ABOUT MARK TWAIN
February 2, 1863 — After failing to strike it rich prospecting for gold and silver, an enterprising young American on this day wrote a humorous travel story for the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper serving Virginia City, Nevada. He was Samuel Longhorne Clemens and the pen-name he chose to use for the first time was . . . Mark Twain.
By his mid-thirties he had become one of the most popular writers in America
and with novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn his fame was to spread worldwide.
A great story-teller both in print and in real life, his distinctive narrative style was funny, irreverent, often satirical and he always took delight in deflating those puffed up with their own self-importance.
Clemens was born in
1835, the sixth child of a poverty-stricken family which moved, when he was
four years old, to Hannibal, a bustling Missouri town on the banks of the
Mississippi. But when he was just 12, Clemens’s father died, plunging the
family into virtual destitution and forcing the boy to give up school and find
He became an apprentice printer at the Hannibal Courier, but received no pay, just food. Things improved three years later when he got a job as a printer and part-time editor and writer at the Hannibal Western Union, but Clemens temporarily abandoned newspapers in 1857 when, at 21, he was taken on as a cub-pilot aboard a steamboat. It was a dream he had nurtured for years as he watched the whistle-tooting vessels call three times a day at Hannibal.
Two years later he was a qualified pilot and immensely
enjoying his highly paid work plying the shoals and channels of the great
river. Sadly for him, but fortunately for literature, it was not to last. The
Civil War broke out in 1861 and civilian traffic on the river was stopped.
So that year he boarded a stagecoach and headed for Nevada and California hoping to find a vein of gold or silver. He failed, and in 1862, needing a job, he became a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise. There, he began churning out news stories and sketches, adopting his now celebrated pen-name, derived from a call on the riverboats when measuring the depth of the water. It was considered that a steamboat needed a depth of 12 feet for safe passage and this was represented by the second mark on a line thrown overboard to gauge the river depth. When the safety mark was indicated, the call “Mark Twain” (mark two) was shouted out.
Another of Mark Twain’s epigrams
decreed that “there are basically two types of people. People who accomplish
things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is
But perhaps his most famous quote came after a newspaper mistakenly published his obituary. Twain is alleged to have quipped: "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."
Sad though it is to debunk a myth, Twain never actually said that. Well, not quite. What happened was that in May, 1897 journalist Frank Marshall White of the New York Journal contacted Twain who was on tour in London for comment about reports that the writer was on his deathbed.
Twain replied: "I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about. I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. A cousin was ill in London two or three weeks ago, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration."
Samuel Clemens certainly belonged to the group of people
who accomplish things. Just before he died he wrote: "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 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’.”
His wish was granted. Clemens died of a heart attack the day after the comet appeared at its brightest in 1910.
Clancy's comment: I wish I'd met him.