Mark Twain was also a steamboat pilot, gold prospector, and journalist. At his peak, he was probably the most popular American celebrity of his time. William Faulkner wrote he was "the first truly American writer, and all of us since are his heirs." His name was derived from the shout used to mark how deep the water was in steamships - "Mark Twain!" (in other words, mark two fathoms).
Twain began as a writer of light humorous verse; he ended as a grim, almost profane chronicler of the vanities, hypocrisies and acts of killing committed by mankind. At mid-career, with Huckleberry Finn, he combined rich humor, sturdy narrative and social criticism in a way almost unrivaled in world literature.
Twain was a master at rendering colloquial speech, and helped to create and popularize a distinctive American literature, built on American themes and language.
Twain had a fascination with science and scientific inquiry. Twain developed a close and lasting friendship with Nikola Tesla. They spent quite a bit of time together from time to time (in Tesla's laboratory, among other places). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court featured a time traveller from the America of Twain's day who used his knowledge of science to introduce modern technology to Arthurian England.
Twain was a major figure in the American Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the annexation of the Philippines by the United States. He wrote "Incident in the Philippines", posthumously published in 1924, in response to the Moro Crater Massacre, in which six hundred Moros were killed.
The name "Mark Twain" is a pun reference to a riverboat depth measurement indicating two fathoms (12 ft or 3.7 m), or "safe water." Some believe that the name "Mark Twain" was brought on by his bad drinking habits, and not by his time as a riverboat pilot. He also used the pseudonym "Sieur Louis de Conte" for his fictional autobiography of Joan of Arc.
In recent years, there have been occasional attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn from various libraries, because Twain's use of local color offends some people. Although Twain was against racism and imperialism far in front of public sentiment of his time, some with only superficial familiarity of his work have condemned it as racist for its accurate depiction of the language in common use in the United States in the 19th century. Expressions that were used casually and unselfconsciously then are often perceived today as racism (in present times, such racial epithets are far more visible and condemned). Twain himself would probably be amused by these attempts; in 1885, when a library in Massachusetts banned the book, he wrote to his publisher, "They have expelled Huck from their library as 'trash suitable only for the slums'. That will sell 25,000 copies for us for sure."
Many of Mark Twain's works have been suppressed at times for one reason or another. 1880 saw the publication of an anonymous slim volume entitled 1601: Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors. Twain was among those rumored to be the author, but the issue was not settled until 1906, when Twain acknowledged his literary paternity of this scatological masterpiece.
Twain at least saw 1601 published during his lifetime. Twain wrote an anti-war article entitled The War Prayer during the Spanish-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper's Bazaar rejected it as "not quite suited to a woman's magazine." Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, "I don't think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth." Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish "The War Prayer" elsewhere and it remained unpublished until 1923.
In his later life Twain's family suppressed some of his work which was especially irreverent towards conventional religion, notably Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1942. The anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916.
Perhaps most controversial of all was Mark Twain's 1879 humorous talk at the Stomach Club in Paris entitled Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism (masturbation), which concluded with the thought "If you must gamble your lives sexually, don't play a lone hand too much." This talk was not published until 1943, and then only in a limited edition of fifty copies.
Twain's fortunes then began to decline; in his later life, Twain was a very depressed man, but still capable. Twain was able to respond "The report of my death is an exaggeration" in the New York Journal, June 2nd 1897. He lost 3 out of 4 of his children, and his beloved wife, Olivia Langdon, before his death in 1910. He also had some very bad times with his businesses. His publishing company ended up going bankrupt, and he lost thousands of dollars on one typesetting machine that was never finished. He also lost a great deal of revenue on royalties from his books being plagiarized before he even had a chance to publish them himself.
In 1893, Twain was introduced to industrialist Henry H. Rogers, one of the principals of Standard Oil. Rogers reorganized Twain's tangled finances, and the two became close friends for the rest of their lives. Rogers' family became Twain's surrogate family and he was a frequent guest at the Rogers townhouse in New York City. In 1907, they traveled together in Rogers' yacht "Kanawha" to the Jamestown Exposition held at Sewell's Point near Norfolk, Virginia in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown Colony. Although by this late date he was in marginal health, in April, 1909, Twain returned to Norfolk with Rogers, and was the guest speaker at the dedication dinner held for the newly completed Virginian Railway, a "Mountains to Sea" engineering marvel of the day. The construction of the new railroad had been soley financed by industrialist Rogers, who died in New York less than two months later. Twain, on his way by train from Connecticut to visit Rogers, was met with the news at Grand Central Station the same morning by his daughter. His grief-stricken reaction was widely reported, and he was a pallbearer at the Rogers funeral later that week. When he declined to ride the funeral train from New York on to Fairhaven Massachusetts for the internment, he reportedly stated that he could not bear to ride with his friend and not be able to converse.
While Twain openly credited Rogers with saving him from financial ruin, there is also substantial evidence in their published correspondence that the close friendship in their later years was mutually beneficial, apparently softening at least somewhat the hard-driving industrialist Rogers, who had apparently earned the nickname "Hellhound Rogers" when helping build Standard Oil earlier in his career. During the years of their friendship, Rogers helped finance the education of Helen Keller and made substantial contributions to Dr. Booker T. Washington. After Rogers' death, it was revealed in Dr. Washington’s papers that Rogers had funded over 100 institutions in the South for the betterment and education of negroes.
Twain's Hartford, Connecticut home is a museum and National Historic Landmark, known as The Mark Twain House (http://www.marktwainhouse.org/). Twain also lived in the latter part of the 19th century in Elmira, New York where he had met his wife, and had many close ties.
The small town of Hannibal, Missouri is another town that features many Mark Twain attractions including a boyhood house of his and the caves he used to explore that feature in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Mark Twain as a character
Additional works by Twain
See also: Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
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