In his biography
of Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain: A Life
(2005), American author Ron Powers seeks to add new scholarship to the body of work on Twain's life by exploring his private personality, which was often at odds with his more public "rock star" persona, as Powers puts it. Mark Twain: A Life
was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Biography.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, where his family lived until Twain turned four, at which time, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, located on the Mississippi River. Throughout his childhood, Twain became well-acquainted with a number of slaves of African descent, as slavery was legal and quite prevalent in the state of Missouri. Powers attributes this early familiarity with black voices as being hugely important to the development of Twain's voice as a writer.
The allure of the Mississippi River was always strong for Twain, and he long possessed a desire to be a steamboat pilot. In time, he would learn the trade, becoming familiar with the route from St. Louis to New Orleans, under the tutelage of steamboat captain Horace E. Bixby. It was on one these trips that Twain invented his future pen name; on a riverboat, the call "mark twain" signifies that the depth of the river is two fathoms (12 feet) and thus suitable for the boat to pass safely.
Twain might have kept boating happily up and down the Mississippi River for his whole life, except that the Civil War broke out, disrupting the travel route. Twain briefly joined up with a Confederate militia, abandoning the unit within two weeks. Instead, he traveled West to Virginia City in the Nevada Territory where his older brother, Orion served as secretary to the territory's governor. Twain tried his hand at mining on the Comstock Lode but failed miserably at it. He got a job at a newspaper where he first began to use his pen name, Mark Twain. He took to writing much more readily than to mining, publishing a number of stories based on his experiences in the American West. His travels then brought him to California and, eventually, to Europe and the Middle East. On a trip abroad in 1867, he met Charles Langdon, whose sister Olivia Langdon would become his wife in 1870.
Olivia, who came from a "wealthy but liberal family," helped to expand Twain's political and philosophical horizons through her various contacts. During the early years of his marriage, Twain became acquainted with abolitionists, socialists, atheists, and other kinds of people he would have rarely encountered in his childhood, his steamboat journeys, or his travels out West. In 1873, Twain and Olivia, now with three daughters—Susy, Jean, and Clara—relocated to Hartford, Connecticut. Here Twain wrote some of his most famous novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Although Twain made a great deal of money from his writing, he lost much of to his love of technology, sparked in part by a friendship with Nikola Tesla. He made a number of ill-considered investments in inventions like the Paige Typesetting Machine. He also had a stake in his publishing house, Charles L. Webster & Company, which went through some very lean times in the later part of the nineteenth century. To help keep his family financially solvent, Twain accepted large speaking fees for giving speeches at various men's clubs such as the Authors' Club, the Beefsteak Club, and the White Friars. Powers characterizes these speeches as a kind of primitive, early version of standup comedy, eliciting roaring laughter from crowds unlike those generally associated with oratory at the time.
Twain lived out the last years of his life in Manhattan. He fell into a deep depression in the wake of the deaths of his daughter, Susy, and shortly thereafter, his wife, Olivia. He predicted the year of his death would be in 1910, writing, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'"
Just as Twain predicted, he died a day after Halley's Comet came within its closest distance to the Earth.