“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” ― Mark Twain
Mark Twain (the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was born in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, the sixth of seven children, although only three of his siblings survived childhood. Slavery was legal in Missouri at the time, and his childhood environment provided the inspiration for his two most well-known novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1875) and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
At 16, he became a typesetter and contributed articles and sketches to the Hannibal Journal. Two years later, he left to work as a printer in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati. He spent his evenings learning in the library and has been quoted as saying “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
But the shared ambition of Twain and his peers was to become a Mississippi steamboat pilot. He trained under Horace E. Bixby for two years, for a payment of $500, and received his pilot’s license. His time on the river also inspired his pen name: the leadsman would shout “mark twain” to denote a depth of two fathoms – deep enough for the steamboat.
But in 1858, the steamboat he and his brother Henry were on exploded, killing his brother. Twain claims to have seen the death in a dream the previous month, leading to his interest in parapsychology. Despite being guilt-stricken, Twain continued to work on the river until 1861, when the Civil War started.
He moved to Salt Lake City, Nevada to work with his brother Orion, before his travels took him to Virginia City, where he tried and failed to be a miner. This failure led to his first writing job, on the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise, where he would first use the name Mark Twain. Over the following few years, he continued to work as a journalist for various publications and travelled to Europe and the Middle East on assignment. On the trip, he wrote a collection of travel letters, published as The Innocents Abroad (1869).
In 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon, following a two-year pursuit and her rejection of his initial proposal. They lived in New York, where he part-owned the Buffalo Express and worked as an editor and writer. They had four children, but one died as an infant.
The family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where they had a house built, and spent summers at Quarry Farm in Elmira. These two locations would be where Twain produced much of his most acclaimed work, including the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn series, over two decades.
A fascination with science led to Twain forming a close friendship with engineer, inventor and physicist Nikola Tesla, and Twain even patented three inventions himself. He also knew Thomas Edison, who visited Twain at home in 1909 and filmed the only surviving video footage of Twain, with who are thought to be his two surviving daughters.
This interest in technology also led him to lose a substantial amount of money on bad investments, as well as losing money through failed publishing ventures. With little to live on, Twain and his family moved to Europe in 1891, spending several years in France, Germany and Italy. He filed for bankruptcy in 1894, and after embarking on a world tour of speaking engagements, on which he would start wearing his trademark white suit, he managed to recover financially.
Olivia died in 1904 and after moving back to the US to live in New York, Twain faced a series of tragedies that caused a deep depression, including the deaths of two of his daughters. But through a close connection with a group of girls he called his surrogate granddaughters, he found “life’s chief delight” – he established the Angel Fish and Aquarium Club for the girls, exchanging letters with them, taking them to concerts and playing games.
Three years later, Twain’s prediction that he would come in and go out with Halley’s Comet was proven correct: he died of a heart attack on 21 April 1910, the day after the comet’s closest approach to earth.
Twain’s unrivalled wit, humour and writing ability has also made him one of the most frequently-quoted public figures of all time.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” ― Mark Twain
Described by William Faulkner as “the father of American literature,” Twain wrote some of history’s most widely-read novels, as well as writing extensively as a journalist and non-fiction author. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called “The Great American Novel,” despite facing bans over the years, in part due to Twain’s use of what is now deemed offensive slavery-related language.
Twain wrote seven novels, in addition to his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn series. His bibliography also includes 24 short stories and 11 collections, several essays and nine works of non-fiction.
Why is he on the list?
Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.
- Goodreads Best Books Ever
- The Best 100 Authors
- Top 100 Works in World Literature
- Novels and Novelists, A Guide to the World of Fiction (1980)
- For The Love of Books
- The Greatest Books of All Time
- 100 Life-Changing Books
- 100 Greatest novels of all time
- The 100 best novels written in English
- Book awards: The 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians
Read about Twain
The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain and Charles Neider
The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
Image: Wikimedia Commons/AF Bradley