Langhorne Clemens was born -- two months prematurely
-- under Halley's Comet on Nov. 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Eleven years
later, when his father died, he became an apprentice in his brother's print
shop, after a few years leaving to take jobs in St. Louis, New York and
In 1856, he moved to Cincinnati, where he hatched a plan to travel to South America to collect coca leaves. But the riverboat ride to New Orleans so impressed him that he gave up his quest and prevailed upon the pilot of the boat to teach him to navigate the Mississippi. Here he first heard the expression "mark twain" (a boating term meaning two fathoms), which he adopted as his pen name, first affixing it to a humorous travel letter in 1863.
Later, after a two-week stint in the Civil War (he volunteered for the Confederacy), he prospected for gold, worked in a silver mine, traveled the South Seas, lectured and worked as a reporter and editor. By 1865 he found his first success when The New York Saturday Press published his story "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." He moved to New York in 1867, where he met Olivia Langdon, his wife-to-be, and flourished as a lecturer and humorist. In that same year he was a passenger on the first "luxury cruise" to Europe and the Holy Land, and related the party's misadventures in letters to the New York Tribune and the Herald. He later worked these reports into his first book, The Innocents Abroad, which became an immense success.
Over the next few years, living at various times in Greenwich Village, on Fifth Avenue and in neighboring Riverdale, as well as more spacious quarters in Hartford, Connecticut, Twain produced his major novels. He made money in the publishing business with his in-laws (and was able to hand U.S. Grant's widow a $200,000 check -- the largest to date -- for the late general's memoirs), but after that he invested heavily in a mechanical typesetter that eventually proved unworkable, and by 1894 he was deeply in debt. Twain's close friend, Henry H. Roger (a Standard Oil "robber baron" whom Twain admired because "he owns up to being a pirate") took over Twain's finances and sent him off on a lecture tour that took him from Cleveland to Capetown, South Africa, and a few years later Twain returned to New York in the black (although by this time he had begun wearing his trademark white linen suit).
But personal tragedy plagued him. One daughter had died while he was abroad; his wife died in 1904, and his two other daughters were in and out of "institutions." His writing took on a darker tone, and in works meant for posthumous publication, he attacked politicians, religion, the Southern "lynch mentality" and various sinister aspects of humanity. But despite the lucklessness of his final years, he had become the poet laureate of New York, if not the nation -- beloved, feted and customarily consulted on great and small issues of the day. As Twain had prophecized, when he died in Redding, Connecticut on April 10, 1910, Halley's Comet was again blazing through the sky.
"Adam," wrote Twain, "was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before him." But despite that disclaimer, few are as quotable as Twain.
Herewith a sample:
It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid
than to open it and remove all doubt.
Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.
It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.
In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice.
Then He made school boards.
When in doubt, tell the truth.
In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination.
Every one is a moon, and has a dark side
which he never shows to anybody.
Always do right. That will gratify some of the people,
and astonish the rest.
Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em
as much as you please.
It were not best that we should all think alike;
it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence,
and then Success is sure.
It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me,
it is the parts I do understand.
The man who does not read good books has no advantage
over the man who can't read them.
Of the delights of this world man cares most for sexual intercourse,
yet he has left it out of his heaven.
A lie can travel halfway around the world
while the truth is putting on its shoes.
Wagner's music is better than it sounds.
Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction?
Fiction, after all, has to make sense.
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
Heaven goes by favour. If it went by merit,
you would stay out and your dog would go in.
Editors hold Mark Twain in special esteem, for before him manuscripts had been turned in handwritten. Twain saw a young woman demonstrating a "Type-Writer" in a New York store window in 1874 and bought the Remington Model 1 for $125 -- a small fortune at the time. He didn't quite manage the 50 words per minute the demonstrator had (more like 19), but he stuck to it and soon turned in the first typewritten manuscript, Life on the Mississippi.
The rest, as they say, is a lot easier to read.
(c)1999 John F. Crowley