Mark Twain: The World’s Friend
By Warren Brown
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who later became known as Mark Twain, was born in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Clemens’ parents were early settlers of Missouri. From the Lewis and Clark exploration of 1804 until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, Missouri was the gateway to America’s westward expansion. Much of who Mark Twain became can be attributed to the history and development of Missouri as part of the country’s western frontier.
When Clemens was age 4, his parents left his birthplace and moved to the Mississippi River town of Hannibal. This move became the catalyst of Clemens’ exposure to civilization, commerce, American expansion, riverboats, exploration, and the place where he would learn about human character. After his father’s death, Clemens quit school to work at a local newspaper and printing shop. He characterized this event as the moment his real education began because printers owned books and he was able to expand his knowledge while gathering news, setting type, composing and editing news, and learning a trade that would finance his travels.
As a young man, Clemens began a steamboat piloting apprenticeship program and became a steamboat pilot shortly before the Civil War started and river commerce ended. Clemens’ brother Orion was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to be secretary of the Nevada Territory. Sam and Orion left Hannibal in July 1861, and Clemens later said that Lincoln had affected his life more than any other man, despite having never met him. He later wrote about his travels across the Great Plains to the Nevada Territory in his book, Roughing It”, published in 1872.
Much of his writing stemmed from his travel experiences. After his time in the Nevada Territory, he served as a correspondent from the Sandwich Islands and his travelogues began to be printed in papers across America, giving Clemens the reputation needed to launch his lecture and literary career. From June to October 1867, he covered the Quaker City celebrity cruise to the Mediterranean Sea. This trip led to writing his most popular travel book, “Innocents Abroad”, and the meeting of his future brother-in-law, Charles Langdon. On Feb. 2, 1870, Clemens married Olivia Langdon, known as Livy. She was well educated, his closest companion and best editor, and she gave Sam purpose.
Revenues Clemens received from book sales were spent on an expensive home in Connecticut, servants, travel, and some bad investments. Clemens’ publishing company was a primary source of funds for the invention of the Paige compositor, a type-setting machine, but due to complexity and cost, the compositor failed. On April 18, 1894, a bank called in its loans and the publishing firm was forced to file for bankruptcy. This immediately led Clemens to conduct a worldwide lecture tour to allow for full repayment to his creditors and investors.
Perhaps Mark Twain’s most important legacy is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The book is world renowned as one of the finest examples of American literature. Originally banned because of the use of the vernacular, the book includes themes against slavery, questions social mores, demonstrates social injustices, questions conscience versus conformity, and flows with romance and the beauty of friendship, loyalty, mentoring, and the majesty of the Mississippi River.
One of the first Republicans in America, Clemens embraced the ideal of “Free Soil, Free Labor” that is at the heart of the 1862 homestead legislation. To him “free” was synonymous with hard work, sweat equity, and overcoming obstacles, including keeping our freedom. He was dazzled by the rapid transformation and birth and death of towns due to the progress of transportation, especially with the building of railroads and the rapid changing of America. He had particular interest in the railroad since it was the transportation improvement following the steamboat, where he got his start.
Clemens covered railroad news in the West and wove many clever railroad stories into short sketches. He incorporated railroad development into the theme of “The Gilded Age”, the novel he wrote with Charles Dudley Warner that satirized the greed and corruption that defined the post-Civil War era and gave the era its name. Like others in his time, Clemens was caught in a paradox when it came to his views on railroads. He consistently held a critical attitude toward the growing railroads and how they undermined the ideal of free labor and free land, but he still saw railroads as having great potential for the development of the United States and thus invested in them. For example, he wrote to expose the Credit Mobilier scandal, and yet had $81,000 of Union Pacific stock at the time of his death in 1910.
Mark Twain was a national voice of the time, and audiences around the world knew “The World’s Oldest Friend” would always engage their minds, sharing wit and wisdom in a friendly way. Audiences also were confident that he would follow his own directive to “always tell the truth to people who deserve it.” Since his death, Twain has remained a fixture of Anierican life through his noted works, and interest in him was peaked again in 2010 with the publication of the first volume of his official autobiography. Its release, according to Twain’s request, came 100 years after his death.