Who was Samuel Langhorne Clemens? It has been noted that he was one of the greatest American humorists. Of course, there are many who upon hearing that name, are left with a puzzled gaze. When the name Mark Twain is mentioned, then they immediately picture the white suit and gray haired author. Still others, who have done a deeper dive into the writer’s work, see the tie between this Missouri native and the character of Tom Sawyer. Clearly, Clemens was a man of many names.
We want to thank the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum for hosting our visit. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
Mark Twain Museum
To help us peel back the myth from the man, we traveled to Hannibal, Missouri. This river town is where you can find The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, which offers a deep dive into the life of Samuel Clemens. Let us start by pointing out that Mark Twain was the pen name used by the author. Over time, he became so synonymous with it that many people never learned his real name. The Twain Museum is designed to help teach visitors how Clemens’ stories have real life application that transcends the time period in which they were written.
How It Began
Samuel Clemens was ushered in by a recent appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1835. This once every 75 year celestial visitor would star in more than one notable role in Clemens’ lifetime. His father was a judge who moved the family to Hannibal in 1839. By the mid-1840s, the family had settled into Clemens’ boyhood home. While Sam was one of seven children, only four made it through childhood. His father’s death, in 1847, would lead to Sam dropping out of fifth grade to become a printer’s apprentice. Much like Abraham Lincoln did, Clemens became self-educated by doing extensive reading in public libraries. While storytelling would become his path to fame, his first love was the river.
Growing Up in Hannibal
Clemens wrote that he and his comrades had one ambition, which was to become a steamboat pilot. In his writings, Hannibal would become St. Petersburg. Here he would cavort with his childhood chums as their antics would become legendary. The Mississippi River provided hours of exploring, as did a nearby cave. Both would play prominent roles in his stories. One of Clemens most famous books, Tom Sawyer, would include characters based on his real life boyhood friends. This man of many names wrote the role of Tom based on many of his own real life experiences.
The Innocence of Youth
During Sam’s youth, his family went through a series of hardships. As with many children, the realities of life are often unnoticed. Slavery was still practiced in Missouri and as a youth he came to accept it. Later in life, Clemens would become an outspoken advocate for Black rights. While his parents were not slave owners, he had family members who were. Summers spent at his uncle’s farm introduced him to stories told by enslaved workers. These too would be added to his tales in the future.
The lively characters created by Clemens have become household names for generations. Huckleberry Finn, a lovable oaf, was based on Tom Blankenship. The son of the town drunk, Tom was referred to by Clemens as “ignorant, unwashed, and insufficiently fed”. He lived an independent life, which made him the envy of the other boys in Hannibal. Another character inspiration was Injun Joe. Modeled after a loafer around town, the boys in town found him to be an inexhaustible source of amusement. Probably the best known character was Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer’s sweetheart. She was based on Laura Hawkins, a childhood friend of Sam’s.
Sam Clemens’ youthful spirit would turn him into a man of many names. His time as a riverboat pilot taught him the phrase “mark twain”, which signified waters deep enough for a boat to traverse safely. It made an appropriate pen name for him to use in the future. He became so synonymous with this name that his image is often recalled under this moniker, instead of his real name. Although he served at a variety of occupations, it was storytelling where he shined the greatest. Many of his stories were based on his own escapades.
A Man of Many Names
As we made our way through the Mark Twain Museum, the similarities between Clemens and his characters become more obvious. Sam was fond of traveling and his talent afforded him plenty. Often his journeys were paid for by publications looking for his stories. These trips took him to the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii), Europe, and the Middle East. His marriage in 1870 would find him resettling to the east coast. During the last portion of the 1800s, Clemens would write his most famous books. This spurt would include the publication of five major books; The Adventures of Tam Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Getting Into the Spirit
As we pointed out earlier, Samuel Clemens was born just after an 1835 visit by Halley’s Comet. In April of 1910, the comet made another appearance. Sam had predicted that since he came in with the comet, he would also go out with it. Sure enough, one day after the comet made it’s closest approach to earth, the author passed away. Our visit to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum had taught us a lot about the life behind the literary works. Now it was time to continue our deep-dive by visiting some of the other buildings. What is your favorite Mark Twain story?
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