Biography of Mark Twain Through 10 Interesting Facts


Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known worldwide by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author who wrote some of the most famous works of the twentieth century including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is referred to as the Great American Novel. Twain had an interesting life during which he worked as a steamboat pilot, served as a Confederate soldier, mined in Nevada, became one of the most prominent writers of his time, lost nearly all his money by investing in loss making ventures, recovered financially through his popularity as a speaker and then was marred by tragedy due to deaths in his family. Know more about the family, life, marriage, career, famous works and death of Mark Twain through these 10 interesting facts.


#1 According to Twain, he was saved nine times from drowning in the Mississippi

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on 30th November 1835 in the village of Florida in Missouri, U.S., Twain was the sixth of seven children of John Marshall Clemens and his wife Jane Lampton. Three of his six siblings died in childhood, leaving only his brothers Orion (1825–1897) and Henry (1838–1858); and their sister Pamela (1827–1904). Samuel was born premature and his mother didn’t expect him to survive childhood. His health remained frail till he was seven. When Samuel was four, the Clemens family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi River. In his autobiography, Twain later claimed that he was saved from drowning in the river nine times as he loved to play in water even though he didn’t know how to swim. He didn’t remember all those who pulled him out with the exception of a slave woman and a young apprentice to a prominent citizen in Hannibal.

Mark Twain being rescued from drowning illustration
Illustration of Twain being rescued from drowning by a black woman


#2 Samuel Clemens got his pen name Mark Twain from steamboat piloting

Samuel’s father John Marshall Clemens was a licensed attorney and operated a general store. He died of pneumonia in 1847 when Samuel was eleven. His death left the family in difficult circumstances ending the school days of young Samuel. Samuel apprenticed as a printer and when he was 18, he left Hannibal and worked as a printer in various cities. Samuel dreamt of being a steamboat pilot and he studied the Mississippi with the help of Horace E. Bixby, a man renowned for his skills in the profession. It was piloting that gave Samuel Clemens his pen name, Mark Twain. Leadsmen, who use the word “twain” instead of “two”, would call “by the mark twain!” to indicate that the river depth was two fathoms, which was safe water for a steamboat.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1850
Samuel Langhorne Clemens at the age of 15 in 1850


#3 Mark Twain foresaw the death of his brother Henry Clemens in a dream

Henry Clemens
Henry Clemens – Mark Twain’s brother

In 1858, while being employed on a boat called Pennsylvania, Twain got his younger brother, Henry, a job aboard the vessel. In route to Memphis, Twain quit the boat due to an argument with the pilot. On June 21, 1858, there was a boiler explosion aboard Pennsylvania leading to the death of Henry Clemens. Around a month earlier, Mark Twain had seen a dream in which his brother lay in a coffin. When he came to see his dead brother, Henry lay in a metal coffin with a bouquet of white flowers on his chest with a single red rose in its center. This was exactly what Twain had dreamt. He was guilt-stricken and held himself responsible for the death of his brother. Also, Twain thought he possessed psychic powers and his interest in parapsychology increased after the event.

#4 He served as a Confederate soldier for a period of two weeks

Mark Twain received his pilot’s license in 1859. He continued to work as a river pilot till the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 which disrupted the river traffic. At the start of hostilities, Twain enlisted in a Confederate local unit known as Marion Rangers. His experience as a Confederate soldier was brief and lasted for only a couple of weeks. Twain later wrote a short, highly fictionalized memoir of this two-week stint titled The Private History of a Campaign That Failed. Twain then became a miner on the Comstock Lode, located under the slope of a peak in the Virginia Range in Nevada. His effort to get rich by mining the Nevada territory for gold and silver proved to be a failure and he moved on to work at the Territorial Enterprise, a Virginia City newspaper. It was here that he first used the pen name by which he would be famous.


#5 His first major literary success was The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

While at a bar in the town of Angels Camp in Calaveras County, California, Mark Twain heard a man tell a tale about a jumping frog contest. In February 1865, Twain’s friend Artemus Ward requested Twain to write a short story for inclusion in his upcoming book and Twain decided to base it on the tale he had heard at the bar. As the book was published before he completed the story, the publisher sent Twain’s piece to The New York Saturday Press, where it appeared in the November 18, 1865 edition as “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”. The short story, which was later re-titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, became immensely popular, was soon printed in many different magazines and newspapers, was Twain’s first great success as a writer and brought him national attention.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County illustration
An illustration for the story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain


#6 Mark Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870 and had four children with her

In 1867, while on a trip to the Mediterranean, Twain met Charles Langdon, son of a very wealthy coal businessman. Langdon showed Mark a picture of his sister Olivia and Mark later claimed to have fallen in love at first sight. Twain and Olivia corresponded throughout 1868 and though she rejected his first marriage proposal, she agreed to get engaged to him two months later. Mark Twain married Olivia Langdon on February 2, 1870 in Elmira, New York. Their marriage is considered a success. It lasted 34 years, until Olivia’s death in 1904. Olivia was Twain’s de facto editor and censor throughout her life. The couple had four children. Their first child, a son named Langdon, died of diphtheria in 1872 at the age of 19 months. They then had three daughters; Susy (1872–1896), Clara (1874–1962) and Jean (1880–1909).

Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon
Mark Twain and his wife Olivia Langdon


#7 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is regarded as his greatest work

The most famous work by Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was published in U.K. in December 1884 and in U.S. in February 1885. It was a direct sequel to another famous work by Twain titled The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but it had a more serious tone than its predecessor. Adventures of Huck Finn is often referred to as the “Great American Novel” and Nobel Prize winning American novelist Ernest Hemingway said that, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”. However, the work also remains controversial for certain aspects like the frequent use of the word “nigger”, which was common in the period the novel is set. Other famous works by Twain include The Innocents Abroad, one of the best-selling travel books of all time.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn book cover
A Book Cover of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain


#8 He patented three inventions including a self-pasting scrapbook

Mark Twain was fascinated with science and technology. He had a close and lasting friendship with the famous inventor Nikola Tesla. Twain himself patented three inventions during his lifetime; an elastic strap for pants and a history trivia game, both of which didn’t sell well; and a self-pasting scrapbook, which was successful and sold over 25,000 times. He also wrote one of the early works in the time travel sub-genre of science fiction, a novel titled A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Though Mark Twain is more known as a novelist today, his popularity at the time was also due to his solo humorous talks, akin to stand-up comedy today. Twain was in high demand as a featured speaker and was not afraid to touch controversial topics during his witty lectures.

Mark Twain Scrapbook Label
Label inside a trademark Mark Twain Scrapbook


#9 Mark Twain had to file for bankruptcy due to bad investments

Illustration of Mark Twain giving a lecture
Illustration of Mark Twain giving a lecture

Although Mark Twain made a lot of money though his writing, he also lost a great deal through investments, mostly in new inventions and technology. He invested on the Paige Compositor, a mechanical typesetter designed to replace the human typesetter of a printing press with a mechanical arm. The machine was a failure due to its complexity and frequent breakdowns and cost Twain around $300,000 (equal to $8,200,000 in inflation-adjusted terms). In 1894, following the failure of his publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Company, Mark Twain filed for bankruptcy. He went on a highly publicized, year-long, around-the-world lecture tour the following year to recover financially. He paid all his pre-bankruptcy creditors in full, though he had no legal obligation to do so.

#10 Mark Twain was born and died around a visit of Halley’s Comet

Mark Twain was struck by tragedies around the beginning of the twentieth century which landed him in depression. His daughter Susy died of meningitis in 1896. This was followed by the death of his wife Olivia in 1904 and the death of another daughter, Jean, in 1909. In 1906, Mark Twain, lonely and without grandchildren, formed a club of girls he viewed as surrogate granddaughters. Named the Angel Fish and Aquarium Club, he considered it as his “life’s chief delight”. Mark Twain was born shortly after a visit by Halley’s Comet. In 1909, Twain predicted that he would go out with the comet, which was to visit earth the next year. Mark Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut, a day after the closest approach to Earth of the Halley’s Comet, thus fulfilling his prediction.

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