August 05, 2021

#08-118: Mark Twain

formal black-and-white portrait photo of a man with wild hair, bushy eyebrows,  and a large mustache. The man wears a black coat and white shirt with a pin at the collar
Mark Twain in later years

Note: Mark Twain's colorful life provided the inspiration for many of his best-known works. Find out where it all came from!

Get Ready: Are there any experiences in your life--something you did, or a true story someone told you--that would make good material for a short story or even a novel?

From time to time, we meet an artist or writer whose life is as interesting as her or his work. Such is the case with Samuel L. Clemens, better known as "Mark Twain."

Twain grew up in the small river town of Hannibal, Missouri, which became the model for St. Petersburg, home to two of his greatest characters: Tom Sawyer and especially Huckleberry Finn. His observations there of the treatment of enslaved Black people contributed to the interest shown  that problem in his later writings.

Twain's father died when the boy was just 11 years old, and as one of four surviving children (three siblings had died), he needed to take a job. He quit school after fifth grade and became apprenticed to a printer. Around age 16 he went to work setting type for a newspaper, and began to contribute articles and sketches. From Hannibal he went on to work in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, and joined a trade union for printers.

After returning to Missouri, he became a pilot on a steamboat--the dream of every boy who grew up on the river. Here he acquired his pen name: "the mark twain" meant a mark of two fathoms (12 feet, or 3.6 meters) on a measuring stick, indicating that the water was deep enough to navigate. Twain got his younger brother Henry a job on a steamboat, too, and was heartbroken when Henry was killed in an accident.

The Civil War brought an end to the river trade, and in 1861--the first year of the war--he and his older brother Orion went to Nevada, where Orion was to work as secretary to the territorial governor. Twain, of course, found a job on a newspaper. During this period (in 1867, to be exact) he wrote the story that launched him to national fame: "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," set in a California gold camp.

Some will be surprised to learn that much of Twain's oeuvre was in the genre of travel writing. The Innocents Abroad (1869) chronicles a trip with other Americans through Europe and the Holy Land. Roughing It (1872) goes back to his experiences "out west." Between Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), he wrote Life on the Mississippi (1883) about his experiences there. Following the Equator (1897) was sort of a sequel to The Innocents Abroad and described a journey around the world visiting the colonies of the British Empire.

Twain seems to have written around twelve novels, eleven books of non-fiction, and innumerable short stories, essays, and newspaper articles. Much of his later life was spent in debt as the result of bad investments.

He had been born two weeks after the closest approach of Halley's Comet to earth in 1835, and said 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. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'" Sure enough: he had a heart attack and died one day after the comet's closest approach, on April 21, 1910, at age 74.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. apprentice
  2. chronicles
  3. fathoms
  4. genre
  5. innumerable
  6. navigate
  7. non-fiction
  8. oeuvre
  9. roughing it
  10. sketches

  1. too many to be counted
  2. operate a boat or plane
  3. not a novel or short story
  4. documents; reports
  5. an assistant; a trainee
  6. short written pieces
  7. a body of work
  8. categories of writing
  9. traveling without luxuries
  10. nautical units of six feet (1.6 meters)

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for August 5, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. e; 2. d; 3. j; 4. h; 5. a; 6. b; 7. c; 8. g; 9. i; 10. f