The Fascination of River Life On November 30, 1835, Mark Twain was born as
Samuel Langhorne Clemens in what was then a gritty frontier settlement called Florida, Missouri. When Clemens was four years old, his family moved some 30 miles to the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, a bustling port of about 500 people. When he was 11, his father died of pneumonia. To help support the family, Clemens took jobs as a grocery
clerk and delivery boy. When he was 13, a local print shop hired him as an apprentice, and a
few years later, he became a pressman at his brother Orion's newspaper. Before long, he
was writing comic sketches for the newspaper and itching to travel. Clemens left Hannibal at
the age of 18, working briefly as a printer and writer in St. Louis, New York City, and
Philadelphia. Four years later, he decided to seek his fortune in South America. He boarded a
Mississippi River steamboat for New Orleans, but along the way, he made a life-changing
decision. Horace Bixby, a veteran steamboat pilot whom Clemens met on the voyage, taught
him "how to steer the boat and thus made the fascination of river life more potent than ever"
for Clemens. Under Bixby's stern guidance, Clemens became a licensed riverboat pilot.
During the four years he sailed the Mississippi, he reveled in a job that suited his love of
freedom more than any other job had or would. And he got an education. "In that brief, sharp
schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of
human nature...," Clemens wrote later. "When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or
biography I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have
known him beforemet him on the river."
A Picnic on a Grand Scale In 1861, when the Civil War halted shipping on the
Mississippi, 26-year-old Clemens traveled west to Nevada with his brother. At first, he
tried mining and prospecting for gold and silvera dismal failure that turned him back to
writing. In 1862, he took a $25-a-week job as a journalist for the Virginia City
Territorial Enterprise. In 1863, he published his first article under the pen name "Mark
Twain," riverboat jargon for water two fathoms, or 12 feet, deepwater just deep enough to
keep a steamboat safely afloat. By the time Twain left the West three years later, his star
was rising. He had debuted as a stage performer, riveting audiences with his entertaining
stories. Even more important, he had won national fame with his humorous tale "The
Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Flushed with growing success, Twain sailed to
Europe and the Middle East in 1867, enjoying "a picnic on a grand scale," as he put it. Along
the way, he supplied irreverent articles about his fellow travelers and foreign manners to
papers in California and New York City. Later, Twain expanded the articles into his first and
highly successful book, The Innocents Abroad. But the trip had another important
consequence, too. Aboard ship, Twain met Charley Langdon, the 18-year-old son of a wealthy
New York coal merchant. One day Charley showed Twain a picture of his handsome older
sister, Olivia, and from that moment, Twain was charmed.
Twain and Olivia Langdon were married in 1870, and the couple settled in Hartford,
Connecticut. Over the next two decades, Twain focused his talents and energies on serious
writing, producing his greatest works. Among the most important were The Adventures of
Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and his masterpiece, The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). It was also during these years that Twain matured
into America's first celebrity author.
As America developed a national identity, people looked to writers to create characters that
were true-to-life images of Americans. Twain gave them such characters. His Americans
were homespun, and their language, customs, and attitudes reflected the reality of a new
America that was growing rapidly. Twain's realism, his truthful imitation of real life, won
him national favor. All over the country, people felt they knew this shaggy-haired, drawling
character who made a splash in his trademark white suit.