1. As a baby, he wasn’t expected to live.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born two months prematurely on November 30, 1835, in tiny Florida, Missouri, and remained sickly and frail until he was 7 years old. Clemens was the sixth of seven children, only three of whom survived to adulthood. In 1839, Clemens’ father, John Marshall, a self-educated lawyer who ran a general store, moved his family to the town of Hannibal, Missouri, in search of better business opportunities. (Decades later, his son would set his popular novels “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in a fictionalized version of Hannibal.) John Marshall Clemens became a justice of the peace in Hannibal but struggled financially. When Samuel Clemens was 11, his 49-year-old father died of pneumonia.

2. Twain’s formal education was limited.

Twain at age 15.

In 1848, the year after his father’s death, Clemens went to work full-time as an apprentice printer at a newspaper in Hannibal. In 1851, he moved over to a typesetting job at a local paper owned by his older brother, Orion, and eventually penned a handful of short, satirical items for the publication. In 1853, 17-year-old Clemens left Hannibal and spent the next several years living in places such as New York City, Philadelphia and Keokuk, Iowa, and working as a printer.

3. His career as a riverboat pilot was marred by tragedy.

In 1857, Clemens became an apprentice steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. The following year, while employed on a boat called the Pennsylvania, he got his younger brother, Henry, a job aboard the vessel. Samuel Clemens worked on the Pennsylvania until early June. Then, on June 13, disaster struck when the Pennsylvania, traveling near Memphis, experienced a deadly boiler explosion; among those who perished as a result was 19-year-old Henry.

Samuel Clemens was devastated by the incident but got his pilot’s license in 1859. He worked on steamboats until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, when commercial traffic along the Mississippi was halted. Clemens’ pen name, Mark Twain, comes from a term signifying two fathoms (12 feet), a safe depth of water for steamboats.

4. Twain briefly served with a Confederate militia.

Twain in 1870.

In June 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, 25-year-old Clemens joined the Marion Rangers, a pro-Confederate militia. Although his family had owned a slave when he was a boy, Clemens didn’t have strong ideological convictions about the war and probably enlisted with the militia primarily out of loyalty to his Southern roots. His time with the group turned out to be brief: After two weeks of conducting drills, the poorly supplied Marion Rangers disbanded upon hearing a rumor that a Union force—led by Ulysses Grant, as Clemens eventually learned—was headed their way.

The following month, Clemens left Missouri and the war behind and journeyed west with his brother Orion, who had been named the territorial secretary of Nevada. Once there, Clemens tried his hand at silver mining and then, after failing to strike it rich, took a job as a reporter with a Virginia City, Nevada, newspaper in the fall of 1862. The following February, he used the pen name Mark Twain for the first time. Prior to that, he had tried out other pseudonyms, including W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.

As it happened, later in life Clemens became friends with Ulysses Grant, and in 1885 published the former president’s memoir, which became a best-seller and rescued Grant’s widow from poverty after her husband lost most of their money to bad investments.

5. He struck literary gold in California.

Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images
Getty Images / Culture Club

In May 1864, Twain challenged a rival Nevada newspaperman with whom he was feuding to a duel but fled before an actual fight took place, supposedly to avoid being arrested for violating the territory’s anti-dueling law. Twain headed to San Francisco, where he got a job as a reporter but soon grew disenchanted with the work and eventually was fired. Later that year, Twain posted bail for a friend who’d been arrested in a barroom brawl. When the friend skipped town, Twain, who didn’t have the funds to cover the bond, decided he too should get out of San Francisco for a while and traveled to the mining cabin of friends at Jackass Hill in Tuolumne County, California (the Jackass Hill area was booming during the 1849 gold rush, but when Twain visited just a small number of miners remained).

While at a bar in the nearby town of Angels Camp in Calaveras County, California, Twain heard a man tell a tale about a jumping frog contest. When Twain returned to San Francisco in February 1865, he received a letter from a writer friend in New York asking him to contribute a story to a book he was putting together. Twain decided to send a story based on the jumping frog tale he’d heard; however, by the time he got around to finalizing it the book had already been published. As it happened, though, the book’s publisher sent Twain’s piece, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” to the Saturday Press in New York, which ran it on November 18, 1865. The humorous story turned out to be a big hit with readers and was reprinted across the country, eventually retitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

6. Twain based Huckleberry Finn on a real person.

Set in the antebellum South, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is the story of the title character, a young misfit who floats down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, a runaway slave. Huck Finn made his literary debut in Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, appearing as Sawyer’s sidekick. The model for Huck Finn was Tom Blankenship, a boy four years older than Twain whom he knew growing up in Hannibal. Blankenship’s family was poor and his father, a laborer, had a reputation as a town drunk.

As Twain noted in his autobiography: “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.” It’s unknown what happened to Blankenship later in life. Twain indicated he’d heard a rumor Blankenship became a justice of the peace in Montana, but other reports suggest he was jailed for theft or died of cholera.

What is certain is that from the time of its publication, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been controversial. Just a month after its American release in 1885, it was banned by the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, for its supposedly coarse language and low moral tone. In the mid-20th century, critics began condemning the book as racist and in the ensuing decades it was removed from some school reading lists. Many scholars, however, contend the book is a criticism of racism.

7. He was a bad businessman.

Cartoon depicting Twain on the lecture circuit. (Credit: Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Getty Images / Transcendental Graphics

After becoming a successful writer, Twain sank money into a number of bad investments and eventually went bankrupt. One investing debacle, involving an automatic typesetting machine, cost him nearly $200,000 by some estimates, an enormous sum considering that in 1890 the majority of American families earned less than $1,200 per year. Conversely, when offered the chance to invest in a new invention, the telephone, Twain reportedly turned down its creator, Alexander Graham Bell. Twain himself invented a variety of products, including a self-pasting scrapbook, which sold well, and an elastic strap for pants, which didn’t.

In 1891, Twain closed up his 25-room Hartford home, where he had lived since 1874, and relocated with his family to Europe in order to live more cheaply (he also hoped the change of scenery would help his wife, who was in poor health). Nevertheless, in 1894, following the failure of the publishing company he had founded a decade earlier, Twain declared bankruptcy. The next year, he embarked on an around-the-world speaking tour in order to earn money to pay off his debts, which he was able to do within several years.

8. Twain has no living direct descendants.

Mark Twain with family, circa 1865. (Credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images).
Getty Images / Fotosearch
Mark Twain with family, circa 1865.

In 1870, Clemens married Olivia Langdon, who was raised in an abolitionist family in Elmira, New York. The couple was introduced by Olivia’s younger brother, who had met Clemens during a voyage to Europe and the Holy Land aboard the steamship Quaker City in 1867. (Clemens wrote about this excursion in his best-selling 1869 travel book, The Innocents Abroad.)

The Clemenses had four children, including a son who died as a toddler and two daughters who passed away in their 20s. Olivia Clemens died in 1904 at age 58, while on April 21, 1910, her renowned husband, whose health had been in decline for a number of months, died at age 74 at his home in Redding, Connecticut. Their surviving child, Clara, died in 1962 at age 88. Clara Clemens had one child, Nina Gabrilowitsch, who passed away in 1966. Gabrilowitsch was childless, so there are no direct descendants of Samuel Clemens alive today.


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