GMIH-012 Mark Twain

Mark Twain


Great Mustaches in History is all about great men in history who also have great mustaches. What if I told you about a person who has one of the most iconic mustaches in all of history? This man is also one of the most influential writers the United States has ever produced. In fact, some have called him “The Father of American Literature.” Could there be any more perfect subject for a podcast about Great Mustaches in History than Mark Twain?

Early Life

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 in Missouri. He was the sixth child of John and Jane Clemens. The Clemens family moved to HannibalMissouri when Samuel Clemens was four years old.  Compared to the tiny town where he was born, Hannibal, Missouri seemed big because it had about 1,000 people. The father of the family, John Clemens did many jobs such as a storekeeper, lawyer, judge and land speculator. Samuel Clemens father was grouchy. It was said that Samuel Clemens  never saw his father laugh. Samuel Clemens’ mother was just the opposite. She was fun and nice to the kids. Often on cold winters nights when there was nothing for her kids to do she entertained the family by telling stories. Maybe that is where Samuel Clemens learned to be so funny and write such good stories. John Clemens died suddenly in 1847. It was very hard for Jane Clemens to make enough money just to feed and clothe her family.

Life in Hannibal

Historical marker in Hannibal, Missouri.

Historical marker in Hannibal, Missouri.

Samuel Clemens lived in Hannibal from age 4 to age 17. If you have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn you get a good idea of what life was like in Hannibal, Missouri. The town is on the Mississippi River and steamboats arrived there three times a day. Because it was on the river Samuel Clemens and the rest of the people in town saw circuses, minstrel shows, and revivalists. The town has a library. People were friendly. A young boy like Samuel Clemens could watch blacksmiths, tanners, and other craftsmen. It was a pretty good place to grow up. But it was not perfect. When Samuel Clemens was nine years old he saw a local man murder a cattle rancher. Then the next year he saw a slave die after an overseer hit the slave with a piece of iron. Hannibal, Missouri is the model for the town of St. Petersburg in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In those books the town can be a fun pleasant place but it can also be a place that has of cruelty, poverty, drunkenness, and loneliness. The town is so realistic because it had been a part of Samuel Clemens’ real life experience. Samuel Clemens went to school but had to stop when he was just 12 years old. Since his father had died, Samuel Clemens needed to make some money to help the family. He became an apprentice printer at the Hannibal Courier. In 1851, at 15, he became a printer for the Hannibal Western Union, a little newspaper owned by his brother, Orion. Besides printing, Samuel Clemens also wrote and edited for the paper sometimes.

Life on the Mississippi

Samuel Clemens was a riverboat pilot briefly before the Civil War.

Samuel Clemens was a riverboat pilot briefly before the Civil War.

Samuel Clemens liked that okay but he really wanted to work on a steamboat. In 1857, when Samuel Clemens was 21-year-old he got his wish: He began learning the art of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi. In just two years he became a licensed pilot in 1859. He had regular work on the Mississippi. This was an exciting and glamorous career that paid well. It would be sort of like an airline pilot flying the biggest jetliners today. But just a couple of years later the Civil War broke out. Almost all boat traffic was stopped. Military boats were about the only thing on the river. Samuel Clemens joined the Confederate Army in June 1861. But his volunteer unit disbanded after just a couple of weeks so Samuel Clemens was not in the army anymore. 

Out West

Samuel Clemens wanted to find another opportunity that offered both excitement and a chance to make a lot of money. He did what a lot of young men did. He headed west. In July 1861, Samuel Clemens went to Nevada and California for five years. He tried his hand at prospecting but he did not find much silver or gold. By the middle of 1862, he was broke and desperate for a real job. Samuel Clemens had experience in two areas; steamboats and newspapers. There was not any demand for steamboat pilots so in September of 1862 he went to work as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. This is where Samuel Clemens started using the pen name Mark Twain. On the Mississippi River two fathoms was a safe depth for riverboats. As they measured the depth of the water they would see if the water was deep enough then they would yell “mark twain” which was a short way to say “according to the mark on the line, the water is is two fathoms deep.” Twain is an old fashioned way to say two and a fathom is six feet. So the term “mark twain” meant that they measured the water and it was twelve feet deep so it was safe to pass. Mark Twain developed his writing style out west. He wrote in a friendly, funny way, and kind of made fun of people who were stuck-up. His first big story was, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” It was printed in newspapers and magazines around the country. His next big break was in 1867, when he took a five-month sea cruise on the Mediterranean. He wrote funny stories about what he saw. These stories were published in newspapers back in the United States. In 1869 all of these stories were published in one book The Innocents Abroad and it became a best-seller. Mark Twain was just 34 years old but was already one of the most popular and famous writers in America.

Marriage to Olivia Langdon

Olivia in 1869 at about 24 years old.

Olivia in 1869 at about 24 years old.

Mark Twain did not just want to be famous. He wanted to be rich so he could support his mother who had worked so hard. He also wanted to be respected and included in the high society back East. When he married 24-year-old Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a rich New York coal merchant he moved into respectable society. Mark Twain wrote to a friend shortly after his wedding, “I have … the only sweetheart I have ever loved … she is the best girl, and the sweetest, and gentlest, and the daintiest, and she is the most perfect gem of womankind.” Mark Twain called Olivia, Livy. Since he was wanting to be a part of high society he hoped that Livy’s fancy culture would help him be more than a country writer. The couple settled in Buffalo, New York. They had four children. It is a good thing his wife did not make him forget all his upbringing or make him too stuffy. If Mark Twain did not keep some of his small town memories and rough manners he could not have written The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It was published in 1876. Soon after Tom Sawyer came out he began writing a sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1935.

Huckleberry Finn, as depicted by E. W. Kemble in the original 1884 edition of the book

Huckleberry Finn, as depicted by E. W. Kemble in the original 1884 edition of the book

Huckleberry Finn took years to plan and write. Mark Twain would work on it some then put it aside for a while. In the meantime, in 1881 he published The Prince and the Pauper and in 1883 he published Life on the Mississippi. Huckelberry Finn was finally was published in 1884. Maybe because he had been so poor growing up after his father died, Mark Twain wanted to be rich; VERY rich. In 1885, he published the memoirs of former President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had just died and the book was a bestseller. Mark Twain worked long and hard to get rich. He was certain that we would be super rich. But he never made the kind of money he hoped to make. Eventually his publishing house went bankrupt.

Later Life

When Mark Twain went bankrupt it reminded him of how his father had failed in many businesses. He got more and more depressed. He turned into a little bit of a sour old pessimist. In 1889, Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It is a time-travel book about ancient England. In 1894 he published The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, some people described that book as “bitter.” He also wrote short stories and essays. Even though he was kind of depressed, the last fifteen years of Mark Twain’s life were filled things that would normally make anyone happy. He was given honorary degrees from Oxford and Yale. He had lots of other honors too. Mark Twain was the most famous American of the late 19th century. He was bigger than any movie star or rock star today. Everywhere he went people turned out to see him. Everyone wanted pictures of him and he drew crowds of fans where ever he went. He was not just famous in the United States. He went all around the world. He even went on a very successful round-the-world lecture tour in 1895-’96. He did that to pay off some of the debts he had.

Personal Struggles

Even though those should have been the happiest years of his life, they were some of the hardest. In 1896 his favorite daughter, Susy, died at the age of 24 of spinal meningitis. The loss broke his heart. It was even harder for him because he was out of the country when it happened. His youngest daughter, Jean, was diagnosed with sever epilepsy in the mid-1890s and in 1909, when she was 29 years old, she died of a heart attack. In June 1904, Mark Twain’s wife Livy died after a long illness. Mark Twain worked very hard to keep up his public image. He always wore a white suit. He was always funny, charming, and friendly in public. But, friends close to him say he was bitter and even a little mean in later years. Samuel Clemens died on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74, at his country home in Redding, Connecticut.

Interesting Facts About Mark Twain

  • Mark Twain's letter with quote about his death, May 1897.

    Mark Twain’s letter with quote about his death, May 1897.

    Mark Twain was color blind.

  • Mark Twain once wrote in a letter, “James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration.” From that letter came the famous phrase, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
  • Speaking of quotes, Mark Twain was famous for great quotes. Here are several of his most famous ones.
          • A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.
          • Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.
          • Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
          • All generalizations are false, including this one.
          • A ‘Classic’ is a book which people praise and don’t read.
          • Climate is what we expect,weather is what we get.
          • Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.
          • Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.
          • When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it’s a sure sign you’re getting old.
  • Mark Twain was born right after Halley’s Comet appeared and the comet was scheduled to return in 1910.  He told people in 1909,

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.”

As he predicted, he died on April 21, 1910, of a heart attack, the day after Halley’s Comet made its closest pass to Earth.

Great Mustaches in History

Just saying the name Mark Twain makes people picture him in a white suit with a big bushy mustache. His great mustache and more importantly his contribution to American literature ensure Mark Twain’s place as a Great Mustache in History.

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