It’s the birthday of the man known as “The Dean of American Letters,” Mark Twain (books by this author), born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri (1835). He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the banks of the Mississippi, and used to love watching the steamboats slide by as a child. Twain based two of his most famous books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), on life in Hannibal.
When he was 12, his father died of pneumonia and Twain left school to apprentice to a printer for 50 cents a week. Always a mischievous and naughty youngster, he enjoyed writing short, funny stories. His older brother Orion was so impressed that he hired his little brother to write humorous sketches for the newspaper he owned, The Hannibal Journal, setting in place a lifetime of journalism, novel writing, and satirical essays.
Twain kicked about for the next 20 years, becoming a steamboat pilot, a prospector for silver and gold, a Confederate cavalry militiaman, and a real-estate speculator. He wrote about his days as river pilot in his book Life on the Mississippi (1883) and his days traveling the Wild West in Roughing It (1872). Roughing It was a favorite book for U.S. astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, who read passages aloud to each other as they orbited the Earth on the Gemini VI for 14 days in December 1965.
Twain first gained national attention for his story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865), which he wrote in a cabin on Jackass Hill in Tuolumne County. It was originally called Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, and it’s about a greedy man who will bet on anything, whether it’s a frog or a bug. Twain disliked the published version, which he said was “full of damnable errors of grammar and deadly inconsistencies of spelling.”
Mark Twain favored white linen shirts and suits and smoked 20 cigars and countless pipes every day. He first fell in love with his wife, Olivia, when her brother showed him a photograph while they were on ship together. Twain said: “I do believe that young filly has broken my heart. That only leaves me with one option, for her to mend it.” On their first outing together, he and Olivia went to a reading by Charles Dickens. She turned down his marriage proposals three times before accepting. For the rest of their lives together, she edited his novels, essays, and lectures.