Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain): Birth to Age 29
by Ron Kurtus (revised 28 October 2009)
Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) was popular newspaper writer, author, satirist and public speaker that gained fame as Mark Twain. His humorous stories of the old West and Mississippi riverboat days are considered classics. He also gave numerous humorous speeches of his observations throughout his career.
In his early years, he had many jobs before finding his calling as a humorous writer. By the time he was 29, he was just starting off on his new career.
Questions you may have include:
- How did Mark Twain get started in writing?
- When did he achieve his fame?
- What were his special characteristics?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Birth to 9 years: 1835-44
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. At that time, Halley's Comet flew overhead.
His father John Marshall Clemens was a lawyer and merchant. He was known as Judge Clemens and was a dreamer whose schemes never seemed to work out.
In 1839, after losing money in business ventures in Florida, Judge Clemens moved his family to Hannibal, Missouri, a Mississippi River town.
Ages 10 to 19 years: 1845-54
When Samuel was 12, his father died. Samuel had to leave school and work as an apprentice to a printer named Ament for room and board. His brother Orion, who was 22, worked for Ament as a printer.
Sam remained with Ament until he was 15, when his brother Orion bought out the small county newspaper called the Hannibal Journal. They moved the equipment into the Clemens home, and the two brothers ran the paper, with Sam setting most of the type. A younger brother, Henry worked as an apprentice.
Samuel Clemens while
working for brother
They ran the Hannibal Journal for several years. Occasionally, when Orion wasn't around, Samuel would publish light verse and satirical articles that poked fun at local characters and conditions. Although they helped sell the paper, they also alienated some people, contributing to the failure of the paper.
At age 17, Sam left home and moved to New York, where he worked for a short time in printing office. He went to Philadelphia, where he also worked a brief time. In 1854, he moved back to Hannibal.
Ages 20 to 29: 1855-64
At age 20, in 1856, Samuel joined Orion in Keokuk, Iowa, where they both worked as printers. The Keokuk Daily Post commissioned Sam to write a series of comic travel letters, but in 1857, after writing only five, he quit the paper.
He then moved to Cincinnati, where he again worked in a printing office. Then he took a steamer to New Orleans, hoping to travel to Brazil. The steamboat ride inspired him to try to become a steamboat captain instead. So, he signed on as a pilot's apprentice.
When Clemens was 23, he received his pilot's license. He then piloted boats for about two years, until the Civil War halted steamboat traffic.
Clemens was in New Orleans in January 1861 when Louisiana seceded, and his boat was put into the Confederate service.
He was 25 when he returned to Hannibal and enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was made a Lieutenant—perhaps because he was more traveled than the other local volunteers. After only two weeks, Clemens deserted the army and rejoined his brother Orion. He claimed it was because of the harsh conditions under which he and the other soldiers had to live.
Went to Nevada
Orion was a Union abolitionist and had received an appointment from President Abraham Lincoln to become Secretary of the new Nevada Territory. Orion appointed Sam as his private secretary, although there was no salary attached to the position. Apparently, Sam's political views were easily swayed. They both then moved to Nevada.
(In Roughing It Mark Twain gives us the story of the overland journey made by the two brothers and some of their experiences.)
Sam tried his hand in the timber business and silver mining, but both enterprises failed. He took a job at a quartz mill screening sand with a long-handled shovel but lasted only a week.
Called himself "Josh"
While he was in Aurora, California, barely making a living, he received an offer from the owner and editor of the Virginia City Enterprise, to come up and take the local editorship of that paper. Sam's connection to Nevada through his brother allowed him to contribute sketches under the pen name of "Josh" to the paper now and then.
At age 26, while he worked for the Virginia City Enterprise newspaper, Sam felt he found his calling and legitimate occupation as a writer. He worked for a salary of twenty-five dollars a week, picking up news items and contributing occasional sketches, such as hoaxes and the like.
When the Legislature convened at Carson City, Nevada, Sam was sent to report about it. For the first time, he began signing his articles "Mark Twain," a term used in making riverboat soundings from his piloting days.
Challenged to duel
After writing a number of humorous articles, one of his sketches incensed the target, such that Twain was challenged to a duel. He then quit the Enterprise, left Carson City and moved to San Francisco, an area that presented greater writing opportunities, as well as the ability to rub shoulders with such western humor writers as Bret Hart.
Twain started writing for the San Francisco Morning Call and occasionally for one or two literary papers. This brought him earnings and a degree and fame. His name soon became known up and down the Pacific coast.
But Twain soon alienated people at the Morning Call and finally stopped writing for them. He then arranged to do a daily San Francisco letter for his old paper, the Enterprise. Following his pattern, those 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.
He then left San Francisco to spend some time with a friend, Jim Gillis, who owned some mining claims in Calaveras County. They tried mining at Angel's Camp, but it rained steadily, so they spent most of their time in a dingy hotel telling yarns. One of the stories someone told was about 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. Mark Twain thought it was amusing and made note to remember it.
They did some mining, but Twain did not like the outdoors labor--especially in the rain--and demanded they leave. The rain continued and soon washed away some of the earth where they where mining, exposing a handful of gold nuggets. Two strangers came along, saw the gold, and sat down to wait until the thirty-day claim-notice posted by Jim Gillis expired. They staked the claim and mined around $10,000 in gold.
Twain moved back to San Francisco and wrote the story he had heard in the mining camp: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Matters having quieted down in San Francisco, he returned to his old job at the paper.
The first 30 years of Samuel Clemens' life were active and productive. He went from a printer apprentice from a poor family to become a newspaper writer called Mark Twain. He used an eye for observation and humorous wit in his writing to gain popularity.
A few lessons learned from the first part of the life of Samuel Clemens include:
- It is worth to keep trying until you find your niche
- Recognizing your talent and finding your calling is an achievement
- A witty personality can provide friends and contacts
- Observation and creativity can lead to greatness
Follow your own river
Resources and references
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Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain): Birth to Age 29