On this day in 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens is born the sixth of seven children in Florida, MO. He would evolve into the man Mark Twain, a celebrated writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer whom William Faulkner called “the Father of American Literature.” Among his works are The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and the visionary time-traveling tale A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
Clemens was apprenticed to a printer at age 13 and later worked for his older brother Orion, who established the Hannibal Journal. In 1857, the Keokuk Daily Post commissioned him to write a series of comic travel letters, but after writing five he decided to become a steamboat captain instead. He signed on as a pilot’s apprentice in 1857 and received his pilot’s license in 1859, when he was 23.
Clemens piloted on the Mississippi for two years, until the Civil War halted steamboat traffic; enlisting briefly in a Confederate volunteer regiment, Twain walked away after two weeks. During his time as a pilot, he picked up the term “Mark Twain,” a boatman’s call noting that the river was only two fathoms deep, the minimum depth for safe navigation. Clemens would adopt this personage as he headed for adventures west with Orion and tried his hand at mining and other notions before he returned to writing in 1861, finally halting at the Pacific in San Francisco.
In 1867, a local newspaper funded his trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East. He wrote a collection of travel letters which were later compiled as The Innocents Abroad (1869). It was on this voyage that he met fellow passenger Charles Langdon, who showed him a picture of his sister Olivia. Twain later claimed to have fallen in love at first sight.
In 1870, Clemens married Olivia, the daughter of a wealthy New York coal merchant, and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where he continued to write travel accounts and lecture. Their family bore three daughters, and one son, Langdon, who perished from diphtheria. The Twains moved about frequently, living in various locales in both the US and Europe, and he remained faithfully married to Olivia for 34 years until her death in 1904.
Twain was born two weeks after Halley’s Comet’s closest approach in 1835; he said in 1909 “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.” Twain indeed did depart at age 74, having witnessed and documented some of the most significant developments in American history, and numbering the likes of Frederick Douglass, Nikolai Tesla, Ulysses Grant and Helen Keller among his dear friends and colleagues.