The life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) was just as interesting as one of his characters, maybe even more so. He lived an extraordinary life and is still adored nearly one hundred years after his death in 1910. He is regularly impersonated as he was in his later years by paid professionals today and immediately recognized.
Clemens was born under Halley’s comet and also died when the comet reappeared some 70 years later. This shouldn’t have been any surprise to anyone who knew him well. Clemens predicted in 1909 that he would die when the famous comet would come back,
although it was assumed that he was joking at the time.
He said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty said, no doubt, ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”
Never The Twain Shall Meet
At the time of Clemens’s early writing days as a reporter, it was common for writers to use a pen name to give them some anonymity in dangerous times. Clemens picked “Mark Twain” about 1862. He used other pen names as well, including “Josh” (very “punny”, Samuel) and “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass”.
But why did he pick “Mark Twain” at all? Clemens would say because it was a term from river boating where you would find out how deep the water was. This has been called into question in recent years. Some even think that a “mark twain” was a slang for a bar tab at one of Clemens’ favorite watering holes. Considering Clemens’ sense of humor, it could be that he chose the name for entirely different reasons and enjoyed thinking everyone believed his explanation.
Clemens certainly had at least two different sides to his personality and perhaps they lived uneasily in the life of the same writer.
Science Fiction Hero
Clemens wrote on a wide variety of topics, but he was also one of America’s first science fiction writers with such works as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889). Clemens was fascinated by science as well as nature, especially rivers. He invested in new inventions and lost a lot of money from that. Although he had a love of tradition, nostalgia and nature, he also enjoyed technology.
A nod to Clemens was given to the highly popular science fiction television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Samuel Clemens (and Jack London) were key characters in a two part story called Time’s Arrow. Unlike London’s character, Clemens’ character was willing to accept that aliens from other planets could exist.
Stand Up Comedian
In the days before stand-up comedy, people went to lectures from the famous wits of the day. Although lecturers like Will James are usually referred to as “intellectuals”, they used a lot of humor and biting satire in their speeches. Samuel Clemens made many such lecture tours to supplement his financial misadventures.
It was appropriate that the eleventh Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor was to be given to comedian George Carlin, who sadly passed away before he could receive it, as he shared a lot of writing and performing styles with Clemens. Other recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor include comedians that included stand up as part launching of their careers like Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart and Jonathan Winters.
Oh, And One Last Thing
And the final interesting fact about Mark Twain is one that affects this writer personally. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published first on November 18, 1865. A little over a hundred years later on the same day, this writer was born. Coincidence? Yes, entirely, of course, but still an interesting fact.
Texas A & M University-Commerce. “Samuel Clemens: (Mark Twain).” http://faculty.tamu-commerce.edu/espinoza/s/ham-p-657.html
Positive Atheism. “Samuel Clemens.” http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/twainver.htm
CNHI News Service. “Twain tome looks at a legacy unsurpassed.” http://blogs.cnhins.com/node/3293
Wikipedia. “Mark Twain.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain