"A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval."
An American writer, journalist and humorist, Mark Twain lived by his words. He wrote stories that were humorous, clever, and often exhibited a candor and honesty that dug at the sensitive skin of American society. With self-deprecating wit, he mocked the gentility of his day, astutely observing the inanities of the human condition. And though he may have garnered reproach for his honesty, he chose to live with his own approval rather than that of others.
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri in 1835, Twain grew up in Hannibal, Mississippi, a place which would later color many of his stories. He began his career as a printer’s apprentice and shortly after started writing for his brother’s newspaper. Restless, he moved on from there to become a Mississippi steam-boat pilot, a four-year career brought to a halt by the Civil War. Twain even joined up with a group fighting for the South, which doled out the standard supplies of mule, blanket, frying pan, boots, umbrella and rifle. However, Twain soon realized that the fighting life wasn’t for him, and began writing accounts of his adventures. He sent humorous letters to The Daily Territorial Enterprise in Virginia, for the first time assuming the pseudonym Mark Twain, a riverboat term meaning "safe water" (twelve feet or two fathoms). The newspaper staff was so impressed with his writings, including his serious works (the serious essays he signed with his own name), they offered him the position of editor for $25 a week.
In 1864, after a hoax back-fired and Twain was threatened with jail, he left Virginia for San Francisco where he worked as a reporter, still using the pen name Mark Twain. Unfortunately, he riled up some powerful San Francisco politicos with his candor, and again had to make haste, this time fleeing to the Sacramento Valley. It was in Sacramento that Twain first heard an interesting account about an ancient frog-jumping contest in Greece. The story gave birth to his own tale of The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which was published in several newspapers along the west coast, garnering Twain the title of "Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope."
Throughout his career, Twain would work in many cities for as many publications, including in New York and Cincinnati. A travel through France and Italy during his youth was recorded in Innocents Abroad, published in 1869. However, it was the exploits of his Mississippi childhood (with a good friend Tom Blankenship) that would inspire his most famous works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s use of the vernacular and sentiments of his time, especially in his depiction of the slave, Jim, has brought some accusations of racism. Ironically, through his unapologetic depiction, Twain tried to show the cruelties of slavery and racism, institutions he was known to deplore.
Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870, and the couple settled in Connecticut with their three daughters. Twain’s success as a writer and lecturer gained him early financial security. But through a series of bad investments, he found himself in debt and was forced to travel a lecture circuit throughout Europe to recoup his losses. Sickness claimed his youngest daughter while he was in Europe. Years later, tragedy struck again, this time claiming his wife and later his second daughter. Twain never fully recovered from their deaths.
Twain died on April 21, 1910. On the day of his birth, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky and Twain often said that he hoped to go out of this world with it’s next appearance. That comment gave rise to the legend that Halley’s Comet welcomed in and escorted out one of America’s most famous and beloved writers. There are claims that Halley’s Comet did indeed pass over the day after Twain left this earth. Although some refute this legend, Twain never needed a stellar event to mark his life. His writings had already set him among the stars.