Son of a Comet, Star of the West:
The Life and Literature of “Mark Twain”

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Mark Twain: The Story of his Life and Work
(Clemens Publishing, 1892)

Although Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote as Mark Twain, he could hardly separate himself from the tales he told. Most of the books and articles he published were drawn from his life. Many of them were nonfiction accounts of his exploits, several were fictional stories based on his experiences, and others–both fact and fantasy– incorporated commentary or criticism on broader events of the time in which he lived.

Born as Haley’s Comet crossed the sky in November 1835, Clemens grew up in the frontier town of Hannibal, Missouri. Clemens was the sixth of John and Jane Clemens’ seven children. Clemens would outlive all of them: his sister Margaret and brothers Peasant and Benjamin failed to survive childhood; his brother Henry died in a steamboat explosion at the age of 20. Clemens’ brother Orion died in 1897; his sister Pamela, in 1904.

The Newspaper Bug Bites


Mark Twain's Sketches, New and Old
(American Publishing, 1875)


Missouri was a young state during Clemens' childhood. He spent much of his youth playing in the slave quarters on his uncle’s farm and admiring the nearby Mississippi River. Clemens’ boyhood dream was to become a steamboatman. The dream would come true eventually, but it was his writing career for which he was known. He began that occupation as a teenager.

Clemens attended school through the fifth grade, when his father’s death forced him into work as an errand boy for the Hannibal Gazette. After a two-year apprenticeship at the Hannibal Courier, he began working as a writer, printer, and occasional editor at his brother Orion’s Hannibal Western Union.

Clemens longed for something bigger and began his search for it in 1851 by publishing sketches in the Saturday Evening Post. The following year, he worked as a printer in St. Louis, Philadelphia and New York, sending travel sketches back home to the Hannibal Journal. He then briefly rejoined his brother Orion in Iowa, where he had begun the Keokuk Journal.


Life on the Mississippi
(J. R. Osgood, 1883)

Life on the Mississippi Gives Twain his Name

Still yearning for life on the river, Clemens set out for New Orleans, where he met steamboat pilot Horace Bixby. Clemens convinced Bixby to let him apprentice for two years, after which he got his pilot’s license. However, his steamboat career came to an abrupt halt in 1861, when the Civil War suspended traffic on the Mississippi.

Although Clemens trained for two weeks with a volunteer militia group called the Marion Rangers, he never saw battle. Instead, he traveled west with Orion, who had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as secretary of the Nevada Territory. At first, the thought of riches intrigued Clemens, and he wandered the region’s prospecting sites searching for silver. When that didn’t pan out, he became a reporter at the Virginia City (Nev.) Territorial Enterprise, to which he had been sending humorous letters. In 1863, he adopted the pen name Mark Twain, a riverboat term meaning the line between safe and dangerous water.


The Jumping Frog
(Harper and Bros., 1903)


Twain's Travels

After challenging a rival editor to a duel, Clemens again was on the move, this time to San Francisco. During his four years there, he served as the Enterprise’s Pacific correspondent and wrote for several California publications. In 1866, he discovered another talent–public speaking. He organized a lecture series based on the popular “Sandwich Island” letters he had written during a trip to what is now Hawaii, and the success of the lectures prompted him to schedule a speaking tour throughout Nevada and California. The tour soon extended to the Midwest and New York.

During this time, Clemens published his first book. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches featured the humorous essay “Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog,” based on California Gold Rush folklore. Thanks to the book, his lectures, and popular letters written during a trip to Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, Clemens was becoming well-known. His notoriety led a New York book publisher to ask Clemens to collect his travel letters into a second book, The Innocents Abroad.


Adventures of Tom Sawyer
(American Publishing, 1892)

Family Life

Clemens finally began to settle down in 1870, when he married Olivia “Livy” Landgon and moved to Elmira, New York. However, life was far from quiet. He worked as an editor at the Buffalo Express, contributed to the New York Galaxy literary magazine, and wrote the book Roughing It about his experiences in the west. In addition, his new family endured three tragedies in a short time: the death of Livy’s father, the death of Livy’s close friend while staying at the Clemens’ home, and the death of the couple’s two-year-old son Langdon.

The couple sought a fresh start and settled in Hartford, Conn., where their family and Clemens’ literary career steadily grew. Between 1872 and 1880, they had three daughters: Susy, Clara, and Jean. Professionally, Clemens teamed with Hartford Courant publisher Charles Dudley Warner to pen The Gilded Age, which criticized material excess and political corruption. While telling humorous stories about characters based on his childhood friends The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn commented on slavery and Reconstruction. During the 1880s, Clemens also published the European travel book A Tramp Abroad; Life on the Mississippi, about the river and steamboat pilots; and two pieces of historical fiction with a twist. The Prince and the Pauper featured commentary on class relations, and the cynical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court attacked oppression while exploring technological advancement.


The £1,000,000 Bank-note and Other New Stories
(Charles L. Webster, 1893)


Tragedy and Debt

The peace and prosperity of the 1880s would end in the following decade. Clemens poured tremendous amounts of money into ventures that failed. The most notable were the publishing company Charles L. Webster & Company, which went bankrupt despite the successful publication of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, and the Paige Compositor typesetting machine. To avoid personal bankruptcy, Clemens sold his extravagant Hartford home and whisked his family on a world-wide lecture tour. It was during this time that his daughter Susy died from meningitis.

The family returned to the United States, settling in New York. However, Livy soon became ill and sought a warmer climate, moving on her own to Florence, Italy, where she died in 1904. The death of her mother pushed Clara to a nervous breakdown.


Mark Twain's Autobiography
(Harper and Bros., 1924)

A New Century Begins, A Legend's Life Ends

Clemens remained in New York, writing and lecturing. Numerous honors were bestowed upon him during the early 1900s. He received honorary degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Missouri, dined at the White House with President Teddy Roosevelt, and enjoyed a 70th birthday gala at the famous Delmonico’s in New York.

Clemens finally moved to Redding, Conn., at a home he named Stormfield. After the tragic death of his daughter Jean from an epileptic seizure in 1909, Clemens wrote an homage to her and then vowed never to write again. The end of Clemens’ life followed shortly after the end of his career. Clemens had predicted he would go out with Haley’s Comet–which appears every 75 years–as he had come in with it. He turned out to be correct; he died at Stormfield as the comet crossed the sky in April 1910.

The nation mourned the literary legend’s passing during a large funeral procession in New York City. Clemens was buried next to his wife and daughters at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Bibliography (full text available for hyperlinked titles)

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867)
The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Autobiography and First Romance (1871)
Eye Openers (1871)
Screamers (1871)
Curious Dreams (1872)
The Innocents at Home (1872)
Roughing It (1872)
The Gilded Age (1873)
Mark Twain’s Sketches (1874)
Sketches, New and Old (1875)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
A Tramp Abroad (1880)
The Prince and the Pauper (1881)
Tom Sawyer and Other Stories (1881)
The Stolen White Elephant (1882)
Life on the Mississippi (1883)
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1884)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1886)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
The American Claimant (1892)
Merry Tales (1892)
The £1,000,000 Bank-Note (1893)
Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)
Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896)

Following the Equator (1897)
How to Tell a Story (1897)
English as She Is Taught (1900)
The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900)
A Double Barrelled Detective Story (1902)
A Dog’s Tale (1904)
Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1904)
King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905)
Eve’s Diary (1906)
My Debut as a Literary Person (1906)
The $30,000 Bequest (1906)
What Is Man? (1906)
Horse’s Tale (1907)
Christian Science (1907)
Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909)
Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909)
Mark Twain’s Speeches (1910)
The Mysterious Stranger (1916)
The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass (1928)
The Unnatural Son (1954)
Letters from the Earth (1962)
The Adventures of Colonel Sellers (1965)
Complete Short Stories (1984)
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians (1989)
Alonzo Fitz (2001)
A Murder, A Mystery, and A Marriage (2001)

Saint Joan of Arc
Harper and Bros., 1919


The Innocents Abroad
American Pub., 1869
The Prince and the Pauper
J. R. Osgood, 1882
Adventures of Huck Finn
Charles L. Webster, 1885

Search the PBO database for books by Mark Twain

Mark Twain Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Twain for young people, K-5 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file.

Mark Twain's commentary on society, 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file.

Guidelines for Book Reports: Word document or PDF file.

Related Online Resources

Center for Mark Twain Studies

Mark Twain in His Times

Mark Twain House and Museum

Mark Twain: A Look at the Life and Works of Samuel Clemens

Mark Twain, Official Home Page

Mark Twain Papers & Project

Mark Twain, PBS

Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources

Twain's Hannibal, The Learning Page, Library of Congress

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