Imagine you’re on a riverboat!
This isn’t a small boat, this is a very big, shiny white boat, full of people floating down a great river called the Mississippi. The year is 1835 and people are chatting in excitement because the boat is about to stop in the next town. The riverboat’s whistle blows and soon the boat docks and you load off with a large group of people. You are in the bustling town of Hannibal, Missouri, which will someday become famous because of a certain child who grew up here.
When was Mark Twain born?
On November 30, 1835, a boy named Samuel was born to John and Jane Clemens in the United States in Missouri. He was their sixth child and was born early. For many years he was an unhealthy child and his mother always worried about his health. With their big family, his father was always very busy trying to find work to support the family. He dreamed of making a lot of money for his family, but most of his businesses didn’t do well. Later Samuel said he never remembered his father laughing. But his mother Jane was very different. She was very funny and loved to tell stories and make jokes.
When Samuel was 4 his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Hannibal was a busy town and exciting for a boy of Samuel’s age. Three times a day steamboats blew their whistle as they stopped in Hannibal. A steamboat was a large, white steam-powered boat before gas was used to power boats. People from all over Missouri visited Hannibal. This included circuses and tradesmen, such as blacksmiths who made a show of their skills for all to see. To young Samuel, Hannibal was a place of excitement and adventure with all of these new visitors. He and his friend ran around the town freely, pretending to be pirates or other adventurers. They swam in the river, fished, and rowed canoes to the island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Two miles from town was a cave he and his friends liked to explore. When Samuel got older he used all of these adventures in Hannibal as part of the stories he wrote.
But Hannibal was also a dangerous place. Slavery was common at the time, so he saw people of African descent treated badly. Many people in town also had to deal with disease and hardship from being poor. Samuel’s family was very poor. But he still played with his friends and tried to make the best of his life in Hannibal.
When Samuel was 13 he started working to help take care of his family. He worked at a print shop and later for his brother’s newspaper and started writing stories for the newspaper at a young age. At age 17 he left Hannibal and traveled across the United States, working in places like New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. where he had different jobs.
In his 20s Samuel began learning how to be a riverboat pilot, the person who drove the big steamboats up and down the Mississippi River. After much training and practice, he was piloting boats himself and loved the job. It gave him purpose and with it, he felt like he might go somewhere in life. He was paid him well and he enjoyed visiting new places every day. During this time he started writing more and first came up with the idea for his pen name. A pen name is a made-up name some authors give themselves. Whenever a riverboat wanted to measure the depth of the river they would call out “Mark Twain!” He thought it would make a great pen name, too.
Samuel’s job as a riverboat pilot was cut short by the start of the Civil War. He returned to his hometown of Hannibal and was a soldier for a short time. The next job he found was a reporter, where he got to write all of the time. This is when he first started using his pen name, “Mark Twain.” Not long after this, he moved to San Francisco and continued writing as a reporter. His writing was very funny and soon he became very popular in the area. As his writing became more and more known around the country, he started touring and speaking. Americans loved listening to his funny stories about his life. Part of the reason they enjoyed what he said and wrote is that he was very honest, even when it offended others. With his growing popularity, he even started traveling outside of the United States where he visited faraway places like Europe and Jerusalem. During his trip, he wrote about his experiences and sent them back to the newspaper and they were read all across the United States and around the world.
It was at this time that he met Olivia Langdon, fell in love, and was married. He continued to write for magazines and newspapers and eventually started writing his books starting with one called The Gilded Age and one of his most famous books, Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer was about a rowdy, trickster, similar to himself and his friends who grew up in a town similar to Hannibal. Tom, his friend Becky Thatcher, and other friends played pranks, and went on adventures, which included an exciting escape from a cave with treasure.
After Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (we’ll call him by his pen name now) started working on a book called Huckleberry Finn. He wrote the book as if Huck Finn was writing it, using his same language. It took him many years to write the book, because he would often get frustrated or stuck and move to other projects, and then start work on it again. When it was finally finished, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published. In some ways similar to Tom Sawyer it was about a rowdy boy who doesn’t want to be civilized and his escape from his adopted family with a runaway slave named Jim. Together they float down the Mississippi River and struggle to stay alive and avoid being caught. To this day it’s considered one of the best American novels.
Mark Twain continued to write the rest of his life. He had many ups and downs, parts of his life were very hard, but he always kept writing. During the last years of his life he made friends with a group of 10 to 12 young school girls, who he called the “angel fish.” They wrote letters back and forth and helped cheer up Mark Twain who was growing older. He also spent his last years writing his autobiography. An autobiography is when someone writes their own history. Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, died on April 12, 1910.
There is a famous quote associated with Mark Twain that says “write about what you know.” He spent most of his life writing about what he experienced and what he knew. He loved writing about his wild childhood in Hannibal, his life along the Mississippi River and his travels throughout the river. It’s fun to write about far off places or fantasy, I know I like writing about those things, but it’s also good to spend time writing about the things we know, the things that happen to us every day. A lot of people use a journal to do this. Think about starting your own journal. You can start simple, maybe it’s just a few sentences at first. But many people find writing in a journal helps them clear their mind and be reminded of what they are grateful for. Like Mark Twain, you can observe the world around you and write about it. He found much joy in it and so can you!