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The author, humorist, and lecturer Mark Twain is regarded as one of America's greatest writers. His insight into human nature, his humor, and his use of everyday American language have made his novels and stories among the best loved in American literature.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835, in the village of Florida, Missouri. When Sam was 4, his parents moved the family to nearby Hannibal, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Growing up in Hannibal, Sam became enchanted with the life and lore of the great river. The Mississippi was a lifelong fascination, and it provided the material for many of his greatest books. Sam later took the name Mark Twain as a reminder of life on the Mississippi-when riverboat crews charted the depth of the river, they would cry "mark twain!" to indicate a measure of 2, or twain, fathoms (12 feet).
Young Sam left school at the age of 11 to become a printer's apprentice. He worked in Hannibal for a newspaper published by his brother, Orion, and then found jobs in St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia. After a year in Iowa, again working for Orion, Sam was drawn back to the Mississippi. In 1857, traveling down the river, he persuaded the steamboat captain to teach him how to pilot. After earning his license, he served as a river pilot until the Civil War, when the Mississippi was closed to commercial traffic.
After serving with the Confederate Army for two weeks, Clemens quit and set out for the western frontier in 1861. For the next several years, he lived with Orion in the Nevada Territory, trying his hand at gold mining, the lumber business, and other unsuccessful ventures. On the strength of humorous sketches he had been writing about his adventures in the West, Sam landed a job with a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. He began signing his articles "Mark Twain."
Twain moved on to San Francisco in 1864, joining the staff of The Morning Call and writing for two local magazines. In 1865 a New York magazine published his short story about a California frog-jumping contest, called "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The story made him famous overnight. During the next several years, Twain began lecturing and continued his writing as a travel correspon-dent for several publications. In 1867 he sailed to Europe and the Middle East, sending back comic but insightful letters about his experiences. The letters were later made into a book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), which won him worldwide attention and financial freedom.
In 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon. In 1871, the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut. The house they built there was a Victorian-style mansion, with an ornate design that suggested a Mississippi River steamboat. It was their home for twenty years.
The Hartford years were the most creative in Twain's writing career. There and in Elmira, New York, where the family spent summers, he produced many of his most important works. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and other books made him one of the best-known and most prosperous authors of his time. Twain also went on long lecture tours, packing auditoriums across the United States and Europe. And when he was not working, he enjoyed spending time with his three daughters-Susy, Clara, and Jean. As young girls, Twain's daughters loved to act out his stories, especially The Prince and the Pauper (1882).
Despite his great success, Twain suffered deep disappointments during his later years. He lost his entire fortune in two unsuccessful business investments-a publishing firm and a new kind of typesetting machine. That forced him to move his family to Europe, where they could live more cheaply. Then, while he was away lecturing, his daughter Susy died of meningitis. Twain's outlook darkened, and his writing became gloomy and pessimistic. His wife's health also began to fail, and she died in 1904. Jean, his youngest daughter, died five years later.
In the last months of his life, Mark Twain recalled that he had been born when Halley's comet was shooting across the night sky. "It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's comet," he said. The day after he saw Halley's return, on April 21, 1910, Twain died at his home in Redding, Connecticut.
Extracted from New
Book of Knowledge, online edition
Reprinted with permission.
c2004 by Scholastic Library Publishing. All rights reserved.