This edited article about Mark Twain originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 727 published on 20 December 1975.
‘Quarter less three! Half twain, quarter twain, mark twain!’, cried a man’s voice. These phrases, uttered at regular intervals to the accompaniment of a thundering paddle-wheel, were the only sign of human life on the Mississippi River at night in the middle of the last century.
The river, which snakes its way down the centre of the United States, was a very eerie place of drifting fogs and shadows. At least a mile wide for much of its length, there were no lights on either of its banks.
The phrases were familiar ones to the pilot in the wheelhouse of a Mississippi steamer for they told him the depth of the water.
A pilot in those days was a very important man and vital to the safety of a steamer and its passengers. One in particular was easily recognizable by his tall silk hat, long, reddish-brown hair and diamond pin.
He was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known as ‘Sam’ to his friends. One day, however, he was to become famous all over the world as the author, Mark Twain, a name which he took from that shout to the pilot.
When the author of ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ first set foot on a river boat in 1857 it was his intention to go to South America to make his fortune, but he had lived all his life on this river and found it hard to leave. Instead he became a river pilot.
Sam’s boyhood had been spent in the town of Hannibal on the Mississippi, where his father, a stern but much honoured local magistrate, was known simply as ‘the Judge’.
The middle one of three brothers, and easily the most troublesome, Sam became involved in endless uproarious adventures. Many of these were later retold in ‘Tom Sawyer’.
In 1861, on the outbreak of the Civil War, Sam joined a band of Southern cavalry, and they set off to find their Northern enemies.
They didn’t find them, and in fact they didn’t look very hard. After three weeks of riding aimlessly about the countryside in Missouri, Sam and his elder brother Orion left the North and South to fight it out and went west to Nevada’s gold and silver mines to make their fortunes.
Sam’s fortune was not to be made from gold or silver, but at this time he began his career as a writer by contributing a series of articles about mining matters to a fairly important paper in Virginia City.
When the Civil War ended in 1865 Sam Clemens, who was by then writing under the name of Mark Twain, was asked by a San Francisco newspaper to go to the Sandwich Islands and write about them.
His articles were so popular that he returned to San Francisco in a blaze of glory.
Soon afterwards he set off on his travels to Europe and the Holy Land which were to provide the materials for his very successful book ‘Innocents Abroad’, a humorous and satirical account of the behaviour of American tourists in the Old World.
He was now to write a series of books which made him one of America’s best-loved humorous writers. He wrote of his life on the Mississippi, his mining adventures in Nevada, and of his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri, in his famous ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer’.
But the book that many people consider his greatest is ‘Huckleberry Finn’.
It became a tremendous success abroad, especially in Britain. It told people more that interested and moved them about America than anything else they had ever read.
This article and image(s) are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.