Mark Twain

On this date in 1835, America’s iconographic humorist and writer Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was born in Florida, Mo. He grew up in Hannibal, which became the inspiration for the setting of his classic books Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, was 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 River. His nom de plume was inspired by the call “mark twain” made to signal a safe passage of two fathoms’ depth. Twain worked as a reporter in Nevada and California. When his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published, he became a national celebrity. He worked as a traveling correspondent and lecturer. Innocents Abroad was published in 1869.

After marrying Olivia Langdon in 1870, he built an opulent house in Hartford, Conn. It was at this home and at his sister-in-law’s farm in Elmira, N.Y., where he produced Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi and Huck Finn (1884). Twain’s later works included A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), “The War Prayer” (a scathing indictment of war and religious hypocrisy, written in 1905 but not published until 1923), The Mysterious Stranger (debunking Providence and published posthumously in 1916) and Letters From the Earth. His 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 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.” In Following the Equator (1897), he famously said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Twain’s sardonic humor increasingly added 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, the death of his son Langdon at 19 months, the death of his daughter Susie from meningitis at age 24 and the death of his daughter Jean in an institution during an epileptic seizure. His wife Livy died in 1904. (D. 1910)

PHOTO: Twain in 1907 receiving a doctor of letters degree from Oxford University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation