The Legend of Mark Twain

Copyright © 1994 by Russell Smith

This electronic text is from TwainWeb, the web service of the Mark Twain Forum

Part 1: The Legend of Mark Twain

Ask a baseball fan in Boston who is the best pitcher in the major leagues and they are likely to say, "Why, Mr. Clemens, of course!" If you had asked a Bostonian in 1891 who was the best American author they probably would have answered the same or more likely they would have used the pen name for Mr. Clemens which is Mark Twain.

Most of us have an instant picture in our mind when we hear the name Mark Twain. We picture a kindly old gentleman with Einstein hair, dressed in a dazzling white suit, and smoking a big cigar. If we are old enough to remember the Hal Holbrook specials we also know the man is tremendously funny as a standup humorist. Almost everyone also remembers Mark Twain as the author of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Some of us might even remember that he was born when Halley's comet blazed across the sky in 1835 and died when it came again in 1910. And yet the true story of the life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens reveals an American who was much more than the way he is usually stereotyped. He was an ace newspaper reporter in the Old West days, an international traveler admired by millions of foreigners, a lecturer and humorist without peer, and a devoted family man.

His father was a judge in Missouri and he died when Clemens was twelve. From a secret hiding place Clemens witnessed the autopsy of his father. He also witnessed several brutal murders in his hometown, Hannibal. These experiences would be reborn in scenes from his later novels.

After a ten year career as a printer the young Clemens decided in 1856 to try something new. Hearing of how Indians in South America used coca leaves for endurance he decided to go to South America and open a world trade in coca leaves. By the time he reached New Orleans he changed his mind and decided to become a riverboat pilot instead.

By 1859 he was a federally certified riverboat pilot and earned the princely sum of $250 a month. With the start of the Civil War he left his job because he feared he would be forced to pilot Federal gunboats. He briefly became a Confederate soldier in Marion's Rangers, but he quit after two weeks and moved to Nevada.

He fizzled as a gold miner and soon found employment for the Virginia City newspaper. It was here that he first used the name Mark Twain. Traditionally it was believed the name derived from the riverboat expression for two fathoms (twelve feet) of water. However, new research by biographer Justin Kaplan suggests the term derived from a Nevada custom. Saloonkeepers used the expression for the common practice of marking up two drinks on credit.

Whatever the origin, Clemens became a man with two identities. Friends called him Clemens, his family and Hannibal friends still called him Sam, and he compounded the confusion by often signing his name with a double autograph, Samuel L. Clemens Mark Twain.

During his reporter days in Nevada he was notorious for writing and publishing hoaxes. Kaplan described the hoaxes in his excellent book Mark Twain and His World. One of the hoaxes was about a petrified man who was supposedly discovered in the desert and another hoax described the massacre of a Nevada family by a berserk man. Entitled "The Empire City Massacre," the article described a man in Carson City killing his wife and six children.

In Twain's words "he dashed into Carson on horseback, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and bearing in his hand a reeking scalp, from which the warm smoking blood was still dripping, and fell in a dying condition in front of the Magnolia saloon."

A rival newspaper was still scolding Twain for his hoax a year later. Twain responded: "He knows very little about anything. If the Second Advent were to occur here, you would read of it first in some other newspaper."

Another hoax backfired on Twain in 1864 and he was forced to leave Nevada. He reported that money raised by Nevada women for wounded Union soldiers was being diverted to "aid a Miscegenation Society somewhere in the East."

Traveling to California Twain found new employment as a reporter and then as a miner. It was at Angel's Camp where he heard the folk tale about a jumping frog and he soon wrote his famous short story, first titled "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog."

Twain soon traveled to the Pacific Islands and after his return he found a new career as a lecturer on the Sandwich Islands. His reputation grew as a humorist and in 1867 he traveled to the Middle East and Europe with his experiences compiled in a satirical travel book called The Innocents Abroad.

Some examples from his book: "Moses took forty years to lead the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land; the overland stage could have done it in thirty-six hours."

And about foreigners in general: "They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce."

In 1870 he married a wealthy Easterner, Olivia Langdon, and they would have three daughters and one son. Tragically, the son died at age nineteen months in 1872. Two of his daughters and his wife died while he was alive.

In 1873 he collaborated with Charles Dudley Warner and wrote his first novel, The Gilded Age. It would earn him $100,000 and also name the era in which Americans lived. In addition to naming an historical period of America (The Gilded Age became synonymous with the excesses of the wealthy Americans who flaunted their riches by imitating classical cultures) Twain also became the first author to use the newly invented typewriter for the final draft of the manuscript.

In 1875 he published Tom Sawyer which achieved only modest sales. He began work on Huckleberry Finn, but had trouble with the book and did not finish it until 1884, almost eight years and seven other books after he started.

In 1877 Twain made a speech at the seventieth birthday party of John Greenleaf Whittier that he regretted for the rest of his life. He told a story to the guests in which Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow, all present at the dinner, were transformed into drunken bums in 1864 who invade a miner's cabin, cheat him at cards, drink all his liquor, and then steal his boots. The joke fell flat and many of the guests were offended.

When Huckleberry Finn was finally published in 1885 (1884 in Europe) it was banned by the Library Committee of Concord, Massachusetts for its coarse language. Twain remained upbeat and he wrote a friend that the banning was worth the sale of 25,000 copies just by the free publicity alone. And he also made the observation that for a library to ban a book makes it necessary for many more people to buy the book because they could not borrow it for free.

A bad investment in a typesetting machine drove Twain into voluntary bankruptcy in 1894 and he faced the dreadful reality of being $100,000 in debt at age 60. He vowed to repay every creditor to the last penny and embarked on an international lecture tour in 1895.

Within three years Twain had repaid all his debts in full and became wealthy again. He would buy five mansions in America and Europe and live comfortably in New York for his remaining years.

It was not until 1906 that Twain began to wear his immaculate white suits and he would stroll down Fifth Avenue and receive the adulation of friends and fans. He enjoyed playing billiards which he called the "best game on earth," and he frequently had dinner with his good friend, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

On the 21st of April, 1910 the man whom William Dean Howells called "the Lincoln of our literature" died of coronary disease. Millions mourned, fulfilling one of Twain's favorite maxims: "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."

Part 2: Was Mark Twain a Racist?

For over thirty years critics of Mark Twain have called attention to the racial epithets in Huckleberry Finn as an example of the inherent racism of the author. African Americans in particular have objected to the book and in many school districts (most recently in Dallas) have either banned the book or forced the districts to make available alternate literary selections for any objecting student.

Was Huckleberry Finn a racist book? Or more importantly--was Mark Twain a racist? The answer lies in an examination of the life of Mark Twain and in the content and intent of his most controversial book, Huckleberry Finn.

If upbringing is any guarantee of the racial attitudes a man will exhibit, then the early life of Mark Twain seemed to be an ideal breeding ground for a racist. Growing up in the slave state of Missouri, Twain's father was a slave trader several times in his many occupational ventures.

After his father's death Twain spent several summers with his uncle, John Quarles. His uncle owned twenty slaves and Twain had a close-up view of slavery in action.

While working as a printer up North in 1853, Twain made a racist remark in a letter to his family. According to biographer Justin Kaplan Twain wrote: "I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern states, n_____s are considerably better than white people."

Another remark made by Twain in 1872 would also be construed by critics today as being racist in nature. After his book Roughing It quite literally got off to a rough start in its initial book sales, Twain was overjoyed when he William Dean Howells wrote a favorable magazine review. Twain said to a friend: "I am as uplifted and reassured by it as a mother who has given birth to a white baby when she was awfully afraid it was going to be a mulatto."

Part of this early racism stemmed from the financial frustrations of growing up in a poor Southern family. Twain's poverty as a youth made him very aware of differences in social class. As Twain later noted in his autobiography: "The class lines were quite clearly drawn and the familiar social life of each class was restricted to that class."

Twain also witnessed the brutal murder of a slave in Hannibal that affected him deeply. The man was killed by a rock-throwing white man for the crime of "merely doing something awkward."

His summers at his uncle's Missouri farm proved a bonanza for his future writing endeavors. He learned slave stories, folklore, and speech patterns that would be lost today without his help. Twain denoted his careful use of colloquial language in his preface to Huckleberry Finn:

"A number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary 'Pike-County' dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guess-work; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several patterns of speech."

An examination of Twain's Civil War record also sheds some light on his Southern feelings about defending slavery and toward what he called the white "tainted aristocracy."

According to Twain: "I was a soldier two weeks once in the beginning of the war, and was hunted like a rat the whole time."

After two weeks in the field he had learned more about retreating "than the man that invented retreating." According to biographer Kaplan instead of saying "War is hell," he (Twain) said "to hell with war," and he left for the safety of Nevada.

Even more revealing was the probing question he asked in 1877 at a banquet honoring Union veterans. He said, "What was the fighting all about, anyhow?"

This hardly seems the war cry of a diehard Southerner, but rather the feelings of a desouthernized Southerner. Twain's feelings about freedmen in his later years were filled with humanism and contempt for people who mistreated them. In 1901 he was horrified to hear about lynchings in the South and even in his homestate of Missouri.

Determined to do something about it, he wrote a magazine article condemning the practice. Entitled "The United States of Lyncherdom," the satirical article begged compassionate missionaries to "leave China, come home, and convert these Christians."

Fearing the reactions of Southerners he put the article in his pile of posthumous manuscripts. He reasoned: "I shouldn't even have half a friend left down there, after it was issued from the press."

And a careful examination of Huckleberry Finn proves that the book is not racist. After all, one of the main themes of the book is a white boy helping a runaway slave--hardly a racist theme.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the non-racist content of the novel is in the scene where slave catchers are rowing toward Huck and Jim who is hidden on the raft. The slave catchers ask Huck, "Is your man white or black?" Huck struggles mightily with the customs of his race and then bravely blurts out, "He's white."

For a Southern white man who grew up with slaveowners it would probably be impossible not to find some elements of our 20th century definition of racism. However, to call Mark Twain a racist is a fallacy and does a disservice to the contributions he made in the area of colloquial speech, folklore, and narration.

Mark Twain was far from being a racist. People who still persist in calling Mark Twain a racist should reread Huckleberry Finn and especially Twain's preface: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

Part 3: The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens burst onto the mainstream of American literature after his adoption of the pen name Mark Twain in 1863. For nearly fifty years he entertained America with his insight about the feelings of the common man. He was equally well-known as a humorist and lecturer in his day and he amassed most of his wealth through those endeavors.

Acclaimed by many as the greatest American humorist of the late 1800s, Twain was renowned for his special view of life. In this century only Will Rogers and Bob Hope have come close to matching Twain's skill as a humorist.

And yet for all his personal success in his life Twain was still just a man subject to the same foibles and pressures we all face. He was arrested once as a young man in California for drunkenness and in the depths of a personal crisis in 1866 placed a pistol to his head and considered ending it all. Years later he would recall that incident: "Many times I have been sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed of having tried."

Detractors from Nevada continued to condemn him long after he had left his newspaper job in that state. One wrote about Twain: "He is a Bohemian from the sagebrush, a jail-bird, bail-jumper, deadbeat, and an alcoholic."

Twain managed to survive those tough early years and gave to the world a new style of literature that surpassed all previous American authors. An examination of some of his most famous quotes reveals the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain.

Here are some of my favorite sayings and maxims of Mark Twain:

Speaking about Congress at the height of the Credit Mobilier scandal (the Watergate of the 1870s): "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." And "I think I can say and say with pride that we have some legislators that command higher prices than any in the world."

On his inveterate cigar smoking: "Never smoke more than one cigar at a time." And "It has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake."

About creativity: "When the tank runs dry, you've only got to leave it alone and it will fill up in time."

About the difficulty of the German language: "Yes sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat." And he decided he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.

On German music: "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

On Europe: "The meat served on the continent is as overdone as a martyr."

On France: "It lacks winter, summer, and morals." And "the French were the connecting link between man and monkey," and "resembled no other tribe so much as the Comanches."

On his controversial book Huckleberry Finn: "I shall like it whether anybody else does or not."

About his good friend Rudyard Kipling: "Between us we cover all knowledge. He knows all that can be known, and I know the rest."

From his book Pudd'nhead Wilson: "Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it."

On status: Naked people have little or no influence in society."

About his dislike for a snobbish Boston lady: "I do not believe I could ever learn to like her except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight."

On inner feelings: "Everyone is a moon and has a dark side, which he never shows to anybody."

On his "obituary" in the New York Journal in 1897 (13 years before his death): "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

After losing $51,000 in a failed bank in the panic of 1907 he said, "If I had had a million in that bucket shop, I should be nineteen times as sorry as I am now."

His definition of a classic: "A book which people praise and don't read."

Mark Twain received some his highest praise for his skill with words from another great author, Ernest Hemingway. In 1938 in his book Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway wrote that Huckleberry Finn was "the best book we've had." And "all American writing comes from that. There was nothing before."

It is a tribute to the skill of Mark Twain that his classics are still enjoyed by readers today over 100 years after they were written. Hopefully people will continue to enjoy them for another century or more.

[Grateful acknowledgment to Justin Kaplan for quotations found in his excellent book Mark Twain And His World.]

Russell Smith <> is an educator living in Sweetwater, Texas. On April 29, 1994 Mr. Smith was awarded the Texas State Teachers Association School Bell Award for Best Continuing Column for 1993. This series of revised articles on Mark Twain first appeared in his column Perspective in August of 1991 in the Sweetwater Reporter News. Mr. Smith grants full and free use of his articles for educators and researchers.