Hannibal, where Samuel lived from age 4 to 18, is the “holy land” for Twainiacs. Some 60,000 visited Mark Twain’s Boyhood and Museum last year. As Hannibal native Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/historian Ron Powers puts it, “One of our guys made it.”
The caves, cemeteries and islands off the mighty Mississippi where he played- along with the simple clapboard homes of the Clemenses and his first sweetheart, (she inspired Tom Sawyer’s Becky Thatcher)– influenced his writings later. Mark Twain said in his autobiography, “In…Hannibal, Missouri when I was a boy, everybody was poor but didn’t know it. And everybody was comfortable and did know it.”
When his dad died in 1847, formal schooling ended for 12-year old Samuel, and he went to work as a printer’s apprentice. Brother Orion, already a printer by trade, started up a small newspaper in the family home. Initially a typesetter, young Sam began to write articles in his own inimitable style—usually in his brother’s absence. He often got in trouble upon Orion’s return, but his efforts helped the paper sell. Sadly, Orion never realized his brother’s potential—both of them could have been successes early on.
Although he visited New York and worked in Cincinnati in a printing-office, Sam developed the popular ambition of visiting South America. Meeting Horace Bixby,one of the greatest pilots of the time, Sam decided instead to become a pilot (captain) on one of the riverboats sailing the great Mississippi. Bixby took on Sam as his apprentice.
The task of learning the 1,200 miles of always-changing river between St. Louis and New Orleans—even in the dark—was daunting, but within 18 months he became not only a pilot, but one of best and most careful on the river. Those who knew the writer Mark Twain later on when he was a dreamy, air-headed gent without a care for details, could hardly accept that he’d been so successful.
Although Samuel joined the Confederate army as a Lieutenant, he resigned after two weeks. His steamboat career was over due to the blockaded river, so he journeyed to Nevada with his abolitionist brother. Orion had been appointed by President Lincoln as Secretary of the new Territory.
Clemens became a miner but not a rich one, and contributor to the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City. In 1862, he was invited to take over as local editor, and it was at this time he came across his pen name, Mark Twain, a term from his steamboat days that means two fathoms deep. He –and fellow overland writer Bret Harte–quickly became known up and down the Pacific coast. Both would soon acquire a world-wide fame.
After forced to leave Carson City due to a duel, Twain set up in San Francisco for a bit. With pal Jim Gillis (apparently Jim’s brother was the indirect cause of Twain’s troubles) he went up into Calaveras County, deep in California’s gold country. For three peaceful, happy months Twain lingered here, laying the cornerstone for his future. For while he and Jim tried to find gold at Angels Camp, the groundbreaking tall tale The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was born. The story appeared in in New York’s Saturday Press of November 18, 1865, becoming an uproarious success that annoyed, rather than gratified, its author. Twain had thought very little of the story and wondered why work he had regarded more highly had not found fuller recognition. But The Jumping Frog did not die. Papers printed it and reprinted it, and it was translated into foreign tongues.
The name of “Mark Twain” became known as the author of that tale, for which Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are forever grateful! Since I could write forever, please find more in-depth information and a list of works in these fine links.
How about you all? Any favorite Twain works? Study him in high school? Get annoyed by the phonetically-spelled dialect in Huck Finn? What other authors from your school days stand out?