Mark Twain

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Twain, Mark

Twain, Mark, pseud. of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910, American author, b. Florida, Mo. As humorist, narrator, and social observer, Twain is unsurpassed in American literature. His novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a masterpiece of humor, characterization, and realism, has been called the first (and sometimes the best) modern American novel.

Early Life and Works

After the death of his father in 1847, young Clemens was apprenticed to a printer in Hannibal, Mo., the Mississippi River town where he spent most of his boyhood. He first began writing for his brother's newspaper there, and later he worked as a printer in several major Eastern cities. In 1857, Clemens went to New Orleans on his way to make his fortune in South America, but instead he became a Mississippi River pilot—hence his pseudonym, “Mark Twain,” which was the river call for a depth of water of two fathoms. The Civil War put an end to river traffic, and in 1862 Clemens went west to Carson City, Nev., where he failed in several get-rich-quick schemes. He eventually began writing for the Virginia City Examiner and later was a newspaperman in San Francisco.

Soon the humorist “Mark Twain” emerged, a writer of tall tales and absurd anecdotes. He first won fame with the comic masterpiece “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in 1865 in the New York Saturday Press and later (1867) used as the title piece for a volume of stories and sketches. When he returned from a trip to Hawaii financed by the Sacramento Union in 1866, Twain became a successful humorous lecturer. The articles he wrote on a journey to the Holy Land were published in 1869 as The Innocents Abroad. In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon of Elmira, N.Y., and settled down in Hartford, Conn., to be “respectable,” although Roughing It (1872) presented anecdotes of his less genteel past on the Western frontier.

Mature Works

In Hartford, Twain wrote some of his best work: The Gilded Age (1873), a satirical novel written with Charles Dudley Warner about materialism and corruption in the 1870s; two evocations of his boyhood in Hannibal, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a novel for children that blends the simplicity of a fairy tale with realistic social criticism; and the nonfictional Life on the Mississippi (1883). He also produced a travel book, A Tramp Abroad (1880), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), in which satirical overtones reflect a profound seriousness.

Later Life and Works

Some of Twain's later works are forced attempts at humor—The American Claimant (1892) and two sequels to Tom Sawyer. His distinctly bitter Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) underscores his increasingly melancholy attitude. Over the years Twain had invested a great deal of money in unsuccessful printing and publishing ventures, and in 1893 he found himself deeply in debt. To recoup his losses he wearily lectured his way around the world, being funny at whatever cost, and recording his experiences in Following the Equator (1897).

His later life was shadowed by the deaths of two of his daughters and by the long illness and death in 1904 of his wife. Some critics think that the fierce pessimism of his later works derives from these tragedies. Whatever the reason, he abandoned the optimistic tone of The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), and wrote such somber works as The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899), What Is Man? (1905), The Mysterious Stranger (1916), and Letters from the Earth (1962). The strange contradiction in personality between the genial humorist and the declared misanthrope has long intrigued commentators and makes Twain a fascinating biographical subject.

Twain's Masterpiece: Huckleberry Finn

Twain's literary reputation rests most particularly on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In its hero, a resourceful, unconventional boy with an innate sense of human values, Twain created one of the most memorable characters in fiction. The narrative device of a raft carrying Huck and a runaway slave down the Mississippi enabled Twain to achieve a realistic portrait of American life in the 19th cent. Through his use of authentic vernacular speech he revolutionized the language of American fiction and exerted a great influence on many subsequent American writers. In 1990 a handwritten manuscript of the first half of the novel was discovered that includes a number of minor changes and an episode that was left out of the original published version; these passages were included in an edition published in 1996.


See his collected letters, ed. by E. M. Branch et al. (1987); his correspondence with William Dean Howells, ed. by F. Anderson et al. (1967); his notebooks, ed. by F. Anderson et al. (3 vol., 1975–80); editions of his rambling, dictated autobiography, ed. by A. B. Paine (1924, repr. 2003), by C. Neider (1959), and by H. E. Smith et al. (3 vol., 2010–15); biographies by A. B. Paine (1924), J. Kaplan (1966, repr. 2003), H. Hill (1973, repr. 2010), A. Hoffman (1997), F. Kaplan (2003), R. Powers (2005), and J. Loving (2010); studies by W. D. Howells (1910), B. De Voto (1932), H. N. Smith (1967), V. W. Brooks (rev. ed. 1933, repr. 1970), W. Gibson (1976), R. Morris, Jr. (2010 and 2015), G. Scharnhorst (2010), and A. Levy (2015); F. Anderson and K. M. Sanderson, ed., Mark Twain: The Critical Heritage (1972); S. F. Fishkin, ed., The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works (2010); H. L. Katz and the Library of Congress, Mark Twain's America (2014).

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Noted American writer Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), c. 1885. Hulton Archive/Qetty Images.

Twain, Mark (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) (1835–1910)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, the third son and fifth child of John Marshall Clemens and Sarah Lampton. When he was four years old, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri. He received little schooling; attending a “dame school” and then two “common schools” for a while. His father died when he was twelve and his schooling came to an end when he started work as an apprentice to a printer. He later worked for his older brother Orion, who became a newspaper publisher. Clemens contributed some humorous pieces to Orion’s Journal. In 1853, Clemens set out as an itinerant printer and started to work his way eastward, as far as New York City and Philadelphia.

In 1856, Clemens started on a trip down the Mississippi River, planning to travel to South America. On the riverboat, he became fascinated by Horace Bixby, the boat’s pilot. He apprenticed himself to Bixby and gave up the idea of South America. Within eighteen months, Clemens became licensed as a riverboat pilot.

Less than a year later, in 1858, while piloting the steamboat Pennsylvania, Clemens had a premonition. He saw his younger brother Henry laid out in a metal coffin that rested on two chairs. There was a bouquet of white flowers in the coffin and a single red flower on the young man’s chest. He was surprised that it was a metal coffin, for such were expensive and far more than he knew his family could afford. But so vivid was the dream that when Clemens awoke he was almost certain Henry had died. He later wrote in his autobiography, “I dressed and moved toward that door thinking I would go in there and have a look at it, but I changed my mind. I thought I could not yet bear to meet my mother … (Then) it suddenly flashed upon me that there was nothing real about this—it was only a dream.” Although he told one or two people of the dream, he neglected to mention it to his brother Henry, who later came aboard the Pennsylvania. Then Clemens was transferred to another riverboat while his brother remained on the Pennsylvania. Two days later, the Pennsylvania unexpectedly exploded, killing 150 people. Henry Clemens was badly burned by the exploding boilers of the boat. Clemens rushed to his bedside and was there when his brother died. Waking from a sleep of exhaustion, Clemens found that Henry’s body had been moved. When he found it, it was exactly as he had dreamed, in a metal coffin resting on the two chairs. It transpired that several ladies, who had been admirers of Henry, had taken up a collection and purchased the expensive coffin. As Clemens stood gazing at his brother’s body in the coffin, an elderly lady approached and placed a white bouquet and a single red flower on his chest. The whole experience cemented in Clemens a belief in a sixth sense.

In 1862, Clemens accepted a post as a feature writer for the Virginia City (Nevada) Territorial Enterprise and adopted the pen name of Mark Twain, taken from the “two fathoms deep” soundings on the riverboats. After publication of his first book in 1867 (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches), Clemens/Twain traveled to Europe and the Middle East and then produced his second successful book, Innocents Abroad (1869).

As he became more successful, he met and befriended a wide variety of people. One was Helen Adams Keller who, although blind and deaf, achieved an education and training regarded as the most extraordinary accomplishment ever made in the education of handicapped persons. She entered Radcliffe College in 1900 and graduated cum laude in 1904. She wrote many books and articles. She and Twain became close friends. He was fascinated by her seemingly amazing intuitive abilities to know what other people were thinking and to be aware of her own surroundings. In fact, Twain experienced something of this telepathy on first meeting Keller. He said, “The girl began to deliver happy ejaculations, in her broken speech. Without touching anything, of course, and without hearing anything, she seemed quite well to recognize the character of her surroundings. She said, ‘Oh, the books, so many, many books. How lovely!’ I told her a long story, which she interrupted all along and in the right places, with cackles, chuckles, and carefree bursts of laughter. Then Miss Sullivan (Keller’s teacher) put one of Helen’s hands against her lips and said, ‘What is Mr. Clemens distinguished for?’ Helen answered, in her crippled speech, ‘For his humor.’ I spoke up modestly and said, ‘And for his wisdom.’ Helen said the same words instantly—'and for his wisdom.’ I suppose it was mental telepathy for there was no way for her to know what I had said.” Keller continued to amaze Twain by finishing his sentences for him as they conversed.

When physical medium Daniel Dunglas Home retired from public life, he refused to meet with most people. He did, however, agree to meet with Twain, who had been critical of him. Apparently Twain found Home convincing, and returned for several more private meetings with him. In 1879, Twain attended a series of private séances with the medium in Paris. The two men maintained a strong friendship until Home’s death in 1886. Twain also became close friends with Count Louis Hamon, better known as “Chiero,” the palm reader, numerologist, and astrologer. Cheiro’s reading of Twain’s palm was revealing. Twain wrote, “The past may leave its mark, I admit, and character may even be told even down to its finest shades of expression; all that I might believe—but how the future may be foreshadowed, that I cannot understand … Cheiro has exposed my character with humiliating accuracy. I ought not to confess this accuracy, still I am moved to do it.”

Twain joined the Society for Psychical Research and even contributed some articles to it, his first being a letter on the subject of mental telepathy or, to use his own term, “mental telegraphy.” He wrote two articles for the Journal, “Mental Telegraphy” and “Mental Telegraphy Again.” In these he outlined the latest research together with some of his own firsthand experiences.

Twain’s hand-picked biographer Albert Bigelow Paine said of Twain, “psychic theories and phenomena have always attracted Mark Twain. In thought transference especially he had a frank interest, and an interest awakened and kept alive by certain phenomenon [sic], psychic manifestations we call them. In his association with Mrs. Clemens (he had married Olivia Langdon in 1870) it not infrequently happened that one spoke the other’s thoughts or perhaps a longprocrastinated letter to a friend would bring an answer as quickly as it was mailed.” In fact Twain experienced psychic events on such a regular basis that he was able to put his abilities to practical use. On a number of occasions, when he wanted someone to write to him he would himself compose a letter to the person requesting that he or she communicate. Twain would then destroy his letter without sending it. Invariably the next day he would receive the communication he wanted. Astrologer Sybil Leek said that there were numerous occasions when Twain did this and then received letters “that he opened in the presence of other people telling them exactly what was in the letter.” On one occasion this happened when he received a letter from William Wright, a Virginia City, Nevada, journalist. Twain claimed that the (unopened) letter he held up to his friends, which he had just received, would contain comments concerning the possibility of Wright writing a novel about the Nevada silver mines. When the letter was opened it was almost word for word what Twain had written to Wright but had then destroyed and not mailed. Twain later commented, “Mr. Wright’s mind and mine had been in close crystal clear communication with each other over three thousand miles of desert and mountains on this special morning in March.”

Twain imagined that one day there would be a machine—which he dubbed the “phreno-phone"—that would be “a method whereby the communicating of the mind with mind may be brought under command and reduced to certainty and system.” Preston Dennett said, “Mark Twain was … profoundly psychic. Although his effect on the field of psychic research has often been overlooked, his research into the phenomenon of telepathy remains a significant contribution to our understanding of the potentials of the human mind.” Samuel Clemens died April 21, 1910.


Dennett, Preston: The Psychic Adventures of Mark Twain. Lakeville: FATE Magazine, June 2004
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Twain, Mark


(pen name; real name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens). Born Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo.; died Apr. 21, 1910, in Redding, Conn. American writer.

Twain grew up in the town of Hannibal, Mo., on the Mississippi River. Beginning in 1853 he lived in various places around the country. He worked as a pilot on the Mississippi and prospected for silver in Nevada and for gold in California. Throughout this period, Twain wrote for various newspapers. In 1865 he won renown for a story modeled on backwoods yarns, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

In 1867, Twain traveled to Europe and Palestine; his book based on the trip, The Innocents Abroad (1869), was a huge success that established folk humor as a legitimate literary genre. The Innocents is full of pride in Twain’s native country—a country unmarked by feudal oppression, servility, or landlessness. The book’s humor enhances its passionate affirmation of national culture. In 1872, Twain published an autobiographical work about the Far West, Roughing It (published in Russian translation under the title Nalegke [Traveling Light] in 1959). Here, too, the narrator is an “innocent,” a facetious braggart, and a master of the pointedly harsh simile. Twain’s novel The Gilded Age (1873), written jointly with C. D. Warner, mirrored the age of speculations and swindles that followed the Civil War in the United States—a time of “mad money” and disappointed hopes. Twain’s early writings are at times bitterly satirical; most of his world-renowned stories, however, written in the early 1870’s and first published in collected form in “Old and New Sketches” (1875), are contagiously cheerful. Their boisterous humor conveys the still unexpended vigor of American democracy and the country’s ability to laugh at its own weaknesses. The persona of the “innocent” and the comic device of reduction to the absurd are used to reveal the illogical under the mask of the familiar.

From 1871 to 1891, Twain lived in Hartford, Conn. The “frontier” writer found it hard to breathe in the atmosphere of New England, with its literary and moral taboos. Twain’s increasingly critical attitude toward his bourgeois surroundings is reflected in his Letter From the Recording Angel, written in 1887 and published in 1946.

A series of sketches by Twain, Old Times on the Mississippi, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875. This was followed, in 1876, by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, consisted of sketches about the old times as well as about contemporary life. Next came The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in England in 1884 and in the United States in 1885. In all these books, the author communicates a sense of distance between America’s past and its present. Free of former illusions, Twain now recognizes the cruel and savage aspects of American democracy even in times past.

Twain’s books about the American past, marked by critical acuity and a profound immersion in the reality of everyday life, embody conceptions that are still valid today. In the autobiographical Tom Sawyer, the world of childhood defends itself against the proper and the pious. In Life on the Mississippi, piloting is extolled as a science. While Huckleberry Finn begins and ends with boyhood adventures recalling those of Tom Sawyer, the adventures in this case are merely a framework; the main part of the book is a sharply critical representation of the American backwoods and the harshness and venality of daily life. The novel is written from Huck’s point of view, and American life is seen through his eyes. Here, the homeless hero of Twain’s earlier work has acquired a new dimension, combining simpleminded-ness with unusual sensitivity. A similar range of feelings marks the figure of the runaway slave Jim, whose portrayal is completely realistic and poetic at the same time; along with a childishly trusting nature and the ability to interpret signs, Jim is endowed with generosity and delicacy of soul. These two simpleminded outcasts floating down the unspoiled river, past unprepossessing provincial towns, have been found congenial by 20th-century writers. Faulkner counted them among his favorite characters, and Hemingway’s observation is famous: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” (Sobr. soch., vol. 2, Moscow, 1968, p. 306). The book’s remarkable qualities, which Hemingway recognized, are the perceptive insights about America’s provincial heartland, the poetic imagery set in contrast to hypocrisy and self-satisfaction, the fluency of composition, and the boldly innovative language with its use of colloquialisms, slang, and Negro dialect.

Throughout Twain’s life, his thoughts turned repeatedly to the Middle Ages. The hierarchical society of the past, which offended his democratic nature, seemed to him grotesque. In 1882 he published The Prince and the Pauper, an allegorical tale that vehemently rejects the world of social barriers and privileges. Another fictional work by Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court, published in 1889, is a sharp parody tinged with plebeian militancy.

A difficult time in Twain’s life began in the early 1890’s. The failure of his publishing firm in 1894 forced him to work at a feverish pace and to make a year-long lecture tour around the world in 1895. The death of a daughter dealt him another blow. Bitterness permeates much of Twain’s writing in his last two decades. The traditional beliefs of the American philistine are turned inside out in the frequently misanthropic opinions of the hero of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Bitter disillusionment with bourgeois democracy compelled the latter-day Twain to expose the illusory nature of standards and ideals inculcated in childhood. In the short novel The Mysterious Stranger, published in 1916, he reexamined the dominant motifs of his life’s work. The freedom of a childhood lived on the riverside, in the spirit of Tom Sawyer, is now placed in a somber medieval context. While Satan’s speeches, mocking human self-delusion, are fed by Twain’s despair, they are also the vehicle for the author’s famous words about the power of laughter—a weapon that nothing can withstand.

The 20th century acknowledges Twain as a classic of world literature and at the same time as a genuinely national writer—one who has revealed the America where the tragic exists side by side with the comic, and horror with poetry. One of the greatest humorists of modern times, Twain is also a beloved children’s writer. Twain won early recognition in Russia: a translation of his story of the jumping frog appeared in 1872 in Birzhevye vedomosti (Exchange Gazette), and The Gilded Age (under the title Mishurnyi vek [Age of Tinsel]) was printed in 1874 in Otechestvennye zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland). Twain was warmly praised by M. Gorky and A. Kuprin, and his popularity has continued to grow throughout the USSR.


Writings, vols. 1–25. New York-London, 1907–18.
Writings, vols. 1–37. New York, 1922–25.
Letters, vols. 1–2. Edited by A. B. Paine. New York-London, 1917.
Mark Twain’s Autobiography, vols. 1–2. New York-London, 1924.
Mark Twain’s Notebook. New York-London, 1935.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. Soch., vols. 1–12. Moscow, 1959–61. (Introductory essay by M. Mendel’son.)


Mendel’son, M. Mark Tven. Moscow, 1958.
Startsev, A. Mark Tven i Amerika. [Moscow, 1963.]
Foner, P. Mark Tven—sotsial’nyi kritik. Moscow, 1961. (Translated from English.)
De Voto, B. A. Mark Twain’s America and Mark Twain at Work. Boston, 1967.
Geismar, M. Mark Twain: An American Prophet. Boston, 1970.
Mark Twain: The Critical Heritage. London, 1971.
Levidova, I. Mark Tven: Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’. Moscow, 1974.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Twain, Mark

See Clemens, Samuel Langhorne.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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