MARK TWAIN’S real name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens. There is a story to the effect that one of his ancestors, by name Gregory Clement, an adherent of Cromwell, added his voice to the condemnation of Charles I. and was beheaded for it by Charles II. However, it is neither as Clement nor as Clemens that the most celebrated of contemporaneous American authors is, or has been, popularly known, but by the pen-name of Mark Twain, which he adopted when he was piloting on the Mississippi, more than forty years ago.
In fun or in earnest it is hard to fathom his moods Mr. Clemens said lately that he was working on an autobiography which must not be opened until he has been in his grave for a century. So far as the main facts are concerned, however, the humorist’s autobiography is al-ready an open book. It has been chronicled piece by piece in a hundred magazines and in a thousand newspapers since 1868, when “Innocents Abroad” appeared, up to the present day. Probably no other living author has been so beset by the requests of editors and the importunities of reporters ; and assuredly no other living author has been more amiable or more liberal in his responses. No, a good portion of the auto-biography of Mr. Clemens, or Mark Twain, we shall use each name impartially,will be submitted to the public within a hundred hours after his death and may that inevitable conclusion be far, far off!
As a man and as a writer Mr. Clemens has invariably carried the colors of the typical American. A stern sense of duty and of honor, a seldom absent sense of humor, inexhaustible energy, dauntless pluck, unfeigned simplicity and abiding sympathy and fidelity, are the salient characteristics of the typical American of Mr. Clemens. At the same time, above and beyond the writer’s unexcelled powers of observation and richness of imagination is his fine sense of artistry. ” Mark Twain’s humor will live forever,” Mr. Howells is reported to have said some years ago, because of its artistic qualities. Mark Twain portrays and interprets real types, not only with exquisite appreciation and sympathy, but with a force and truth of drawing that makes them permanent.” So fastidious a critic as Prof. Barrett Wendell has lately dwelt on the constant and irresistible charm of Huckleberry Finn.
Mr. Clemens was born in a little Missouri village named Florida on Nov. 30, 1835. His father, John Marshall Clemens, of a good Virginia family, was one of the pioneers who, early in the century, crossed the Alleghenies and sought new fortunes in the unsettled West. His mother, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Lampton, also, like her husband, came of good English stock. Her forefathers had plunged into the wilds with Daniel Boone; and she her-self has been described as ” one of those beautiful, graceful, and vivacious Kentucky girls who have contributed so much to the reputation of that fortunate State.” A cousin of Mr. Clemens, by the way, who was one of the humorist’s playmates sixty years ago, is the Rev. Eugene Joshua Lamp-ton, who, by some of the people in Missouri, is called ” the Bishop of the diocese.” Elder Lampton is the possessor of the original subscription list which Mr. Clemens carried when he was a newspaper boy in Hannibal. But this is reaching ahead a little.
They say that Mr. Clemens’s mother was not only remarkably winsome but remark-ably intelligent. When the author was a youngster one of his relatives said of him : ” He’s a perfect little human kaleidoscope.” ” Yes,” added another, and he gets that from his mother.” Samuel’s mother could ” write well,” which was no small accomplishment in the south-west in the thirties.
When Samuel was about nine years old his father decided to move to Hannibal, in the same State. The prime cause of this immigration was the failure of the elder Clemens to make Salt River navigable ; hence, as one writer has suggested, the probable origin of the old synonym for disaster, ” gone up Salt River.”
Young Clemens was sent to school in Hannibal. Some of his schoolmates are living in the old town to-day. He seems to have enjoyed the rule of two teachers, Miss Newcomb and Miss Lucy Davis. Physically, he was not a strong boy, but intellectually he seems always to have been more than a match for any boy of his age. He had two brothers, Orion, who was considerably older, and Henry, who was the youngest of them all. Samuel attended school until his father died in 1847. The death of the father, who had just been elected county judge, was a hard blow to the family. After the death of his father, the subject of our sketch went to work for the local newspaper as a carrier. After-ward he served as ” devil ” and type-setter, and then, having completed his apprentice-ship and thinking to better himself elsewhere, he set off on foot for the East. Doing odd jobs at the case and the press, he finally reached Philadelphia. Thence he went to New York. But the East did not please him, and at seventeen he was back in Hannibal.
He was now on his uppers, as the phrase is, and, in addition to its adventurous side, the financial side of steamboat life on the Mississippi magnetized him. There, for instance, was the pilot, the guide of the great smoking craft, a man who knew everything thought worth knowing, a man looked up to by every merchant, every traveler and every desperado. Samuel determined to become a pilot, and the picturesque Capt. Horace E. Bixby took him under his wing. In his
Life on the Mississippi” Mark Twain describes with all his eloquence the interesting and exciting life of a pilot on the treacherous river. And was not the pilot’s a great and attractive post for a young man ? ” If you will take,” says Mark, the longest street in New York, and travel up and down it, conning its features patiently until you know every house and window and door and lamp-post and big and little sign by heart, and know them so accurately that you can instantly name the one you are abreast of when you are set down at random in that street in the middle of an inky-black night, you will then have a tolerable notion of the amount and the exactness of a pilot’s knowledge who carries the Mississippi River in his head. And then if you will go on until you know every street-crossing, the character, size and position of the crossing-stones, and the varying depth of mud in each of those numberless places, you will have some idea of what the pilot must know in order to keep a Mississippi steamer out of trouble. Next, if you will take half of the signs on that long street and change their places once a month, and still manage to know their new positions accurately on dark nights, and keep up with these repeated changes without making any mistakes, you will understand what is required of a pilot’s peerless memory by the fickle Mississippi.”
The life on the river, with its ever-changing dramatic and entertaining incidents, awoke the young man’s sleeping imagination gave him a strong desire to put to use the modest literary methods which he had acquired as an itinerant printer. Mr. Howells, too, it will be noticed, first had the passion for authorship aroused in him by the types and the presses.
The first sketches which Mr. Clemens sent to the local papers were signed ” Iosh,” a meaningless signature, which quickly made the young author desire something better. The improvement came to him when one day he heard a ” big black negro” who was taking soundings call out ” Mark twain ! ” which meant that there were two fathoms of water. The call struck the pilot’s fancy, and he kept it in mind for future use.
Mr. Clemens served in the pilot-house one of the best school-houses in the world, it may be said until the war broke out. Then he ran blockades for a while; and for two weeks he carried a gun in the Confederate army, under General Harris. The two weeks’ service cooled his ardor, and he went farther west with his brother Orion, who, as a sympathizer with the Union side, had received an appointment as Secretary of the Territory of Nevada. Samuel was to act as his brother’s secretary, but as in this office he did nothing and earned nothing, he, after an attempt at prospecting, joined the staff of the Virginia City Enterprise. It was as the Enterprise’s correspondent at the capital of the Territory, Carson City, that Mr. Clemens first used the striking pseudonym ” Mark Twain.” But he had no taste for routine work ; or, rather, his manner of garnishing, often with his stinging satire, his routine work, did not suit the taste of the editor of the Enterprise, and at the end of six months Mark Twain stamped the dust of Nevada from his shoes and struck out for California, where he readily secured employment on the Union. In the spring of 1865 he took an interest with Bret Haste in a short-lived weekly called The Californian, and some of the humorous articles which he wrote for that publication were widely copied in the East. Later the Union sent him to the Hawaiian Islands to describe the sugar industry. His work as a correspondent was very successful, and so was the lecture tour which he made in California when he returned.
Major Pond, by the way, relates that Mark Twain committed his lecture to memory and was entirely confident of success; still, desiring to forestall even the possibility of failure, he arranged with some friend of his Major Pond has forgotten her name to sit in a box and start the applause if he should look in her direction and stroke his mustache. ” Instead of failing, however,” the Major reports, ” the lecture started propitiously, and that caused Mark to forget his instructions to the lady. By and by, unconsciously, when the audience was filled to the neck with pleasure and sore with laughter, he unwittingly turned to the box where his friend sat and pulled his mustache. At the time he was saying nothing particularly good or funny, but the anxious lady took his action for the signal, and almost broke her fan on the edge of the box in a fury of applause.” It took all the nerve which Mark had accumulated among the gamblers and crevasses of the Mississippi to pass through the embarrassment.
In 1867 Mr. Clemens published his first book, ” The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches,” of which about four thousand copies were sold. That same year he went to Europe with the excursionists aboard the Quaker City.
This excursion proved to be the turning point in his career. He had a commission to write sketches of the journey for the Alta Californian. The sketches were duly published, and were then collected and offered to a publisher for marketing in book form. The material did not appeal to the publisher ; it was startlingly uncut and undried. But Mark was insistent, and by and by the book appeared under the title of Innocents Abroad.” That book established Mark Twain’s reputation as a humorist. During the thirty-three years which have intervened between that day and the present, Mark Twain’s reputation has been maintained at a matchless height. No one has been deemed worthy by the reading public which, after all, is the Supreme Court in literary matters to be called his rival. And since the publication of ” Innocents Abroad ” Mark Twain’s career has been public property, with no signs, no fences, not even a dog therein to bark at night.
Mark Twain’s career stands unequalled in the literary history of America. He has been honored as an author and as a lecturer in almost every part of the world. He made a fortune and lost it ; and now he is making another.
The literary historian must record in his case the prodigious achievement of an author remaining for at least thirty-three years and who knows how many more will follow ? in almost steady demand in print and on the platform.
But in more than a literary sense was that excursion to Europe on the Quaker City the turning-point in Mark Twain’s career, for it was on that memorable journey that he met Miss Olivia L. Langdon of Elmira, N. Y., who afterward became his wife ; who is the subject of the most eloquent words which he ever penned, and who, if we are to believe their long-termed friend, Major Pond, ” makes his works so great.”