Mark Twain: Highwater and Hell

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2002

Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s friend Jim, the escaped slave with no last name.

The Mississippi River….A lonely raft floating down the broad stream with twinkling stars overhead….Sleepy little towns….The search for freedom….The quest for a moral compass in complicated times.

Mark Twain used these characters, settings, and themes to draw maps to the American soul. He became a national treasure in the late 19th century. But as he grew old, he was hit hard by personal setbacks and family tragedies, and he sank into bitterness and depression. As one scholar writes, Twain spent his last years “in hell.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the boy who would become Mark Twain, was born on November 30, 1835, in the village of Florida, Missouri, the sixth child of Jane and John Clemens. When Sam was four, the clan moved to nearby Hannibal, a town of 1,000 people on the Mississippi River, 110 miles north of St. Louis.

John Clemens worked as a storekeeper, lawyer, judge, and land speculator, dreaming of wealth but never achieving it, experiencing occasional problems putting food on the table for his family. He was a grim fellow; young Sam supposedly never saw him laugh. As John contemplated his failures, did he find solace in the bottle? Very possibly so, judging from the gestalt of the young republic.

Sam’s mother, Jane, was fun-loving and tenderhearted, filling winter’s nights for her brood by gathering them around the fireplace and telling stories of far-away places. She became head of the household in 1847 when John suddenly died of pneumonia. Sam was 11. The Clemens family became “almost destitute,” writes biographer Everett Emerson. The clan would struggle for years – a fact that would shape the career choices of Mark Twain.

Sam Clemens lived in Hannibal from age four to 17. In many ways, the town was a splendid place for a youngster. Steamboats arrived daily. Caves beckoned. Circuses paid visits, as did revivalists and lecturers. Tradesmen plied their crafts for all to see: the blacksmith hammering in his forge – the hatter turning beaver fur into glorious status-affirming creations – the storekeeper presiding over the town’s conversation center.

But all was not sweetness and light. The town had horrors. When Sam was nine he saw a man murder a cattle rancher. When he was 10 he watched a slave die after being beaten by a white overseer.

Hannibal would be a major source for Mark Twain’s fictional small towns. The burgs in his stories are, on the one hand, sunlit and exuberant, full of endless possibilities, and at the same time rife with slavery, cruelty, drunkenness, loneliness, rage, and soul-crushing boredom. (Never has humanity come more in touch with its capacity for boredom than when settling the fresh, green, empty breast of the New World.)

Sam Clemens stayed in school until he was around 12, at which point, needing to help the family survive, he got a job as an apprentice printer at the Hannibal Courier, paid with food. In 1851, age 15, he worked as a printer and sometime writer and editor at the Hannibal Western Union, a newspaper owned by his oldest brother Orion. He also found employment as a journeyman printer, traveling widely.

Sam began fulfilling a dream when he turned 21 in 1857, learning how to pilot a steamboat on the Mississippi River. He soon found regular work in this demanding trade. He loved it – it was exciting, it paid well, and it carried status; it was akin, perhaps, to today’s piloting of a 747 on the New York to Paris route. But his steamboat career was cut short in the spring of 1861 by the outbreak of the Civil War, which halted most civilian traffic on the river.

Missourians split violently between support for the Union and the Confederacy. Sam opted for the latter and joined a volunteer squadron of the Confederate Army in June, 1861. He served only a couple of weeks until his regiment abruptly disbanded. The unit had alternated between camping in the woods and fleeing phantom Federal troops.

Even though his service was brief, the war may have jarred something loose in Sam’s mind. Perhaps his imagination was fired, his juices stirred, by the knowledge that world-shaking events were occurring in far-away places. After all, his beloved mother had placed great store in the magic of distant spots. Historian R. Kent Rasmussen writes that military service “forced a clear separation between (Sam’s) youth and his adulthood….”

Sam Clemens wondered where he would find his future. His answer: the American West. He climbed onto a stagecoach in July, 1861, and headed for Nevada and California, where he would live for the next five years.

He searched for silver and gold for a few months, convinced that he would strike it rich and propel his struggling family to comfort, meanwhile becoming the sharpest-dressed dude in San Francisco. But nothing panned out, and by the middle of 1862 he was broke and in need of a job.

He knew his way around a newspaper office, so in September, 1862, he went to work as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, in Nevada, churning out news articles, feature stories, and editorials, and adopting the pen name “Mark Twain” – steamboat slang for 12 feet of water.

His writing style was friendly, accessible, and sharp-edged, and he quickly became one of the best-known storytellers in the West. He got a big break in 1865-66 when one of his tales about life in a mining camp was reprinted in newspapers and magazines around the country – “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” His next step up the literary ladder came in 1867 when he took a five-month sea cruise in the Mediterranean region, writing about the journey for American newspapers with an eye toward getting a book out of the trip. The result, “The Innocents Abroad,” was published in 1869 and sold well. This young Westerner – 34 years old, photogenic, affable, egocentric, ambitious, funny, and perceptive – was one of the most popular writers in America.


Literary life in America in those years was dominated by Eastern voices – a group of scholars, writers, and editors centered in Boston and nearby Cambridge, high-minded men, strait-laced, Victorian, insular. One of their primary venues was The Atlantic Monthly. This great magazine, writes author Matthew Pearl, was “stingy” in the 19th century in its use of “outsiders” – i.e., people from outside the Boston metropolitan area.

The Boston crowd cowed Mark Twain. Biographer Hamlin Hill notes that Twain, underneath his vanity and aggressiveness, was imbued with an “almost overwhelming sense of inferiority” that had roots in his youth. He seemed to feel he was crude, lacking in gentility, lacking in class. He wanted to obtain what he called (apparently in all seriousness) “the respectful regard of a high eastern civilization.” He wanted to rise – and, after all, to rise was an American creed in the 19th century, all the more so for a man who, in boyhood, had seen his family sink.

Mark Twain improved his social status in 1870 by marrying Olivia (Livy) Langdon, a tight-lipped Victorian lady, daughter of a coal merchant. Twain asked her to “reform” him from his Western ways. (Was his tongue ever-so-slightly in his cheek with this request in one of his letters? Maybe. Maybe not.) She tried to comply, but thankfully for American literature, did not entirely succeed. Twain’s gloriously low-minded voice broke through to some degree.

A key step toward finding that voice came in the first half of the 1870s with his writing of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” published in 1876. When the novel succeeded with the public, Twain began writing a sequel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And suddenly he found it – his best literary self. He discovered a first-person voice that’s raw, honest, and wonderfully readable. For this one book, Mark Twain’s voice and soul fused. For this one book he was as fecund as river bottomland on a spring day.

Twain completed the gorgeous river chapters quickly, then worked sporadically on the rest of the story – writing for a while, setting the manuscript aside, writing a bit more, finding other things to do. The standard biographical explanation for these long delays is that he was unsure about where to take the story. Why this uncertainty from a font of creativity? Could it be that he needed to generate psychic balance by simultaneously working on “respectable” projects? In 1881, as he tried to finish “Huck,” he published “The Prince and the Pauper,” respectable, charming, well-thought-out, full of vivid scenes from English history, endorsed with enthusiasm by his family and friends – but not deeply honest and not at all felt. In 1883 he issued “Life on the Mississippi,” an interesting and readable travel book.

In 1885 he finally published “Huckleberry Finn.” The opening paragraph announces something new and great:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly – Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Ungrammatical. Non-respectable. Weird. Authentic. Alive. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,'” wrote Ernest Hemingway in 1935, giving short shrift to Melville, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe, Thoreau, Longfellow, U.S. Grant, and Hawthorne (and Lincoln too, maybe the greatest writer of 19th century America), but making an interesting point about Twain’s use of sturdy vernacular language. With “Huck Finn” the voices of America’s regular folk are used for the first time to make a great novel. The voices are vivid, slangy, rough-hewn, full-blooded, non-Bostonian.

The public loved the book, as did several major critics, but the Boston Herald tut-tutted that it was “pitched in but one key, and that is the key of a vulgar and abhorrent life.” The Boston Evening Traveller said “the taste….(is) bad” and the Boston Daily Advertiser scored the author for “coarseness and bad taste.” The most important critic in Twain’s life, wife Livy, viewed the work with all the icy disdain of an easily-shocked Victorian lady.

Never again would Mark Twain write with such power.

In 1889 he published the novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” His next major work, in 1894, was the novella “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson”; two years later came “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” the last novel he issued in his lifetime, and, he felt, his most important work. (“Modern opinion holds just the opposite view,” writes historian Rasmussen, although it must be said, the book has many fans.) Twain also wrote essays, short stories, and a memoir. His late tale “The Chronicle of Young Satan” was not completed but found fervent admirers upon its posthumous publication. The satiric novella “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899) has a goodly number of fans. Also during these years, he articulated a strong political consciousness, enlisting in the fight against King Leopold’s rampaging policies in Africa, sharply criticizing America’s sudden interest in overseas expansionism, and, at a time of vicious racism in American life, making a point of being photographed in the company of a black man conversing amiably.

After publication of “Huckleberry Finn” Mark Twain got entangled in the money lust of the Gilded Age, becoming as much businessman as author. He published the memoirs of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885-86 and watched with joy as the book achieved bestsellerdom. He was certain now that he would become fabulously wealthy, like the business poobahs with whom he dined at Delmonico’s in New York City. But his publishing house eventually went bankrupt.

Twain’s financial failings contributed to the pessimism that beset him as he aged. In his 60s and 70s he came to feel that human existence is a cosmic joke perpetrated by a chuckling God.

This profound change in consciousness, this veer toward a brooding melancholy and misanthropy, was driven by several factors beyond money. The simple fact of aging was probably a factor; it appears that he was engulfed by geriatric depression, a disease barely understood at the time. Also, personal tragedies struck hard. His favorite daughter Susy died in 1896 at age 24 of spinal meningitis while her parents were out of the country. In her last hours, raving in feverish delirium, she uttered a phrase that provides much fodder for psychologists and biographers: “Up go the trolley cars for Mark Twain’s daughter. Down go the trolley cars for Mark Twain’s daughter.” Another child, Jean, was diagnosed with severe epilepsy in the middle 1890s; the disease was not controllable in that era. Some years later, during epileptic seiges, Jean twice tried to murder housekeepers.

Years ago, a scholar or two, inclined to the classical Freudian view that shaped psychobiography, believed that Twain’s deterioration could be attributed in part to unresolved guilt over the accidental death of his beloved younger brother Henry, many years earlier, for which Twain apparently blamed himself.

A core cause for his angst may have been unconscious rage at his career path. Deep down, he perhaps hated the fact that he sold his creative soul to Boston and to money, that he failed to give undivided attention to his deepest imaginative instincts, which centered on his boyhood and on small town life on the Mississippi River. It’s not inconceivable that, as he wrote about medieval Britain and France, some part of his soul said, “What are we doing here?”

As author Rebecca Brown notes, “No matter how much you want to, you never unbecome the place you came from.”

Mark Twain did not lack for respectful regard during the last 15 years of his life, from 1895 to 1910. He received honorary degrees from Oxford and Yale. He was the most-loved American writer of the era, the best-known living author globally after Tolstoy. “For readers around the world,” writes journalist David Propson, “he was America.”

He was hailed in 1895-96 as he traveled on an international lecture tour to pay off debts incurred by his publishing house. His lecture performances offered something of a combination of Spalding Gray and Bob Hope. A sense of his wit and timing can be gotten from “Mark Twain Tonight!” starring Hal Holbrook, first broadcast nationally in 1967 on CBS television, available on DVD.

Twain’s wife Livy died in 1904. The couple had often been separated while he traveled and as she took to her bed with endless illnesses. “The full nature of his feelings toward her is puzzling,” writes Rasmussen. “If he treasured Livy’s comradeship as much as he often said, why did he spend so much time away from her?”

Twain’s bitterness deepened in his last years even as he projected an amiable persona to his public. “Much of the last decade of his life he lived in hell,” writes Hamlin Hill. He wrote a fair amount from 1900 to 1910 but was unable to finish most efforts. He demonstrated a stunning insensitivity to loved ones and friends. He demanded that admirers fawn on him. He had nasty bouts of paranoia. He tried to assuage long stretches of bored sloth by playing billiards and cards, smoking cigars, and lying in bed reading and fulminating.

Mark Twain died of a heart attack at the age of 74, on April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut. He is buried in Elmira, New York, 800 miles from his hometown of Hannibal, and a million miles from the mighty river that watered his boyhood soul.