Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in November 1835. His parents Jane and John Clemens had six other children, but only two of Twain’s brothers and one sister survived into adulthood. Twain spent the first four years of his life in Florida, Missouri before the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a Mississippi River port.
When Twain was just 11 years old, his father died of pneumonia, and the following year Twain left school to take up an apprenticeship at a printer’s works. His writing career began with a promotion to typesetter and the opportunity to produce articles and sketches for the local paper, the Hannibal Journal. Although he later travelled to work as a printer in Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia and St Louis, his long-standing ambition to become a steamboat man on the Mississippi did not waver, and he returned to the area to train to be a steamboat pilot.
It was here that he adopted the pen name Mark Twain. It wasn’t the first pseudonym he used, but it became the one under which his most famous works were written. The name was derived from river terminology; the phrase mark twain is used to describe a river depth of two fathoms, meaning it was deep enough for a steamboat to pass through safely. When river traffic ceased on the Mississippi with the outbreak of the Civil War, Twain left the area and moved to Nevada and then San Francisco.
Moving onto Greater Things
It was out west that Twain’s career as a writer began to take off. He worked as a journalist and by 1865 had achieved attention on a national level with the publication of a humorous story in a New York publication. Soon afterwards, he began to travel as a reporter, visiting what were then known as the Sandwich Islands – now Hawaii – followed by the Mediterranean and the Middle East. While on his travels he met Charles Langdon and his sister Olivia. Twain and Olivia were married in 1870.
Olivia came from a family of wealthy liberals, and the people he met through her, such as abolitionists and supporters of women’s rights, would come to have an influence on his thinking. Twain and Olivia raised their family in Hartford, Connecticut, and spent summers with Olivia’s sister in Elmira, New York.
Over the next few years, Twain would write many of his famous novels. He is best known for his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These books drew on the experiences of his early years, and his Huckleberry Finn character was inspired by a childhood friend. Other notable works include The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Life on the Mississippi.
Aside from his writing, Twain was fascinated by science and technology and would make investments in new inventions. Some of his investments were sound, while others lost him large amounts of money. Fortunately, he was always able to recover his financial position over time with the money he made from writing and giving lectures. Twain continued to travel widely to places such as Africa, Australia, Fiji, and India, and spent several years in Europe. He became a strong opponent of imperialism and raised the issue in many of his talks. He spent his later years in Manhattan, New York. In April 1910, Twain passed away in Connecticut.
A Keen Aficionado
Many photographs of Mark Twain show him dressed in his signature white suit, with a cigar either in his hand or in his mouth. The white suit became noted because Twain chose to wear it beyond the summer season, in a move of defiance against the onset of autumn. At a time when people tended to dress very much in accordance with convention, his white suit gained a lot of attention. He often wore a white suit when giving lectures, and it became a source of amusement to him to observe how long it took his audience to shift their focus from his out-of-season clothing to the subject matter of his talk.
It seems that this was not an image merely for the camera. Friends of the author have noted that he was rarely seen without a cigar. He smoked from morning to night and allegedly even went to bed with a cigar in his hand.
He was famously quoted as saying “I smoke with all my might and allow no intervals.” For Twain, smoking seems to have been intrinsically linked with his creative side. He smoked even more than usual when he was writing, and during the period when he was first married and gave up his cigars, he found it exceptionally difficult to write.
Despite the entreaties of his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, Twain never managed to give up smoking. Even cutting back on the number of cigars proved too much of a challenge, and any attempts to reduce the number were always short-lived. The longest period of abstinence he was able to achieve was in 1870, the year he married Olivia. He returned to his beloved cigars just a few months later. He would smoke so many cigars each day that Olivia’s sister Susan had a separate study built away from the main house, where he could write and smoke while they spent summer holidays with her.
Twain argued that the suffering he experienced in trying to give up smoking caused him more pain than the cigars themselves could possibly cause. However, as he said, there was one time when he was prepared to avoid smoking: “I make it a rule never to smoke while I’m sleeping."
Even so, Twain was hopeful that he would be able to continue smoking even after death and argued that he would forgo heaven if necessary: “If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven, I won’t stay there long.”
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