Boston, Massachusetts, November 1869. A short, thin man wearing a cheap suit, an unkempt mop of red hair, a long red mustache, and brandishing a smelly cigar, ambles up the staircase at 124 Tremont Street to the second story headquarters of Ticknor & Fields, a publishing firm. Settling into the office of William Dean Howells, a junior partner of the firm, he lets fly a ravishing quip, referencing a favorable review of his latest work, 'The Innocents Abroad', in a magazine published by the firm. 'When I read that review of yours, I felt like the woman who was so glad her baby had come white'.And thus Samuel Langorne Clemens erupted onto the literary scene. He was a backwoods outcast of low social standing who became a seminal American author, and he is considered to be the father of American literature. He took his most prominent Pen Name from 19th century riverboat jargon. The boatmen would call out "marks" indicating the depth of the water. "Mark Twain" indicates two fathoms, which is just deep enough for safe maneuvering.The son of Missouri slaveowners (though an abolitionist himself), he dropped out of school at age twelve and spent his formative years working as a printer's apprentice, before becoming a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi and later a newspaper reporter in the Nevada Territory. His early fame was as a humorist and satirical newspaper writer, before he broke into the American literary landscape as an author and essayist.He was also obsessed with the separation between the 'dream self' and the 'waking self', and kept a regular dream journal twenty years before Freud. He was also horribly guilt-ridden over the deaths of family members he blamed himself for, such as his younger brothers Benjamin and Henry and his son Langdon.His early works were humorous (and Clemens in his Twain persona is one of the most famous Deadpan Snarkers there is), but he became a bit of a Straw Nihilist later in life when his favorite daughter caught meningitis, went mad and died, his wife died of heart failure, and his middle daughter drowned in the bathtub on Christmas morning after suffering an epileptic seizure. And let's not forget losing most of his fortune to business investments that went bad, forcing him to declare bankruptcy.He died on April 21, 1910, the day after Halley's Comet reached its perihelion, or closest pass to the sun. He was born two weeks after its prior perihelion in 1835. As Clemens himself said the year before he died, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it."
Works by Clemens with their own trope pages include:
Adventurer Archaeologist: During the Holy Land leg of their journey, Twain's fellow passengers on the USS Quaker City fancied themselves as this. In real life, they were just a bunch of prototypical yuppie tourists who had a disturbing penchant for breaking off and stealing pieces of historical monuments, such as Judas' tomb and the arch that Christ walked under on Palm Sunday. As Twain put it, "Heaven protect the Sepulchre when this tribe invades Jerusalem!"
The Nicknamer: Twain himself gave nicknames to most of the Quaker City's passengers. One of these, a seventeen-year-old tourist who was nicknamed 'Interrogation Point' and was described 'young, and green, and not bright, not learned, and not wise', later became Twain's brother-in-law.
Slobs Versus Snobs: Twain divided up his fellow travelers into two groups: the pious, Bible-studying upper middle class "Pilgrims", and the hard-drinking, sabbath-ignoring, rule breaking "Sinners". Go ahead and guess which group he identified with.
Take That: Against 19th Century travel guides at first; the second half is a Author Tract against American tourists and Americans in general, as well as Europeans, Arabs, and, well, everybody else he encounters. If there's a message to be found in the book, it's likely to be that people in general trust authority too much, even when the authority is bugfuck crazy. Whether he's explaining, in detail, why Abelard was a nincompoop, ranting about how the self-appointed Know-Nothing Know-It-All thought that both of the Pillars of Hercules were on the same side of the Strait of Gilbraltar, crying out in agonized confusion about how he doesn't understand why the Italians don't rob their churches, or mocking the bejeezus out of the aforementioned tour guides (one of whom takes him to four different silk stores instead of guiding him to the Louvre as he had asked in the beginning and at every stop along the way), Twain's authorial character is always attacking anyone who takes advantage of a position of authority. Oddly enough, he keeps doing it for the rest of his career, too, all the way up through The Mysterious Stranger, where he has a go at God.
Trope Namer: For the Gilded Age, which lasted from roughly 1865-1900. Clemens and his co-writer, Charles Dudley Warner, condemned the then present-day age of degeneration, vice, and materialism as a false, corrupted Golden Age.
Take That: Mark Twain owned a house in Fredonia, New York where he was accosted by members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union for his public drinking and smoking. This was his response on their belief in their moral superiority.
To the Person Sitting in Darkness (1901)
As The Good Book Says: The title is an ironic reference to Matthew 4:16, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light."
Christian Science (Written c. 1903-1904, published 1907)
Corrupt Church: He viewed it this way, detailing the money-making of the Christian Scientists leadership, objecting to this and the veneration of its founder Mark Baker Eddy, predicting it will rapidly spread across the world, trampling liberty.
Take That: A book-long one to Christian Science in general and its founder Mary Baked Eddy in particular. Clemens did have some belief that mental healing worked, but felt Christian Science went too far in its claims for this, and viewed the money-making of its leadership as corrupt hypocrisy. After all, his character in the book reasons, if nothing exists but mind, an imaginary check should do just fine-money wouldn't seem be an issue.
Letters from the Earth (Written 1909, published 1939)
After Clemens' death, his eldest surviving daughter Clara and his literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, were quick to suppress Clemens' anti-religious and anti-imperialist writings.
Luckily, the articles weren't destroyed, merely kept from publication. Many were eventually released in Letters from the Earth. Although portions of that book may outrage some readers, it includes some of his very best short essays, including "Further Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper" and "Something About Repentance."
A recent edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has removed every instance of the word "nigger" from the book and replaced it with the word "slave", as well as altering "Injun" to "Indian". This has been done in order to allay fears of parents and schools hesitant to assign the book due to racial issues.
Book Ends: He was born when Halley's Comet was at it's perihelion (that is, the period when it is closest to the Sun), and he died when Halley's Comet was at its perihelion again, 75 years later. You know how people joke that you begin and end your life in a hospital? Well...
Daydream Believer: Clemens had a somewhat shaky grasp on what was real and what wasn't, toward the end of his life speculating that reality was a dream. This makes it frustrating to attempt a biographical sketch of his early years, as events like his brother Henry's death were edited and re-edited in his subconscious time and again, until the actual event (as documented in Sam's letters to his siblings and mother in the late 1850s) differed greatly from what he remembered towards the end of his life (as documented in his autobiography).
In our dreams — I know it! — we do make the journeys we seem to make: we do see the things we seem to see; the people, the horses, the cats, the dogs, the birds, the whales, are real, not chimeras; they are living spirits, not shadows; and they are immortal and indestructible.
Dreaming of Things to Come: Sam had dreamed of Henry's death and funeral just a month or so before, down to the makeup of the bouquet of flowers on his casket and the fact that Henry was buried in one of Sam's suits.
Evil Colonialist: A frequent target of Twain, who was staunchly anti-imperialist. This led to a famous controversy between him and a missionary concerning the Boxer Rebellion.
Gonzo Journalism: Clemens' whiskey-fueled "news" articles in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. One of which got him run out of town. To be fair to the townspeople, it was a spoof article that Clemens had written during a drunken bender about how the proceeds from a charity ball were being diverted from wounded Union soldiers to a pro-miscegenation society.
God Is Evil: He appears to have become convinced the Judeo-Christian God was evil in the latter part of his life, judging by Letters from the Earth and other writings.
Grammar Nazi: But he roasts those who fail to meet his standards so eloquently that it's hard to begrudge him the privilege.
Humans Are Bastards: Clemens never pulled any punches about his contempt and disdain for the "damned human race". The title of one of his later works: What is Man? His answer: "A machine."
And so I find that we have descended and degenerated, from some far ancestor (some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance) insect by insect, animal by animal, reptile by reptile, down the long highway of smirch less innocence, till we have reached the bottom stage of development (namable as the Human Being). Below us, nothing. Nothing but the Frenchman.
Man was created a bloody animal and I think he will always thirst for blood and will manage to have it. I think he is far and away the worst animal that exists; and the only untamable one.
Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
I Have Many Names: During his early career, Clemens wrote essays using other pen names such as Sergeant Fathom, Rambler, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blabb, and Josh.
Impoverished Patrician: Clemens' father Marshall was a wealthy Virginia gentleman who squandered his inheritance on bad land investments and wound up as a store clerk in Hannibal, Missouri. Sam inherited his father's lack of business sense, wasting the majority of his writing fortune on things like a new type of printing press that was rendered obsolete months after its invention.
While living in San Francisco Clemens got to know Emperor Norton I. The King character from Huckleberry Finn is based on Norton. When he heard Norton had died, Clemens regretted never getting a chance of writing an honest biography of the Emperor.
Quote Overdosed: A master of the one-liner; entire books consist of nothing but his briefer bursts of wit.
Refuge in Audacity: Selecting just one example is difficult, but one is reminded of his appraisal of somebody who once earned his ire:
"I do not think I should ever learn to like him... except at sea, on a lifeboat... with no other provisions in sight."
Isn't human nature the most consummate sham and lie that was ever invented? Isn't man a creature to be ashamed of in pretty much all is aspects? Is he really fit for anything but to be stood up on the street corner as a convenience for dogs? Man, know thyself and then thou wilt despise thyself, to a dead moral certainty. — Clemens in a letter to William Dean Howells
Walking the Earth: Clemens spent a great deal of time abroad or on the road. At one point, a fan was forced to send a letter to Europe addressed simply, "Mark Twain, God Knows Where."
Twain's reply was only two words long: "He did."
Appearances in Fiction:
Twain appears as a character in numerous stories, TV shows, movies and comics, often as a Historical In-Joke.
Mark Twain was the central character in a series of historical mysteries by Peter Heck called, unsurprisingly, The Mark Twain Mysteries.
Mr. Burns owns the only existing nude photograph of Mark Twain, according to The Simpsons episode "Rosebud".
Appeared as a character in one of The Lone Ranger segments of The Tarzan-Lone Ranger Adventure Hour animated series, where he helps the Lone Ranger solve a mystery and gets the idea for the slip that will expose Tom Sawyer's disguise as a girl in the novel.
Dagger of Kamui, inexplicably speaking Japanese. (Then again, so did everybody else, including the Native Americans.)
Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld novels see all of humanity resurrected, including Clemens, who is a major character. Farmer freely mixes biographical information with speculation and invention in an attempt to convey his sense of the man. To some readers the trials the character is subjected seem hostile. To others it seems more like a novel kind of hero worship, taken as a whole.
Star Trek: The Next Generation — Met with Guinan and assisted the crew in the two-parter "Time's Arrow". He was more like a minor villain, because he thought the crew came back in time for their own amusement. They didn't. He was more than willing to assist them, though, when they proved to him they their reasons weren't sinister.
Neil Gaiman's comic, The Sandman, in the issue "Three Septembers and a January" Emperor Norton makes Twain the Official Teller of Stories for the United States.
Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders' comic, The Five Fists of Science.
Hal Holbrook made a career out of his one-man show where he played Twain.
One of the Roger Moore episodes of the Maverick TV series is set in Virginia City, Nevada, during the mining rush — the same time Twain was working as a journalist there, as chronicled in Roughing It. A supporting character in the episode is a journalist named Clem Samuels.
Webcomic Girly has a television show that the characters would watch now and again, in which Victorian authors would kill each other with GUNS!!! Twain appeared in one episode as the villain (the author remarked, "I like to think of Twain as the kind of guy who wouldn't mind me making him evil for NO REASON!").