Mark Twain’s life is important to his writing, for his major works rely upon materials from his Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood and his careers as a Mississippi River pilot, a western miner, and a journalist.
Four years following his birth on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, Twain moved with his family to Hannibal, where he was shaped by experiences that would be transformed into such works as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When Twain was eleven his father died. Apprenticed as a printer, he began to contribute sketches to his brother’s newspaper. As a young man he worked as a printer and journalist in a number of cities, including New York, but returned to the Mississippi River in 1857 to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a river pilot. He held this job until 1861 when river traffic was halted by the Civil War.
After serving very briefly with the Missouri militia, he traveled to the Nevada Territory with his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the governor. In Nevada he worked as a journalist and as a prospector for silver and gold. By 1864 he was a reporter in San Francisco, and in 1865 he published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in a New York newspaper. Reprinted widely, the story gave him his first literary fame when it was reissued two years later. He delivered his first lecture in 1866, beginning a 40-year career as a performer whose public image became as famous as his books.
As a California correspondent, he traveled to Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands, and later to Europe, the Mediterranean, and Palestine. His 1867 foreign travels became the basis of his first book, Innocents Abroad (1869). While enjoying the popular success of his writing, Twain settled in the East. In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon, daughter of a wealthy merchant from Elmira, New York, and became editor and part owner of a Buffalo newspaper. A year later, he moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he spent a large portion of his increasing income on a spectacular mansion (now restored as a memorial) on Farmington Avenue.
Twain’s prolific writing career stemmed partly from the financial demands of his expensive lifestyle. He turned to a variety of sources for his material: travel, his early life, and history. In 1872 he published Roughing It, a collection of irreverent sketches based upon his travels and his western experiences. While The Gilded Age (1873), written with Charles Dudley Warner, employed contemporary issues and provided a label for an era, Tom Sawyer made use of his Hannibal boyhood. A Tramp Abroad (1880) was another travel book, and The Prince and the Pauper a historical comedy. Life on the Mississippi recounted the author’s pilot days, and Huckleberry Finn, by most estimates his greatest work, was a sequel to Tom Sawyer.
By the time he produced his historical fantasy A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain had finished his most important work. The 1890s brought him great personal misfortune with a financial collapse resulting from his unprofitable investment in a typeSetting machine and the bankruptcy of the publishing company he had founded to distribute his works. In 1896, while he was making a worldwide lecture tour to pay his debts, his daughter Susy died of meningitis in Hartford. Susy’s death, like that of his first child and only son, Langdon, in 1872, devastated Twain, and the family never again resided in the Hartford house.
After Following the Equator (1897), another travel book, Twain worked on a variety of projects, many of which were published after his death. These works, most of which were overwhelmingly pessimistic, included “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1900), “What Is Man?” (1906), and “The Mysterious Stranger” (1916). His final years were marked by increasing infirmity and unhappiness as he endured the deaths of his wife in 1904 and his daughter Jean in 1909. Toward the end of his life, Twain lived in New York, and he died at “Stormfield,” his estate in Redding, Connecticut, on April 21, 1910.
At the time of his death, Twain had achieved international celebrity and was perhaps the most famous American. Like many famous people, he created a public image that masked inner conflicts. A complex and brilliant man, he was more than a simple humorist; as a social critic, historian, philosopher, novelist, and popular entertainer, he continues to fascinate readers and biographers.