Mark Twain's Mississippi

Mark Twain's Biography

by Gregg Camfield, PhD, University of California-Merced

On November 30, 1835, nearly thirty years before he took the pen name Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, a hamlet some 130 miles north-northwest of St. Louis, and 30 miles inland from the Mississippi River. His father, John Marshall Clemens, had earlier that year moved the family there from Tennessee. In Tennessee, he had accumulated much land, a pair of slaves, a wife, and five children, but his efforts as a lawyer, storekeeper, and local politician did not yield the wealth he desired. Like many of his contemporaries, he decided that the way to a fortunate future was to move west. His brother-in-law, John Quarles, had established a farm in the new hamlet of Florida and invited John Marshall Clemens, his wife, Jane Lampton Clemens, and their brood of children to the new country.

Trained to be a country lawyer, John Marshall was no farmer, and even though Americans were extraordinarily litigious, it would take time (and denser population) to build a law practice that could support a family. He fell back on keeping store, and again did not thrive. Given that the river was where a merchant had access to markets, John Marshall moved his family to the as-yet-unincorporated town of Hannibal, about 30 miles east-northeast of Florida. There, too, his business ventures, in his dry-goods store, in his land dealings, even in his efforts to trade slaves, did not prosper. The family found itself slipping toward poverty — so desperate, in fact, that they had to sell off their furniture — before finally, John Marshall's political ambitions ended in his election to justice of the peace. While the fees he earned in this office were not enough to make the family's fortunes, they were the difference between poverty and a competence. Yet with fortunes finally looking up, John Marshall Clemens took ill and died in 1847. The remaining Clemens family (mother Jane, sister Pamela, and brothers Orion, Samuel, and Henry) had to make their way by hook and crook. Orion was already off in St. Louis, working as a journeyman printer. The wages he sent home kept the family afloat. Within a year, however, young Samuel could no longer afford the luxuries of childhood, school and play. Instead, he began his first apprenticeship, to Hannibal printer William Ament, publisher of the grandly named Missouri Courier.

Hannibal, Missouri in the 1840s

In working for Ament, Sam learned about printing, the first mass production industry, almost as it had been practiced from the beginning. In a country print shop, a printer had to do everything from the editorial side, to type setting, to press-work, to distributing the finished product. There was no division of labor, and only hints of the industrial revolution. Yet brother Orion in St. Louis was working in a major print shop, as a compositor rather than as a printer. Orion, in keeping with craft guild principles, wanted to be his own master, so in 1851, he returned to Hannibal, bought one of the other Hannibal newspapers, the equally grandly named Western Union, and took on his younger brothers Samuel and Henry as his apprentices. He soon combined his struggling newspaper with the Hannibal Journal, but even a merger could not turn a local paper into a good living, especially for an owner whose politics were not fully congenial to Hannibal.

Neither younger brother much appreciated working for their quirky older brother. Orion fancied himself to be a new Benjamin Franklin, and used to badger his younger brothers with Franklin's aphorisms about industry, efficiency, temperance, and frugality. The frugality was imposed by the fact that such old-fashioned printing was not lucrative, even when it was a central part of the social fabric of the American small town. Young Samuel accepted the push toward industry and temperance, even as younger brother Henry rebelled by being lazy and sloppy in his work. Orion's response to Henry's poor work was often to put more on Samuel. Naturally, Sam came to resent his position, too. In 1853, he bolted, heading first for St. Louis to work as a typesetter, then heading out of the Mississippi Valley for the first time to work as a typesetter in a number of eastern cities, including New York and Philadelphia.

His correspondence home shows how much he accepted his responsibility to his mother, promising her a portion of his wages, yet his contact with the new industrial economy of the big cities prevented him from making much financial progress in his work. Demoralized that he was unable to make his fortune, he rejoined his family, which, in the interim, had also abandoned Hannibal. His sister had already moved to St. Louis when in 1851 she married William A. Moffet, a successful merchant. His brother Orion had sold his Hannibal print shop to move to Muscatine, Iowa, to free soil, where his abolitionist ideas were neither a threat to his livelihood nor his health. Samuel at this point did not oppose slavery; his attitudes were shaped primarily by those held by his Missouri neighbors, especially by his father and his Uncle Quarles. While his father never had many slaves, and in financial exigency had been forced to sell, he had helped uphold slavery in Missouri. His uncle was a farmer whose success depended not only on his own work, but on the labor of his slaves. In the years before he began his apprenticeship, Sam had spent many summers on the Quarles farm. But Orion's time in St. Louis had put him in touch with organized labor which, though often quite racist in its outlook, was opposed to slave labor as a system that undercut wages. When he moved to Iowa at the very end of 1853, he became active in anti-slavery politics, leading him ultimately to working for Lincoln's election in 1860.

Sam's return to the Mississippi Valley in late spring of 1854 was not a return to his childhood home. Now living in a free state, but with strong family ties to Missouri, his return to work for his brother was a stop-gap. Indeed, late in that year and early in 1855, he worked in St. Louis before returning to Muscatine. In 1856, he left home again, this time for a stint of typesetting in Cincinnati. Itinerant as always, Clemens was but briefly satisfied in Cincinnati, and when on his way home in 1857, he decided, instead, to change careers to become a riverboat pilot. In order to do so, he had to pay $500, half up front, with the balance to be paid from his first wages when the apprenticeship was over. (Multiply these numbers by 25 to find a rough equivalent to today's dollars.) He had to borrow the down payment from his brother-in-law. Young Sam did not have good role models for how to spend money, but given how poor he was, the amount he was willing to borrow says something about how much he wanted to become a riverboat pilot.

Fictionalized slightly, “Old Times on the Mississippi” tells the story of this apprenticeship. With the addition of the story of his successful efforts to get his younger brother, Henry, a job on a steamboat and his younger brother's death in a steamboat accident, found in chapters 18-20 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain's own account of his days as an apprentice on a steamboat, and his account of the social and political circumstances of steam boating, is one of the best accounts of river life ever written. But he left off the tale at the end of his apprenticeship, telling us next to nothing about his brief, successful career in boating. When fully licensed as a pilot in the St. Louis to New Orleans trade, Sam Clemens found regular and lucrative employment, enabling him not only to pay off his debts and help support his mother, but also giving him enough extra income to indulge himself.

I can "bank" in the neighborhood of $100 a month . . . and that will satisfy me for the present . . . . Bless me! . . . what respect Prosperity commands. Why, six months ago, I could enter the "Rooms," [of the Western Boatmen's Benevolent Association] and receive only the customary fraternal greeting — but now they say, "Why how are you, old fellow — when did you get in?" And the young pilots who used to tell me, patronisingly, that I could never learn the river, cannot keep from showing a little of their chagrin at seeing me so far ahead of them. . . . I must confess that when I go to pay my dues, I rather like to let the d—d rascals get a glimpse of a hundred dollar bill peeping out from amongst notes of smaller dimensions.

Not surprisingly, one of his chief indulgences was to speculate in commodities, buying and shipping them as he went up and down the river. True to family form, he lost money.

But his newfound wealth and the company he began to keep helped him leave his mother's and brother's world emotionally as well as physically. He was a chief player in an industry that was so modern and cosmopolitan that it figures in such stories as T.B. Thorpe's “The Big Bear of Arkansas” and Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, as a symbol of America: of its politics, its trade, its industry, its cultural and ethnic diversity, of its inexorable changes. His letters from the period show him indulging his restless spirit in taking advantage of the entertainments of two of America's great cities. From things as innocent as learning to dance, which according to his mother's strict religion encouraged sin, to learning to drink and curse, which were culturally normal but coming under regular attack in an evangelical and reformist age, Clemens explored behavior and attitudes that were new to him. And the powers of observation required of him as a pilot certainly helped him when he turned to journalism and then to writing novels, sketches, and stories.

Had the Civil War not interrupted the river trade, Samuel Clemens might have spent his life as a pilot, writing no more than an occasional newspaper squib. Clemens was not a hothead on either side, in part because his livelihood depended on commerce between the North and the South up and down the great riverway. In the election of 1860, Sam Clemens voted his bread and butter. Spurning both the Democratic Party and the new Republican Party, Clemens voted for the Constitutional Union Party's ticket of Bell and Everett. But when the war began, Clemens's vague leanings toward states' rights and slavery came out. First, he holed up with his sister's family in St. Louis, fearing that he would be impressed as a pilot for Union transport or gun boats. Then, in the late spring of 1861, he answered the call of the states' rights leaning Missouri Governor, C.F. Jackson, to form militias to “repel the invader.” Technically, Missouri never joined the Confederacy, so Clemens's brief stint as an irregular soldier cannot be classified as time as a Confederate soldier, but given that Clemens and his fellow militia-men knew full well that they were to fight against the troops of the United States Army, such semantic distinctions are unimportant. What is important, is that Clemens was not confident enough of his actions to let his brother Orion know of them.

We will never know exactly what happened in that very brief period. He has given us a highly colored account, complete with misrepresentations of his age, in “A Private History of a Campaign that Failed.” Indeed, he was never fully candid about why he joined in the first place, but no doubt the intense feelings that moved so many young men to enlist and fight savagely for years did not move young Clemens. He deserted from the militia and joined Orion on a trip out West. Orion had worked energetically to support Lincoln's election, and as a reward, he was given a government appointment, to work as the secretary of the Governor of the newly formed Nevada Territory. This was important work to the new government. Nevada provided silver on which the government was counting to keep it solvent, and to establish a firm union presence to help keep California in the Union was equally important. Orion's position was essentially to be second in command, even serving as acting governor in the governor's absence. For Samuel to abandon his states' rights service to instead act as his brother's private secretary reinforces our sense that Sam's politics were lukewarm at best."By the Mark Twain!"

The Civil War radically transformed the nation and many of the lives in it, and that was almost as true for Sam Clemens as it was for so many others. Sam Clemens planned to pass the few months the War was expected to last out West, living off his savings while prospecting for silver and gold. As the War dragged on, his savings ran out. He did not strike it rich, and facing poverty again, he returned to the printing industry, this time on the editorial side. In part because he was a talented writer and in part because he was well connected politically, he was hired by the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise to be a reporter. There he served yet another apprenticeship, this time in literary work. There he first used his famous pen name, “Mark Twain,” derived from his days on the River. The call “Mark Twain” means, literally, “at this point, two,” meaning that at a given point, the river is two fathoms (twelve feet) deep. This was the usual depth for safe passage for a Mississippi River steamboat. (Though in Virginia City, some of his friends interpreted “Mark Twain” to stand for Clemens's tendency to order two drinks at a time and mark them on his bar tab.) There he began to work as a roving reporter, and the reputation he earned in Nevada expanded until newspapers from California to New York sent him all over the world to report on politics, the arts, fashion, commerce — anything that would entertain or inform readers. His life as a reporter and then as a belletristic writer led him to make his home in Nevada, California, Washington, D.C., New York, Connecticut, England, Germany, France, and Italy, but never again in the Mississippi Valley.

While the War started a chain of events that removed Samuel Clemens physically from the Mississippi Valley, it did not remove him imaginatively. If anything, the War also forced Clemens to rethink what he believed. As he put it in a letter to his Missouri friend Jacob H. Burrough in a 1 November 1876 letter,

As you describe me I can picture myself as I was, twenty-two years of age. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown some; upon my word there was room for it. You have described a callow fool, a self-sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug . . . . Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckle-headedness . . . . That is what I was at 19-20; & that is what the average Southerner is at 60 to-day.

The process that began in 1860 did not end until he died in 1910, and in his imagination he revisited the Mississippi Valley incessantly, in one literary work after another, including The Gilded Age (1871) “Old Times on the Mississippi” (1874), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins (1893), a series of sequels to the Tom and Huck stories, and in “Chapters from My Autobiography.”