Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, the sixth child of a lawyer and judge. When he was four the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, which lies on the Mississippi River. His father died of pneumonia when he was eleven and to support the family he left school a year later to become an apprentice printer at The Mississippi Courier. He later worked as a typesetter at his brother Orion’s newspaper.
At the age of eighteen he left Hannibal and worked in printing firms in other parts of the United States, educating himself in his free time by reading extensively at public libraries. He returned to Hannibal at the age of 22 to train to fulfil a long-held ambition to become a riverboat pilot. During his training, to his eternal regret, he persuaded his younger brother Henry to join him. In 1858 Henry was killed in an accident on the ship he was working on when a boiler exploded. Twain felt lifelong guilt for having introduced Henry to this world.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 curtailing riverboat traffic, he briefly joined a group of Confederate volunteers but this was disbanded after a few weeks. He then left for Nevada to work for his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the Nevada Territory governor. He then spent some time as a miner in Nevada before becoming a journalist on a local paper, writing under the name of Mark Twain, which he had adopted from his riverboat days.
In 1864 he moved to San Francisco to continue his career as a journalist. His first published tale, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, was published in 1865. In 1867 he undertook a tour of Europe and the Middle East for a newspaper, an account of which formed the basis of his book The Innocents Abroad (1869). He married Olivia Langton in 1870 and they had three daughters, two of whom enjoyed poor health and died in their twenties, and a son who died in infancy.
From 1874-1891 they lived in Hartford, Connecticut, spending their summers at his wife’s sister’s house in Elmira, New York State. It was in these locations that he wrote his most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (1889). He and his family moved to Europe in 1891, spending time in France, Germany, and Italy, and later in England and Austria. Mark Twain’s wife died in 1904 and he died of a heart attack six years later in Redding, Connecticut at the age of 74.
He earned a lot of money from his writing during his lifetime but lost a lot of it in risky ventures. He was a prolific writer, whose wit, satire, and close observation of human nature earned him great praise from his critics and peers. He also wrote a limited amount of poetry but it is his prose works which are his greatest achievement. His best known poem is The Aged Pilot Man, drawn from his time on the Mississippi River. He received an honorary doctorate from the universities of both Yale (1901) and Oxford (1907).