February 2, 2018:

On February 3, 1863, Samuel Langhorne Clemens used the pen name “Mark Twain” for the first time. Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. In 1839, Clemens’ father, John Marshall, moved his family to Hannibal Missouri and opened a general store. Decades later, a fictionalized Hannibal was used as the setting for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.   

The family patriarch died when Samuel was 11 and within a year the boy quit school to become an apprentice printer at a Hannibal newspaper. In 1853, the 17-year-old left Hannibal and took a variety of printing jobs in New York City and Philadelphia. Clemens returned to the Midwest in 1857 and worked on Mississippi steamboats until 1861. This experience inspired the pen name, “Mark Twain”, a term signifying two fathoms (12’) which is a safe depth for steamboats. 

Shortly after the Civil War began, the 25-year-old joined a pro-Confederate militia. Clemens had no great loyalty to the confederate cause but joined the militia out of local pride. Within weeks of his joining, the militia disbanded upon word that Union troops led by Ulysses Grant were marching towards them. The following month, Clemens left Missouri to become a silver miner in Nevada. In 1862, realizing that his mining efforts were futile, Clemons became a reporter with a Virginia City newspaper. After considering pen names such as Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Clemons settled on “Mark Twain”. 

Huck Finn made his debut in Twain’s 1876 novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. The model for Huck was Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend of Twain. “Huckleberry Finn” created controversy from the moment of its release when it was banned by the Concord Public Library (Massachusetts) for its “coarse language and low moral tone”. Considering the book racist, many school administrators have banned Huckleberry Finn. Yet, many scholars contend that the book is a criticism of racism. Regardless, it is considered one of the great American novels and none other than Ernest Hemingway declared “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.… It’s the best book we’ve had.” 

After making a fortune on his novels, Twain started dabbling in scientific and entrepreneurial ventures. He patented 3 inventions and became friends with Nicholas Tesla and Thomas Edison. However, Twain made a series of unfortunate investment decisions including an automatic typesetting machine that cost him nearly $200,000 (an enormous sum when the majority of American families earned less than $1,200 annually). Conversely, Twain turned down Alexander Graham Bell when the inventor asked him to invest in his telephone.

In 1891, Twain sold his 25-room Hartford home, and took his family on a long tour of European spas to live less expensively (don’t try this in 2018) and in hope of curing some of the illnesses affecting family members. He was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1894 but soon embarked on a worldwide speaking tour. His popularity as an author and raconteur allowed him to pay all his debts within several years.

Twain’s financial woes parallel those of Ulysses S. Grant, the fierce general who caused Twain’s militia unit to disband. Dying of cancer and dead-broke, Grant was befriended by Twain who urged the military hero to write his memoirs. In 1885, Twain published Grant’s battlefield diaries which became a best-seller, rescued Grant’s widow from poverty and remains a compelling read today. Ulysses S Grant Memoirs
Mark Twain died on April 21, at the age of 74 but his novels, wit and legend live on.

Mark Twain never said (or wrote) that

Next to Yogi Berra, Twain is probably the most misquoted person of all-time. Here are four quotes that although attributed to Twain have no definitive source:

 “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” 
 “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” 
 “Golf is a good walk spoiled” 
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” 

Mark Twain did say:

“Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” 
 “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” 
“Classic — a book which people praise and don’t read.”
 “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”

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Ted Curtin