In In his lifetime, which spanned from

In this lesson, we will learn about Mark Twain’s life, his most acclaimed writings and his place as a realist and regionalist writer in this country’s literary history.

At First Glance

Mark Twain, a writer who is often considered the first truly American voice in this country’s literary history, was a man of many adventures. In his lifetime, which spanned from 1835-1910, Twain could have, at various times, considered himself an author, an essayist, a humorist, a journalist, a master riverboat pilot, an entrepreneur, an inventor, a public speaker and controversial personality, a son, a brother, a father and a husband. Most celebrated now for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s use of authenticity in voice and writing style created for him and the world a new kind of writing – writing that revealed to the reader the gritty, and sometimes uncomfortable, reality of 19th-century life in a changing America.

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The childhood home of Twain in Hannibal, MO
Mark Twain Childhood Home

Early Years

Here’s an interesting fact about Mark Twain: ‘Mark Twain’ was not the author’s given name at birth. This little boy was actually born Samuel Clemens. The year was 1835, and young Samuel joined a mother and father and five siblings in a small village in Missouri. When he was only four, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a very busy town of about a thousand people. While the move may seem like an unimportant detail, Hannibal became incredibly special to this little boy.

The town, situated on the Mississippi River, was bustling with steamboat business, minstrel shows, tradesmen and visiting performance troupes.Pretty much anything a curious little boy could want, little Samuel had. At some point along the way, though, Samuel saw a different side of this little playground. He witnessed a significant amount of violence in disputes among townspeople and also in the locals’ treatment of slaves – by the age of ten he had already witnessed two deaths. Think about it: Missouri would be one of the 15 slave states when the Civil War broke out in 1861, so at the time, slave ownership and trade was an active facet of the economy.

On the one hand, little Samuel had this bright little childhood filled with the kind of adventure and wonder that you read about in books. On the other hand, he knew firsthand about the darkness that lay beneath.Sadly, little Samuel lost his father, a lawyer and a judge, to pneumonia when the boy was only twelve years old. His mother and four surviving siblings grew desperate and became nearly destitute. So, his great American childhood abruptly over, he quit school to begin a lifetime of work.

His first job was an apprentice printer at a newspaper at which he worked in exchange for a small amount of food. His second job, at the age of 15, was working for his brother Orion at the Hannibal Western Union as a printer, writer and editor. So began his writing life.

Clemens got his pen name from his work on steamboats.
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain
vernacular (or the native dialect of a region).

This is particularly notable because no author had ever given their reader such a gritty portrayal of an authentic character with less-than-romantic life problems, nor had the voice of a child been so successfully captured. This narrator, Huck Finn, reaches out to the reader directly on the very first page of the novel: ‘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 book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.’ Think about this – Twain was one of the first to capture language as it was really spoken with accents, mispronunciation and – gasp! – bad grammar. And – double gasp! – readers liked it.He became one of the first in a new school of writing called Realism. Twain purposefully broke away from the formality of Romanticism and created a kind of story that reflected the real lives of the middle class, and in this case, the real adventures of a mischievous and thoughtful boy. Using this as a vehicle, many not-so-fun topics were weaved into the story like class, money and racism.

Again, it was more gritty and in-your-face than most readers had seen – and it was a hit. It also made him an incredibly controversial figure: some of the language in Huck Finn has frequently landed it on the banned book lists in our nation’s public schools.Twain’s choice of setting becomes very important as well. In recalling his experiences in Hannibal as a child, he drew on all of those aspects of the region that he remembered, both good and bad. Therefore, we see all the possibilities that river life brought along with the darker, more scary aspects of opportunism and violent racism. What all of this does is come together to form a real picture of this geographic location – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Twain was also considered one of the first Regionalists (or writers who focused their works on an accurate representation of a specific region).

Lesson Summary

Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) was who many consider to be the first authentically American voice in writing. Through his stories, the reader felt a kinship to characters who were, for the first time, typical folk (and in the case of his most famous novels, they were rumble-tumble boys who lacked a certain kind of civilization).Twain was the first writer who really focused his work on a specific area of the United States; his characters remained in the playground of his boyhood along the Mississippi River. As a result, Twain emerged as a one-of-a-kind writer with a body of work that garnered him the position of ‘leader of the pack’ in both the Regionalism and Realism movements in literature.

Considered by many to be one of the country’s greatest writers, Twain himself led a life of adventure. Sadly, after losing three of his four children fairly early in their lives, and his wife later on, Twain was unable to write with any real results and instead passed the time in his old age reading and playing cards and billiards (and being bitter, some say). But Twain, who was once called the ‘Lincoln of our literature’ by his friend and fellow writer William Dean Howells, had already engraved his name in our country’s literary history.

Learning Outcomes

Once you have finished this lesson, you should be ready to:

  • Describe Mark Twain’s early life and the aspects of it that influenced his writing
  • Recall some of the jobs Twain had and how he got his pen name
  • Name his significant works and understand why Twain is considered a Realist and Regionalist writer
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