Born November 30, 1835 in Florida, Mark Twain “came in with the comet” and as he predicted "went out with the comet” passing April 21, 1910, the day after Halley’s Comet. His real name was Samuel Longhorne Clemens, and he took his pen name from his days as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River where the cry “mark twain” signaled the depth of water -- about 12 feet was required for the safe passage of riverboats.
Mark Twain was a talented writer, speaker and humorist whose own personality shined through his work. As his writing grew in popularity, he became a public figure and iconic American whose work represents some of the best in the genre of Realism. As the young country grew in size but not in a cultural manner to the liking of the European gentry, it became fashionable to criticize "the ugly American.” Twain famously travelled abroad and disarmed his audience with his wit and humor with pronouncements like the following: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.”
Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri and would later use that location as the setting for two of his most famous works, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. He started his career as a typesetter at a newspaper, worked as a printer, a riverboat pilot, and then turned to gold mining. When he failed to strike it rich, he turned to journalism and it was during that time that he wrote the short story that would launch his career, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County -- a story that captivated me when read out loud by one of my teachers in elementary school. Children may also enjoy reading Mark Twain: A Child's Biography.
While Twain’s career as a writer enriched him, his turn as a gentleman investor did much to impoverish him. He lost a great deal of his writing profits and much of his wife’s inheritance on different investments, the costliest was his backing of a promising typesetting machine. The machine had great potential but it failed in the market due to frequent breakdowns. Twain recovered financially with the help of a benefactor from Standard Oil, Henry Huttleson Rogers. Rogers guided Twain successfully through bankruptcy and even had Twain transfer his copyrights to his wife to keep his royalties from his creditors. Further success from book sales and lectures restored his financial health and in the end all his creditors were paid.
Mark Twain is also well remembered for his witty quotations, a small sampling follows:
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.
Good breeding consists of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.
Man is the Only Animal that Blushes. Or needs to.
It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you: the one to slander you, and the other to get the news to you.
When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.
Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.
It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said I don't know.
I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him.
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.
Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't.
Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.
By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity -- another man's I mean.
An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven't been done before.
Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.
Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
And as Ernest Hemingway wisely observed:
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.""