Mark Twain

On this date in 1835, America's iconographic humorist and writer "Mark Twain" (né Samuel Clemens) was born in Florida, Mo. He grew up in Hannibal, in the slave state of Missouri, which became the inspiration for the setting of his classic books Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. "When I was a boy, everybody was poor, but didn't know it; and everybody was comfortable, and did know it," he wrote in his autobiography. His mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, was gentle, yet nevertheless an advocate of the downtrodden, and "could be beguiled into saying a soft word for the devil himself," he recalled. His father died when he was 11. Samuel left school to work and by 13 was a journeyman printer at the Hannibal Gazette. Traveling east to work as a printer and writer, he returned to Missouri to spend two eventful years as a cub-pilot on the Mississippi. His nom de plume was inspired by the call, "mark twain," that river workers made to signal a safe passage of two fathoms' depth. After a 2-week volunteer stint for the confederacy, Twain went west, working as a reporter in Nevada and California. When his story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," was published in the east, he became a national celebrity. Twain supported himself as a traveling correspondent and lecturer. Innocents Abroad was published in 1869.

After marrying Olivia Langdon in 1870, he soon built an opulent house in Hartford. It was at his Hartford home, and summers spent at Quarry Farm, his sister-in-law's home in Elmira, N.Y., where he produced Tom Sawyer, followed by Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, and Huck Finn. That beautifully written 1884 novel, whose thrilling denouement is Huck 's decision to be damned to hell rather than betray his friend, a runaway slave, contains the immortal lines: "Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain't that a big enough majority in any town?" Twain's later books included Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), "The War Prayer" (a scathing indictment of war and religious hypocrisy, 1905, not published until 1923), The Mysterious Stranger (published posthumously, 1916, debunking Providence), and Letters from the Earth. Twain's surviving daughter Clara delayed publication of this blasphemous yarn told about humans from Satan's perspective until 1962. Europe and Elsewhere — containing "The War Prayer" and many other freethinking writings — was edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, who also helped edit Twain's autobiography, published in 1923. Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) begins each chapter with an aphorism from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar," including: "There is no humor in heaven." "The man with a new idea is a Crank until the idea succeeds." In his book Following the Equator (1897), he famously said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Twain's sardonic humor increasingly coated indignant social criticism. He called the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print." In 1907, he wrote Christian Science, exposing Mary Baker Eddy's "desert vacancy, as regards thought." In the late 1890s he became a passionate critic of American imperialism, opposing the Spanish-American and Philippine wars. Twain suffered many personal tragedies, from his brother Henry's tragic death in a steamboat accident in 1858 to the death of his baby son, Langdon, at just 19 months, the death of his beloved daughter, Susie, from meningitis at age 24, and the premature death of his daughter, Jean, in an institution, during an epileptic seizure. His wife, Livy, died in 1904. D. 1910.

“I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious — except he purposely shut the eyes of his mind & keep them shut by force.”

—Mark Twain, Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals, Notebook 27, August 1887-July 1888, edited by Frederick Anderson (1979). Cited by James Haught in 2,000 Years of Disbelief.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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