Essay, Research Paper: Mark Twain

Literature: Shakespeare

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Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is perhaps the most
distinguished author of American Literature. Next to William Shakespeare,
Clemens is arguably the most prominent writer the world has ever seen. In 1818,
Jane Lampton found interest in a serious young lawyer named John Clemens. With
the Lampton family in heavy debt and Jane only 15 years of age, she soon married
John. The family moved to Gainesboro, Tennessee where Jane gave birth to Orion
Clemens. In the summer of 1827 the Clemenses relocated to Virginia where John
purchased thousands of acres of land and opened a legal advice store. The lack
of success of the store led John to drink heavily. Scared by his addiction, John
vowed never to drink again. Even though John now resisted alcohol, he faced
other addictions. His concoction of aloe, rhubarb, and a narcotic cost him most
of his savings and money soon became tight (Paine 34-35). The family soon grew
with the birth of Pamela late in 1827. Their third child, Pleasant Hannibal, did
not live past three months, due to illness. In 1830 Margaret was born and the
family moved to Pall Mall, a rural county in Tennessee. After Henry’s birth in
1832, the value of their farmland greatly depreciated and sent the Clemenses on
the road again. Now they would stay with Jane’s sister in Florida, Missouri
where she ran a successful business with her husband. Clemens was born on
November 30, 1835, in the small remote town of Florida, Missouri. Samuel’s
parents, John Marshall and Jane Cohen 2 Lampton Clemens never gave up on their
child, who was two months premature with little hope of survival. This was
coincidentally the same night as the return of Halley’s Comet. The Clemenses
were a superstitious family and believed that Halley’s Comet was a portent of
good fortune. Writing as Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens would claim that Florida,
Missouri “contained 100 people and I increased the population by one percent.
It is more than the best man in history ever did for any other town” (Hoffman
15). 1847 proved to be a horrific year for John Clemens. He ventured to Palmyra
in order to find work on the county seat. On his voyage home he found himself in
a devastating snowstorm which left him ill with pneumonia. He stayed at his
friend Dr. Grant’s house, ill and jaded, where he rested and grew weak. He
died on March 24, 1847 at the age of 48 (Kaplan 112-125). Samuel was eleven
years old when his father passed away. He was of ambiguous emotions. He had
dreaded his father, yet at the same time respected him. The onus of taking care
of the family was now on Samuel and Orion’s shoulders. He attended school and
for additional cash delivered newspapers and aided storekeepers. His expertise
was with Joseph Ament, editor of the Missouri Courier, where he was an
apprentice. In the fall of 1850, Samuel’s brother Orion purchased a printing
press and expected Samuel to work on his newspaper. They began work on the
Hannibal Western Union where Orion printed all of Samuel’s essays and
articles. Although the newspaper was unprofitable, and deemed a failure by most,
Orion and Samuel saw themselves as a success. They soon changed the name to the
Journal and now had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the region. It
was filled with works both original and copied from other sources. This was
acceptable in a society without copyrights. When the Journal gained success,
Orion refused to print some of Samuel’s works. He, however took his writing
elsewhere. He wrote for the Carpet-Bag and the Philadelphia American Cohen 3
Courier, berating his old town and the Hannibal natives. He signed each work
with the initials “S.L.C.” Orion left town for awhile and gave the duty of
editor to Samuel. He quickly took advantage of Orion’s absence. He wrote
articles of town news and prose poetry that revealed characteristics of the boy
who would eventually transform into Mark Twain. In these articles he would use
his first of many pseudonyms, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab. Orion’s return
ended both Samuel’s developing humor and burning satire. Orion decided to
publish the Journal daily and it gave Samuel an opportunity to write more
material, but at the same time overworked him. When Orion deleted local news
from the newspaper, interest was lost and the rival Messenger began outselling
the Journal. This prompted Samuel to leave Orion and the Journal behind at the
age of eighteen. He had bigger aspirations and vowed never to let a place trap
him again. His journeys would take him to St. Louis, New York City, and then
Philadelphia (Hoffman 32-36). The best position he found involved night work as
a substitute typesetter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Clemens wrote about the
sights of Philadelphia which he copied from a guidebook, but altered the
descriptions into a style much more mature than in previous writings. Clemens’
well-known writing style had a loose rhythm of speech and he wrote as if he were
telling an unbelievable story which he expected his listeners and readers to
believe. He was a master of the “tall story” of the frontier and delighted
his audience with his storytelling abilities (Lyttle 65). One can see this
unique style in his description of the nation’s capital: The public buildings
of Washington are all fine specimens of architecture, and would add greatly to
the embellishment of such a city as New York- but here they are sadly out of
place looking like so many palaces in a Hottentot village. . . .The [other]
buildings, almost invariably, are very poor--two and three story brick Cohen 4
houses, and strewed about in clusters; you seldom see a compact square off
Pennsylvania Avenue. They look as though they might have been emptied out of a
sack by some Brobdignagian gentleman, and when falling, been scattered abroad by
the winds (qtd. in Paine 27). In his time, most novels were a form of enriching
entertainment. Light reading that would do no harm and might even do the reader
some good. They were written with an intelligent, well-behaved audience in mind,
an audience that expected to read about people like themselves. They were most
comfortable reading the language they used in public. William Gibson belies
that, “Twain developed one of the great styles in the English language because
he had a firm grasp of the American vernacular”(qtd. in Long 205). His letters
to the Keokuk Papers in St. Louis proved to be most successful for Clemens. He
signed these letters with the pseudonym Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. His
narrations made the western readers feel more intelligent by laughing at the
character’s idiocy. “Snodgrass” would continue to write letters until the
editor refused to pay him. He then decided to leave the city and travel along
the Mississippi River in a steamboat. By the middle of 1857, Clemens had made
five runs up and down the river, and this is where he first used the name, Mark
Twain. On river boats, one member of the crew always stood near the forward
railing measuring the depth of the water with a long cord which had flags spaced
a fathom apart. When the crewman saw the flags disappear he would call out
"Mark One!" for one fathom and for two fathoms he called out
"Mark Twain!" Two fathoms meant safe clearance for river boats, so
Clemens chose a name which not only recalled his life on the river but which
also had a motivating meaning (Robinson).

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