Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken

All you need is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.

It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

Always do right. That will gratify some of the people, and astonish the rest.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens took his more familiar name, “Mark Twain,” from his experience as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi. In shallow water, soundings were taken to determine the depth, and “mark twain” meant two fathoms, 12 feet, deep enough for safe navigation.

I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55.

Clemens lost his father when he was only 12. At the age of 13 he left school and became a printer’s apprentice. After two short years, he joined his brother Orion’s newspaper as a printer and editorial assistant. It was here that young Samuel found he enjoyed writing.

At 17, he moved to St. Louis and took a printer’s job, and about that time became a river pilot’s apprentice. He became a licensed river pilot in 1858. He was then 23. Three years later, in 1861, the American Civil War ended opportunities to continue that career. He left the Mississippi, briefly served in the Confederate cavalry, and then began some travels and adventures.

Later in 1861, he accompanied his brother to the newly created Nevada Territory, where he tried his hand at silver mining. In 1862 he became a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1863 he began signing his articles with the pseudonym Mark Twain. After moving to San Francisco, California in 1864, Twain met American writers Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, who encouraged him in his work. In 1865 Twain reworked a tale he had heard in the California gold fields, and within months the author and the story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” had become national sensations.

In 1867 Twain lectured in New York City, and in the same year he visited Europe and Palestine. He wrote of these travels in The Innocents Abroad (1869), a book exaggerating those aspects of European culture that impress American tourists. In 1870 he married Olivia Langdon, a native of Elmira, NY. After living briefly in Buffalo, New York, the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Much of Twain’s best work was written in the 1870s and 1880s in Hartford or during the summers at Quarry Farm, near Elmira, New York.

Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, CT

Twain was justly renowned as a humorist, but he was far more than that, and his versatility and wide interests and depth of thought and emotion were later recognized by other American writers. Two of those were Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, both of whom pointed to Twain as an inspiration for their own writing.

He died in 1910, leaving a rich legacy for these writers, and others, to try to emulate. His best work is characterized by broad, often irreverent humor or biting social satire. Twain’s writing is also known for realism of place and language, memorable characters, and hatred of hypocrisy and oppression.

The best analysis of Twain’s work was written by another writer, H. L. Mencken.


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