Mark Twain – An American Philosopher

Mark Twain: His Words in Today's Context. The History Blog ProjectMark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. Sam was the sixth of seven children of John and Jane Clemens, with only two of his siblings surviving childhood; his brother Orion and sister Pamela.

When Sam was four years old the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a small frontier town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Missouri gained statehood in 1820, and the time of Sam’s youth it comprised a portion of the country’s western border. Missouri was a slave-holding state. The family owned one slave named Jenny. Sam’s uncle also owned several slaves. Sam delighted in the spirituals and tall-tales told by Jenny and in the slave quarters of his uncle. This early influence would serve young Clemens well.

Sam was eleven years old when his father died in 1847. He left school in the fifth grade to work as a printer’s apprentice for a local paper. It was there, while setting type, that Sam got a taste for the news and a sense of the world beyond the small village of Hannibal.

At eighteen, Sam set out for New York and Philadelphia, working for several newspapers and getting some of his first articles published.

But Ol’ Man River was to tug on Clemens’ imagination. In 1857, Sam embarked on his career as a riverboat pilot. Guiding a riverboat down the capricious Mississippi was no easy feat in the mid-nineteenth century. After two years of meticulously learning the ways of the river Sam earned his pilot license.

During his training, Clemons convinced his younger brother Henry to come join him on the river. On June 21st, 1858, the steamboat Henry was working on exploded, a tragic accident that killed Sam’s brother. Ridden with guilt, Sam held himself responsible for Henry’s death for the rest of his life.

Sam’s career as a riverboat pilot came to an end with the start of the Civil War in 1861 when river traffic was halted.

Though a slave state and considered by many as part of the South, Missouri did not join the Confederacy. Clemens and some friends formed a Confederate militia of which he later wrote a short story called The Private History of a Campaign That Failed. The militia joined a battle in which a man was killed. Sam discovered that he had no taste for killing and thus deserted. His friends joined the Confederate army, and Sam was ready for a new chapter in his life.

Answering a call from his older brother Orion, who had just been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, Sam headed west with hopes of striking it rich in Nevada’s silver rush.

As it went for most miners, his dream of riches failed to materialize, so he went back to his journalistic pursuit writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. It was here that Clemens realized he needed a pseudonym for his emerging voice as a writer. Harking back to his days as a riverboat pilot and the process of periodically measuring the depth of the river, Sam found his new name. When the distance between riverbed and the bottom of the boat became dangerously close the alert would be sounded from the leadsman: “Marrrrk Twain!

Mark Twain.

And an American Philosopher was born.

Mark Twain first achieved national and international acclaim with a short story entitled Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.

A year later Twain was hired by the Sacramento Union to visit and report on his impressions of the Sandwich Islands (modern day Hawaii). The wit and humor of his dispatches further accelerated his celebrity. Upon his return, he launched his first lecture tour, and Mark Twain’s career was laid out.

He traveled widely providing his growing audience a sardonic look at the world. His first tour of Europe eventually led to his first book, Innocents Abroad, which led to Twain meeting his future wife, Olivia, to whom he remained married until her death in 1904.

Through his many novels, articles, speeches, and books Mark Twain’s wit and wisdom showed Man as a funny creature, full of contradictions and foibles. Sometimes finding hope in the human condition, and sometimes despair (especially in his later life), Twain usually managed to bring to his observations a gentle humor that to this day helps ease the discomfort of being human.

In 1909 Mark Twain is quoted as saying;

“I came in with Haley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Haley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together’.”

The following year, on April 21st, 1910 Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known the world over and to this day as Mark Twain, died, riding on the tail of a comet.

5 thoughts on “Mark Twain – An American Philosopher

  1. As I recall from reading Twain’s autobiography, Jenny wasn’t owned by Sam’s father, but leased, year after year. Leasing and renting slaves was a common practice for those who couldn’t afford to purchase a slave outright and insure them. It’s not a particularly important point as far as Twain’s development is concerned, at least that I can see, but it is an important part of the way the South’s economy worked, and it could have very important consequences for the slaves in question, of course.

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