Donald Elder-Fifty Greatest Americans–Samuel Clemens or “Mark Twain”

Jul 8, 2015 by

Mark Twain

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder-Fifty Greatest Americans–Samuel Clemens or “Mark Twain”

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder – one name that is almost synonymous with America and American literature is Samuel Clemens or as he is often known as “Mark Twain”.  Where was Mark Twain born and when did he inherit or begin to use the name “Mark Twain”?

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, the sixth child born to his parents. At the age of 4, he moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, a town on the Mississippi River. There his father served as an attorney and a judge, but unfortunately he passed away when Clemens was 11. A year later, Clemens dropped out of school and became an apprentice for a printer. After a few years, he became a typesetter for the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper that was owned by his older brother Orion. Samuel also began to write articles for the Journal.Seeking better opportunities, Orion moved to Keokuk, Iowa, in 1854 and became the owner of a newspaper in that community. Samuel then moved to Keokuk and worked for his brother’s newspaper.When he turned 18, Clemens decided to strike out on his own, and moved to New York City. He soon found work there as a printer. Clemens plied his trade in a number of cities in the East, but after a few years decided to change occupations. As a child, he had been fascinated by the steamboats that made their way up and down the Mississippi River, and dreamed of someday being a steamboat pilot.

Accordingly, he became an apprentice (known as a “cub”) to a pilot, and two years later he received his license. He worked at this occupation until 1861, when the Civil War broke out. These hostilities brought steamboat traffic on the river to a virtual halt, which left Clemens without employment. He then volunteered for service in a local Confederate militia unit, but left the military after only two weeks. Once again without employment, Clemens decided to journey to the Nevada Territory. His brother Orion had been appointed as the secretary for territorial governor there, and Clemens decided to accompany his brother as he moved west. Arriving in the Nevada Territory, Clemens became a miner, but had no luck. He then went to work for The Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper located in Virginia City. In 1863, he wrote an article for the newspaper, and used the pen name “Mark Twain” for the first time.

This nom de plume comes from his experience as a steamboat pilot. To determine the depth of the water underneath the ship, a person would stand on the bow of the boat and cast a weighted line over the side. Knots were placed in the line at measured intervals, allowing the person using the line to know exactly much water was below the surface. Steamboats needed 12 feet of water to be safe from running aground, a distance that is two fathoms in nautical terms. In the idiom of that era, the person operating the line would shout “mark twain” to the pilot when the rope indicated at least two fathoms of safe water beneath the craft. Interestingly, Clemens claimed in his book Life on the Mississippi that it was actually another person who had first used the pen name of Mark Twain. In that book, Clemens asserted that it was a man named Captain Isaiah Sellers that had originally written newspaper articles under that byline.

Historians are divided about the veracity of this story, but it is readily apparent that Mark Twain was an inspired choice for a nom de plume. Although Clemens would later occasionally write under other names, the great books that we generally associated with him were written under this name.

2) What was his early childhood like? Or did he spend it like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on the Mississippi River?

Of all the books that Samuel Clemens wrote, his two most famous novels are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Unlike some of his works, these two novels reflect much of the life that he lived growing up in Hannibal, Missouri. To begin with, by all accounts the character of Tom Sawyer closely resembles that of Clemens himself. He may have also borrowed from the lives of Will Bowen and John Briggs, two of his friends as he grew up in Hannibal. It is generally believed that he based the character Huckleberry Finn on his childhood friend Tom Blankenship. Laura Hawkins was the person that Clemens used as the inspiration for Becky Thatcher. Clemens chose the name Tom Sawyer for a specific reason. After he left Nevada in 1864, he moved to San Francisco to work for a newspaper, and while there he met a city fireman named Tom Sawyer. Sawyer had been credited with saving the lives of numerous individuals while fighting fires, and Clemens decided to honor his friend by giving his fictional creation that name. Finally, although many of the events depicted in the two books never occurred, Clemens clearly captured the essence of life in a town on the Mississippi River in the antebellum period.

3) When did he really start to become well known and which of his books catapulted him to success?

While writing for The Territorial Enterprise, the author known as Mark Twain had become well known throughout the West. His fame grew when he took a trip to Hawaii and wrote a serious of dispatches about his experiences. But clearly the event that catapulted him to fame was a short story that he wrote in 1865. It was titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and it was published by a New York newspaper in November of that year. Because of his growing fame, he was hired to tour the Middle East and write about his experiences there. These dispatches became the basis for his first book, The Innocents Abroad, in 1869. Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age, came in 1873. His fame would never wane, and he would continue to write until his death in 1910.

4) Most people immediately link Mark Twain with Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn- but he has written an immense amount of other commentaries, short stories and other books of immense interest. Can you provide perhaps his TOP TEN books or literary pieces for readers to delve into his works?

Harry L. Katz, the author of a well-received book titled Mark Twain’s America, was asked by Publisher’s Weekly to compile a list of his favorite books by Twain. Although there are those who might rank the books in a slightly different order, his list seems to be a fair appraisal of Twain’s work. His rankings are:

1.     Roughing It

2.     The Gilded Age

3.     The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

4.     Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

5.     A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

6.     The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Times

7.     Following the Equator

8.     The Mysterious Stranger

9.     Eve’s Diary

10.     Autobiography

It is interesting to note two things about this list.

First, the books on this list were published over a wide range of time. This suggests that Twain never lost his touch as an author. It could also be suggested, on the other hand, that Twain may have done his best work while he was still a relatively young man. Indeed, the first four books on the list were all published by the time he turned fifty. Whichever way one interprets this list, however, it is evident that Twain contributed an abundance of great work to the field of American Literature.

5) His later years saw him commenting on politics, national matters and the like. What were his outstanding contributions?

Although Twain downplayed his level of political awareness in his younger years, it seems to many historians that he was more attuned than he later cared to admit. This stems from his opinions regarding the Civil War. While he later described his brief service in a Confederate militia unit as something of a lark, his contemporaries in the Nevada Territory remembered him as having a recognizable bias in favor of the Confederacy. As the tide of battle began to favor the Union, Twain’s support for the Confederacy became muted, and by the end of the war his writings reflected strong support for both the Union cause and abolition. From that point on, he remained a keen observer of the American political landscape.

His most famous stance on a political issue undoubtedly came during the early 1900s regarding the issue of national expansion. Initially, Twain had been a champion of the idea that the United States should annex additional territory, especially Hawaii. In a similar fashion, he had strongly supported the United States war effort against Spain in 1898. But when he learned that Spain would cede the Philippines to the United States as a result of that conflict, Twain changed his mind. He felt that the United States was absolutely unjustified in taking possession of the Philippines, and became involved in an effort to convince the United States government to give the Filipinos their independence. To this end, he became the vice-president of an organization known as the American Anti-Imperialist League. He remained active in this cause until his death.

6) How did he live out his later years- and where is he buried- and who carries on his legacy? (I know there are museums honoring him).

As the twentieth century dawned, Mark Twain had much to be satisfied about. He was, after all, the most famous American author of all time, and after suffering financial setbacks during the 1890s he had become fiscally solvent. Unfortunately, Twain suffered significant losses on a personal level. He had lost an infant son early in his marriage, and then between 1894 and 1909 he lost two of his daughters and his wife. Perhaps not surprisingly, Twain would die shortly thereafter in 1910 of a heart attack. He was interred in his wife’s family plot in a cemetery in Elmira, New York. Fittingly, a twelve-foot high obelisk was placed there.

Eerily, Twain had predicted that he would pass away in the year 1910. He did so because of an astronautical phenomenon known as Hailey’s Comet. That celestial body had passed near the Earth the year that Twain was born, and its orbit would cause it to return in 1910. Knowing that, Twain said that he had come in with the comet, and would leave with it. Perhaps that is a fitting legacy for Mark Twain, who to this day burns the brightest in the constellation of American authors.

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