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Writer Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the name Mark Twain. Cover art by Carroll Beckwith for Harper’s Weekly, September 26, 1991. Library of Congress

By Bobby Shipman

It was 1876. Across the country millions of people—young and old—were reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Who was behind this popular book? It was a 34-year-old writer named Mark Twain, of Hartford, Connecticut.

Throughout his career, Mark Twain published dozens of books and hundreds of short stories. He changed the way English literature is written. Mark Twain’s literature helped define America.

Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Missouri was a new state on the western frontier. On the day of his birth, Halley’s Comet (a comet is a big ball of ice and rock in space) passed by the Earth. This only happens once every 75 years.

Sam’s father, John Clemens, was a judge, lawyer, and storekeeper. His father was so stern that Sam said he never saw him laugh. His mother, Jane, was the opposite. She was kind and sweet.

When Sam was 4, his family moved to a nearby town. Hannibal, Missouri sat on the shore of the Mississippi River.

John Clemens died when Sam was 11. His family fell on hard times. Sam went to work as a printer’s apprentice. He learned how to be a printer.

After that Sam tried many jobs. At age 18 he left Missouri. He went to New York and Philadelphia. He wrote for newspapers there.

This is how the frontier town of Hannibal, Missouri, on the mighty Mississippi River, looked in 1857. Library of Congress

In 1857 he returned home. He met a riverboat captain and learned to pilot a riverboat. Then, in 1861, the U.S. Civil War began. Clemens decided to go farther west.

The American West was an exciting place. It seemed full of opportunities to get rich. Sam’s brother, Orion, got a government job in the Nevada territory. He invited Sam to come with him. Sam tried silver mining. He didn’t find much silver.

He got a job again at a newspaper. The newspaper published Sam’s story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” He published it under the name Mark Twain. “Mark Twain” was riverboat slang that meant 12 feet deep. That was the depth at which a boat could pass safely through the river.

Library of Congress

“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” ran in newspapers all over the country. Sam included it in his first book. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches was published in 1867. Unfortunately, it was not a success.

Sam moved on to his next adventure and he kept writing. He travelled around the world. He sent back stories of his travels to American newspapers. People loved tales of exotic, faraway lands. In 1869 these stories were published as a book. The Innocents Abroad was Twain’s first success!

At 34, Twain was young, handsome, and one of the most popular writers in the country. What did the future have in store for him?

In 1870 Sam married Olivia Langdon and began a family. They moved to Hartford in 1871. In 1873 he published The Gilded Age. Gilded means “covered in a thin layer of gold.” He co-wrote it with friend and Hartford Courant publisher Charles Dudley Warner. It was about the rich businessmen of the late 1800s who owned giant mansions and showed off their wealth. In 1874 the Clemens family moved into its own gilded mansion in Hartford.

The Mark Twain House, where the author and his family lived from 1874 to 1891, is now a museum. photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

In 1876 Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It was a book about a troublemaking boy—much like himself—growing up in the 1840s on the shores of the Mississippi River. It was a huge success. He was now world-famous. He wrote two more books. After that came the novel that would change English literature.

Illustration from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885. Library of Congress

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” So begins Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published in 1884.

In the story, Tom Sawyer’s friend Huckleberry Finn runs away. He takes an enslaved man named Jim with him.

Two things make this book special. Twain wrote it using the way people actually spoke in Missouri. It showed that a great novel could be written with the imperfect and colorful language that average people spoke. It was also special because it was about racism and slavery. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often called the greatest novel in American history.

Clemens continued writing and publishing. With success came failures and tragedy, too. Some of his business ventures did not succeed. By 1891, he had lost his fortune. He and his family had to leave their beloved Hartford home. They moved to Europe. Sam gave lectures to earn money. Then, his daughter Susy, age 24, died in 1896. He never fully recovered from the blow.

The family returned to the United States in 1900. Olivia died in 1904, and his daughter Jean died in 1909. Only his daughter Clara, now married, was still living. Samuel Clemens died on April 10, 1910, at his home in Redding, Connecticut. Just as on the day he was born, Halley’s Comet passed around the Earth.

Mark Twain has been dead for more than 100 years, but his legacy lives on. Millions of copies of his books are sold every year. They have been made into movies and television shows. The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford is a top tourist attraction. But his greatest legacy is every great American novel, for they all owe something to Mark Twain.

Bobby Shipman is a fifth grader at Tariffville School in Simsbury. Read his other stories on


The Mark Twain House & Museum
351 Farmington Avenue

Samuel Clemens’s neighbor was Harriet Beecher Stowe, another famous writer. Read about her HERE.