Mark Twain: A Biographical Summary
By Albert Bigelow Paine
Mark Twain's Letters (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917).
Albert Bigelow Paine was Mark Twain's official biographer and first literary executor. His HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/index.html" Mark Twain: A Biography was published in 1912, five years before this shorter biography was published in Mark Twain's Letters. Read on its own, the "Biographical Summary" provides a useful short introduction to Mark Twain's life and writings. This edition can also be used as an introduction to Paine's complete biography. Links to related chapters of Mark Twain: A Biography appear throughout and can be followed to find more complete discussions of specific periods and events in Mark Twain's life.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, for nearly half a century known and celebrated as "Mark Twain," was HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio003.html" born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. He was one of the foremost American philosophers of his day; he was the world's most famous humorist of any day. During the later years of his life he ranked not only as America's chief man of letters, but likewise as her best known and best loved citizen.
The HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio004.html" beginnings of that life were sufficiently unpromising. The family was a good one, of old Virginia and Kentucky stock, but its circumstances were reduced, its environment meager and disheartening. The father, John Marshall Clemens -- a lawyer by profession, a merchant by vocation -- had brought his household to Florida from Jamestown, Tennessee, somewhat after the manner of Judge Hawkins as pictured in The Gilded Age. Florida was a small town then, a mere village of twenty-one houses located on Salt River, but Judge Clemens, as he was usually called, optimistic and speculative in his temperament, believed in its future. Salt River would be made navigable; Florida would become a metropolis. He established a small business there, and located his family in the humble frame cottage where, five months later, was born a baby boy to whom they gave the name of Samuel -- a family name -- and added Langhorne, after an old Virginia friend of his father.
The child was puny, and did not make a very sturdy fight for life. Still he weathered along, season after season, and survived two stronger children, Margaret and Benjamin. By 1839 Judge Clemens had lost faith in Florida. He removed his family to HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio006.html" Hannibal , and in this Mississippi River town the little lad whom the world was to know as Mark Twain spent his early life. In Tom Sawyer we have a picture of the Hannibal of those days and the atmosphere of his boyhood there.
His HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio011.html" schooling was brief and of a desultory kind. It ended one day in 1847, when HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio014.html" his father died and it became necessary that each one should help somewhat in the domestic crisis. His brother Orion, ten years his senior, was already a printer by trade. Pamela, his sister, also considerably older, had acquired music, and now took a few pupils. The little boy Sam, at twelve, was HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio015.html" apprenticed to a printer named Ament. His wages consisted of his board and clothes -- "more board than clothes," as he once remarked to the writer.
He remained with Ament until his brother Orion bought out a small paper in Hannibal in 1850. The paper, in time, was moved into a part of the Clemens home, and the two brothers ran it, the younger setting most of the type. A still younger brother, Henry, entered the office as an apprentice. The HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio017.html" Hannibal Journal was no great paper from the beginning, and it did not improve with time. Still, it managed to survive -- country papers nearly always manage to survive -- year after year, bringing in some sort of return. It was on this paper that young HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio018.html" Sam Clemens began his writings -- burlesque, as a rule, of local characters and conditions -- usually published in his brother's absence; generally resulting in trouble on his return. Yet they made the paper sell, and if Orion had but realized his brother's talent he might have turned it into capital even then.
In 1853 (he was not yet eighteen) Sam Clemens grew tired of his limitations and pined for the wider horizon of the world. He gave out to his family that he was HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio019.html" going to St. Louis , but he kept on to New York, where a World's Fair was then going on. In New York he found employment at his trade, and during the hot months of 1853 worked in a printing-office in Cliff Street. By and by he went to Philadelphia, where he worked a brief time; made a trip to Washington, and presently set out for the West again, after an absence of more than a year.
Orion, meanwhile, had established himself at Muscatine, Iowa, but soon after removed to Keokuk, where the brothers were once more together, still following their trade. Young Sam Clemens remained HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio020.html" in Keokuk until the winter of 1856-57, when he caught a touch of the South American fever then prevalent, and decided to go to Brazil. He left Keokuk for HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio021.html" Cincinnati , worked that winter in a printing-office there, and in April HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio022.html" took the little steamer , Paul Jones, for New Orleans, where he expected to find a South American vessel. In Life on the Mississippi we have his story of how he met Horace Bixby and decided to become a pilot instead of a South American adventurer -- jauntily setting himself the stupendous task of learning the twelve hundred miles of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans -- of knowing it as exactly and as unfailingly, even in the dark, as one knows the way to his own features. It seems incredible to those who knew Mark Twain in his later years -- dreamy, unpractical, and indifferent to details -- that he could have acquired so vast a store of minute facts as were required by that task. Yet within eighteen months he had become not only a pilot, but one of the best and most careful pilots on the river, intrusted with some of the largest and most valuable steamers. He continued in that profession for two and a half years longer, and during that time met with no disaster that cost his owners a single dollar for damage.
Then HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio029.html" the war broke out . South Carolina seceded in December, 1860, and other States followed. Clemens was in New Orleans in January, 1861, when Louisiana seceded, and his boat was put into the Confederate service and sent up the Red River. His occupation gone, he took steamer for the North -- the last one before the blockade closed. A blank cartridge was fired at them from Jefferson Barracks when they reached St. Louis, but they did not understand the signal, and kept on. Presently a shell carried away part of the pilot-house and considerably disturbed its inmates. They realized, then, that war had really begun.
In those days Clemens's sympathies were with the South. He hurried up to Hannibal and HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio030.html" enlisted with a company of young fellows who were recruiting with the avowed purpose of "throwing off the yoke of the invader." They were ready for the field, presently, and set out in good order, a sort of nondescript cavalry detachment, mounted on animals more picturesque than beautiful. Still, it was a resolute band, and might have done very well, only it rained a good deal, which made soldiering disagreeable and hard. Lieutenant Clemens resigned at the end of two weeks, and decided to go to Nevada with Orion, who was a Union abolitionist and had received an appointment from Lincoln as Secretary of the new Territory.
In Roughing It Mark Twain gives us the story of the HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio031.html" overland journey made by the two brothers, and a picture of experiences at the other end -- true in aspect, even if here and there elaborated in detail. He was Orion's private secretary, but there was no private-secretary work to do, and no salary attached to the position. The incumbent presently went to mining, adding that to his other trades.
He became a HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio033.html" professional miner , but not a rich one. He was at Aurora, California, in the Esmeralda district, skimping along, with not much to eat and less to wear, when he was summoned by Joe Goodman, owner and editor of the Virginia City Enterprise, to come up and take the HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio037.html" local editorship of that paper. He had been contributing sketches to it now and then, under the pen name of "Josh," and Goodman, a man of fine literary instincts, recognized a talent full of possibilities. This was in the late summer of 1862. Clemens walked one hundred and thirty miles over very bad roads to take the job, and arrived way-worn and travel-stained. He began on a salary of twenty-five dollars a week, picking up news items here and there, and contributing occasional sketches -- burlesques, hoaxes, and the like. When the Legislature convened at HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio044.html" Carson City he was sent down to report it, and then, for the first time, began signing his articles " HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio040.html" Mark Twain ," a river term, used in making soundings, recalled from his piloting days. The name presently became known up and down the Pacific coast. His articles were copied and commented upon. He was recognized as one of the foremost among a little coterie of overland writers, two of whom, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, were soon to acquire a worldwide fame.
He left Carson City one day, after becoming involved in HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio045.html" a duel , the result of an editorial squib written in Goodman's absence, and went across the Sierras HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio046.html" to San Francisco . The duel turned out farcically enough, but the Nevada law, which regarded even a challenge or its acceptance as a felony, was an inducement to his departure. Furthermore, he had already aspired to a wider field of literary effort. He attached himself to the Morning Call, and wrote occasionally for one or two literary papers -- the Golden Era and the Californian -- prospering well enough during the better part of the year. Bret Harte and the rest of the little Pacific-slope group were also on the staff of these papers, and for a time, at least, the new school of American humor mustered in San Francisco.
The HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio047.html" connection with the Call was not congenial. In due course it came to a natural end, and Mark Twain arranged to do a daily San Francisco letter for his old paper, the Enterprise. The Enterprise letters stirred up trouble. They criticized the police of San Francisco so severely that the officials found means of making the writer's life there difficult and comfortless. With Jim Gillis, brother of a printer of whom he was fond, and who had been the indirect cause of his troubles, he went up into Calaveras County, to a cabin HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio048.html" on Jackass Hill . Jim Gillis, a lovable, picturesque character (the Truthful James of Bret Harte), owned mining claims. Mark Twain decided to spend his vacation in pocket-mining and soon added that science to his store of knowledge. It was a halcyon, happy three months that he lingered there, but did not make his fortune; he only laid the corner-stone.
They tried their fortune at Angel's Camp, a place well known to readers of Bret Harte. But it rained pretty steadily, and they put in most of their time huddled around the single stove of the dingy hotel of Angel's, telling yarns. Among the stories was one told by a dreary narrator named Ben Coon. It was about HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio049.html" a frog that had been trained to jump, but failed to win a wager because the owner of a rival frog had surreptitiously loaded him with shot. The story had been circulated among the camps, but Mark Twain had never heard it until then. The tale and the tiresome fashion of its telling amused him. He made notes to remember it.
Their stay in Angel's Camp came presently to an end. One day, when the mining partners were following the specks of gold that led to a pocket somewhere up the hill, a chill, dreary rain set in. Jim, as usual, was washing, and Clemens was carrying water. The "color" became better and better as they ascended, and Gillis, possessed with the mining passion, would have gone on, regardless of the rain. Clemens, however, protested, and declared that each pail of water was his last. Finally he said, in his deliberate drawl:
"Jim, I won't carry any more water. This work is too disagreeable. Let's go to the house and wait till it clears up."
Gillis had just taken out a pan of earth. "Bring one more pail, Sam," he pleaded.
"I won't do it, Jim! Not a drop! Not if I knew there was a million dollars in that pan!"
They left the pan standing there and went back to Angel's Camp. The rain continued and they returned to Jackass Hill without visiting their claim again. Meantime the rain had washed away the top of the pan of earth left standing on the slope above Angel's, and exposed a handful of nuggets -- pure gold. Two strangers came along and, observing it, had sat down to wait until the thirty-day claim-notice posted by Jim Gillis should expire. They did not mind the rain -- not with that gold in sight -- and the minute the thirty days were up they followed the lead a few pans further, and took out -- some say ten, some say twenty, thousand dollars. It was a good pocket. Mark Twain missed it by one pail of water. Still, it is just as well, perhaps, when one remembers HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/frog/index.html" The Jumping Frog .
Matters having quieted down in San Francisco, HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio050.html" he returned and took up his work again. HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio043.html" Artemus Ward , whom he had met in Virginia City, wrote him for something to use in his (Ward's) new book. Clemens HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio051.html" sent the frog story , but he had been dilatory in preparing it, and when it reached New York, Carleton, the publisher, had Ward's book about ready for the press. It did not seem worth while to Carleton to include the frog story, and handed it over to Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press -- a perishing sheet -- saying:
"Here, Clapp, here's something you can use."
The story appeared in the Saturday Press of November 18, 1865. According to the accounts of that time it set all New York in a roar, which annoyed, rather than gratified, its author. He had thought very little of it, indeed, yet had been wondering why some of his more highly regarded work had not found fuller recognition.
But The Jumping Frog did not die. Papers printed it and reprinted it, and it was translated into foreign tongues. The name of "Mark Twain" became known as the author of that sketch, and the two were permanently associated from the day of its publication.
Such fame as it brought did not yield heavy financial return. Its author continued to win a more or less precarious livelihood doing miscellaneous work, until March, 1866, when he was employed by the Sacramento Union to contribute a series of letters from HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio052.html" the Sandwich Islands . They were notable letters, widely read and freely copied, and the sojourn there was a generally fortunate one. It was during his stay in the islands that the survivors of the wrecked vessel, the HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio053.html" Hornet , came in, after long privation at sea. Clemens was sick at the time, but Anson Burlingame, who was in Honolulu, on the way to China, had him carried in a cot to the hospital, where he could interview the surviving sailors and take down their story. It proved a great "beat" for the Union, and added considerably to its author's prestige. On his return to San Francisco he contributed an HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/mydebut.html" article on the Hornet disaster to Harper's Magazine, and looked forward to its publication as a beginning of a real career. But, alas! when it appeared the printer and the proof-reader had somehow converted "Mark Twain" into "Mark Swain," and his dreams perished.
Undecided as to his plans, he was one day advised by a friend to deliver HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/biography/paine_bio054.html" a lecture . He was already known as an entertaining talker, and his adviser judged his possibilities well. In Roughing It we find the HYPERLINK "http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/ri078.html" story of that first lecture and its success. He followed it with other lectures up and down the Coast. He had added one more profession to his intellectual stock in trade.