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Vincent G Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief

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vincent valentineThe Life of Samuel Clemens spanned 75 years while his career as Mark Twain covered 45 years. Many aspects of his life influenced his writing beginning in his childhood. He was born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1935. Although he had an older brother, Orion, an older sister, and a younger brother, and three other siblings who died as young children, as his pen name implies, Twain was not a twin. His father, John Marshall Clemens, a native Virginian, moved his family to Hannibal, Missouri, just before Samuel was four in quest of better economic opportunities. He was 11 when John Marshall died of pneumonia. Samuel Clemens described his father as a very serious man who left his family with two legacies; one, an inordinate hope for the future; the other, several business failures. These failures left his family to struggle for subsistence. And as Twain would later describe from chapter 42 in his novel, Roughing It, "He left us a sumptuous level of pride in his fine Virginian stock and its national distinction, that Twain found he could not live on that alone without occasional bread to wash it down with." Twain would refer to families of lawyers and judges from Virginia several times in his writings, probably because his father was a lawyer and a judge. He would also refer to old Virginian grandees, descendents from the First Families of Virginia (FFV) in Pudd'nhead Wilson. In effect, one can learn a great deal about the life of Samuel Clemens through Mark Twain's fiction.

Because of his father's death, Clemens had to go to work which began in printing offices where he learned to be a typesetter. Perhaps being an apprentice in a printing establishment, or a printer's devil, helps one set the stage of being a prominent American; consider among others, the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, and now, Samuel Clemens. It was in print shops and newspaper offices where Clemens gained his education, for he had very little formal schooling.

Samuel Clemens had considerable exposure to slavery. Growing up in the slave state of Missouri, slavery became a major theme in his fiction. He saw no reason to question authority-he never heard anyone argue that there was anything wrong with it. From one of his autobiographical dictations as a child, "in church we were told God approved it. Slavery was a Holy thing." He also recalled bearing witness to slave sufferings, describing a group of slaves chained together, waiting to be sold or waiting to be taken "down the river, to be sold." Some of you may be thinking and linking your thoughts with the alternative rock group from North Wales, "The Alarm," and their song, "Sold Me Down the River." I wonder if they heard of or read any of Mark Twain's books?

Anyway, Clemens also recalled one slave being stoned to death by an overseer simply for committing an "awkward" act. He spent a great deal of time with slaves at his uncle's farm back in Florida, Missouri. He heard stories about slaves from one particular slave named Dan'l. From Dan'l, Twain developed material for his lecture circuit about the man with the "Golden Arm." Later, Twain wrote about Dan'l Webster, the name of the titled jumping frog from his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. (I will not mention that Daniel Webster was a leading American Statesman and Senator during the period leading up to the Civil War. I also will not mention that Andrew Jackson, the seventh American President, is the name Twain gave to the feisty dog in the same frog story.)

As Clemens approached adulthood, he became impatient to leave Hannibal. In 1853, he ran away to New York City because there was a World's Fair there and New York seemed to be the center of the universe. He spent a year in several eastern cities including New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C. He never moved back to Hannibal, but he did return there imaginatively. Hannibal was the inspiration for the idyllic river town of St Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as the inspiration for Dawson's Landing in Pudd'nhead Wilson.

Clemens, planning to travel to South America in 1857, traveled down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans in April of that year. He met Horace Bixby, a steamboat pilot, who taught him to pilot the muddy waters. By 1859, Clemens became a licensed riverboat pilot instead of a South American adventurer. He loved that profession far better than any he followed since. This profession paid him well and brought him much attention. These piloting experiences allowed him to observe many different people who traveled by steamboat. He later reported that it was during this brief, sharp schooling, where he became personally and familiarly acquainted with various types of human nature found in fiction, biography or history.

The Civil War brought commercial river traffic to a halt as it cut the country in two. Then, Clemens enlisted as a volunteer in a confederate unit in Hannibal among people he grew up with. He later resigned "because of fatigue from persistent retreating." During the Civil War, Clemens traveled west to the Nevada territory to strike it rich. He vowed he would not return home until he made his fortune. It was his complete failure as a prospector in the silver mines which drove him to make a living with his words. He was hired as a reporter for the Virginia City Enterprise and, by 1863, began signing his articles as Mark Twain. In this identity, he finally found a way to succeed on the good fun his penname triggered, first in the local Nevada and California scenes, then by a "jump" into national prominence from the story of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. This story made millions laugh in the funereal setting of America's recovery in the wake of its Civil War.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.