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 Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 April 21, 1910), now one of the most quotable men in history, 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 maneuvering. The name is deliberately ambiguous, for mark twain is the point at which dangerous waters become safe — and safe waters become dangerous. (Clemens himself loved being a steamboat pilot, and rejoiced when he received his riverboat license in 1859. He called the river a book where "there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing.")
The son of Missouri slave owners (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. His "speaking engagements" were essentially what would be called "standup comedy" these days; one young man during one of his performances said that if Twain got any funnier, he would Die Laughing. He was so skilled at Deadpan Comedy and at working a crowd, that at the start of one performance he said absolutely nothing for a few minutes, just looking knowingly at the audience, and the crowd was eventually roaring in laughter.
His early years as a writer was out West, especially in Carson City and San Francisco. It was during his period in San Francisco where he met some of the more colorful personalities that would find their way into his stories, especially Emperor Norton (who showed up as the King in Huckleberry Finn.)note
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. In fact, all of the tragedies that occurred in his life he blamed himself for, no matter how circumstantial or accidental. He eventually became a Nay-Theist; when a woman told him "God must love you", he told a friend after she left, "I guess she hadn't heard of our strained relationship."
Twain was also a walking contradiction, and prided himself on it. He was from a slave state and (briefly) joined the Confederate Army, but was an abolitionist. He was anti-imperialism and crusaded for the poor, but himself was into Get Rich Quick Schemes, obsessed with being rich, and befriended the very capitalists he derided, such as Andrew Carnegie. (When told by a friend, "Old Carnegie's money is all tainted!", he replied, "Yes, it is. 'Taint yours and 'taint mine.") He was also best-buddies with Nikola Tesla and befriended a young half-American Boer War veteran named Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill during a lecture tour.
Twain was one of the pioneers of the Science Fiction genre, a detail easily missed with his major literary accolades. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is his best known science fiction work, but he also did short stories, one of which anticipated YouTube of all things.note
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, Susan, caught meningitis, went mad and died at 24note his wife died of heart failure, and his middle daughter Jean 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. Despite it all, Twain always seemed to come back from tragedy, becoming more and more of a hero to people who viewed him as a survivor. In addition, Twain dealt with the deaths of his daughters by what he called "collecting" girls age 10 through 16, whom he called "Angel Fish", to be their unofficial grandfather, taking them to concerts, the theatre, and to his own house for card games, billiards, and reading. (His surviving daughter Clara did not approve, and was more than a little jealous of the attention he gave them. The letters between Clemens and the girls can be found in the book Mark Twains Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence.) Despite what you may be thinking, there is no evidence these relationships were in any way inappropriate, and it was Clemens's way of dealing with the grief of tragically losing his own daughters.
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, "The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'" He had no recorded last words, as he was too exhausted to speak. Instead, he wrote on a piece of paper, "Give me my glasses." He was given them, but never wore them, instead putting them down and slipping into unconsciousness.
Works by Clemens with their own pages:
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
- Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences
- The Innocents Abroad
- The Mysterious Stranger
- The Prince and the Pauper
Additional Works with Related Tropes:
Roughing It (1872)
- Calling Me a Logarithm: The Trope Namer is Ollendorf. He feels insulted by the word, despite admitting that he has no clue what logarithm means.
- Covert Pervert: He was shocked at the topless natives in Hawaiʻi. So much he covered his eyes with his hands — but left room to peek through them, naturally.note
- Epic Fail: The original article from the Sacramento Bee on "surf-bathing" (which was reprinted in Roughing It) had two illustrations: Surf-Bathing — Success, and one (presumably of Mark Twain experiencing his wipeout◊) Surf-Bathing — Failure.
- Horsing Around: At one point Clemens makes the unfortunate acquisition of a "Genuine Mexican Plug," which turns out to be The Alleged Steed in short order.
- Scenery Gorn: His description of Mono Lake in California, which he called a "lifeless, treeless, hideous desert... the loneliest place on earth".
- Scenery Porn: Clemens' vivid descriptions of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Utah and Nevada deserts are some of the finest ever written.
The Gilded Age (1873)
- Creator's Oddball: This was Twain's first novel as well as his only collaboration with another author. It therefore lacks a lot of Twain's trademark razor wit.
- The Gilded Age: This is the Trope Namer. The age lasted 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.
- Based on a True Story: Unlike most stories of this trope, most everything in it was indeed accurate, told to him by his sister-in-law's cook Mary Ann Cord at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY, who is named "Aunt Rachel" in the story. However, Cord stated that Henry had recognized her, and returned the next day to show off the scar on his forehead. Also, she didn't hug him at the sight of him — she fainted, and was caught by Henry before she hit the floor.
- Beneath the Mask: Mister C— asks why Rachel always seems so happy. The last lines of the story: "Oh, no, Misto C—, I hain't had no trouble. An' no joy!"
- Cerebus Syndrome: Mark Twain was so moved by Cord's story, he transcribed it and sent it to the Atlantic Monthly. He warned them, "It has no humor in it. You can pay as lightly as you choose for that, if you want it, for it is rather out of my line." Twain up til then had been known for his Deadpan Snarker stories and Trolling.
- Distinguishing Mark: "Boy!" I says, "if you an't my Henry, what is you doin' wid dis welt on yo' wris' an' dat sk-yar on yo' forehead?"
- Interactive Narrator: Both subverted and played straight. Mark Twain seems to be the Framing Device for the story, but he is not. Mary Ann becomes the central figure, reversing the usual roles with Twain. Played straight in that she starts acting out the story, showing him exactly what happened by grabbing Twain and acting it out.Larry Howe: Aunt Rachel has them switch roles, casting Twain as Henry whose scars she detects by pushing back Twains sleeve and lifting his hair off his forehead. Her personal proximity to him and her unsolicited touch transgress the boundaries that he noted her initial place on the porch "below" him. The contact of her black hand with his white arm and forehead is a bold familiarity that ignores their racially defined positions in order to physically convey the storys emotional experience in a manner that her words alone cannot. Rather than simply listening passively to her story, Twain unexpectedly shares in her memory; for a moment, Aunt Rachel has pulled back the veil on the facts of black family life.
- Something Only They Would Say: Henry first realizes the cook in the liberated plantation is his mother, because she exclaims to the misbehaving regiment, "I wa' n't bawn in de mash to be fool' by trash! I's one o' de ole Blue Hen's Chickens, I is!" It was something his grandmother would say and his mother adopted herself.
- You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: A meta example, in that this is the only time Twain is ever called by his real name in his stories ("Misto C—" is a reference to his last name Clemens.)
"Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism" (1879) — Speech given to the Stomach Club in Paris.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: "If you must gamble your lives sexually, don't play a lone hand too much."
- Self-Abuse: Discussed Trope. Twain's speech satirized anti-masturbation activists, who were influential in those days.
Life on the Mississippi (1883)
- Early-Bird Cameo: An early chapter features a raftsman yarn told from the point of view of Huckleberry Finn.
Puddin' Head Wilson (1894)
- An Aesop: The novel satirizes racism. When a slave (who has one drop of African ancestry and therefore looks just like any white woman) has her child Switched at Birth with another, no one notices even though that one drop of difference supposedly justifies one child being property and the other being an aristocrat.
- Pass Fail
- Switched at Birth: A slave switches her child for a white one so that he'll have a better life.
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)
- Author Appeal: Twain had a personal fascination (some say "infatuation") with Joan of Arc.
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Told from the perspective of Joan's page, Louis de Contes.
- Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: "If you confront fifty French soldiers with five English ones, the French will run". The idealistic Joan, however, refuses to accept it.
- Direct Line to the Author: The novel alleges to be an actual fifteenth-century account of Joan's life, written by her close friend Louis de Contes. It opens with an introduction by "the translator".
- Genre Adultery: Notable for its lack of humor compared to Twain's other works; when it was first published as a serialized novel in Harper's Magazine, it was published anonymously at Twain's request so that people wouldn't expect it to be funny.
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: Most people would cite The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as Twain's magnum opus. Twain himself thought this was his best work.
- "I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none."
How to Tell a Story (1897)
Is He Living or Is He Dead? (1898)
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900)
- Batman Gambit: As the stranger expected, give the people a chance to gain an incredible fortune and they would be willing to lie to achieve it. So much for being "Incorruptible".
- The Plan: A stranger was snubbed a the town that claims to be "incorruptible." He desires vengeance and drops off a sack of gold worth about $40,000 and leaves it in front of one family's house that said it was for the man who gave him some life-changing advice and $20. If that person wishes to claim the reward, he need only give the local Reverend a copy of that advice, the real advice is inside sack. As expected by the stranger every prominent person claimed he was the good Samaritan. At the reading, every one who submitted their claim is humiliated, and the sack only had lead in it. Further rubbing salt in the wound when an interesting development happens with the readers of the claims who kept one of their friend's from being read, so they wouldn't be shamed too. The stranger then comes forward and buys the sack for the $40,000 and the "honest" couple are filled with immense guilt over the whole thing.
- Southern Gothic Satan: It tells the story of a town famous for being "incorruptible," but once they offend a passing stranger, he gets revenge by leaving a huge reward for anyone who can claim it, which leads the entire town to begin lying and cheating in order to win the prize.
- 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."
- Take That!: Like most of Clemens' later works, it's a denunciation of imperialism.
King Leopold's Soliloquy (1905)
- An Aesop: The pamphlet goes to lengths to show the atrocities were largely ignored by the West because the victims were black. The pamphlet even shows graphic photographs of the aforementioned maimed women and children.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Not only does Léopold himself revel in his evil, but he also praises Tsar Nicholas for being equally brutal and small-minded. The narrative implies that it is the very nature of monarchy to amplify the very worst of human nature and crush every good tendency of the human race.
- Card-Carrying Villain: Even most cartoon supervillains would think Leopold is too extreme.
- Humans Are Bastards: Leopold is actually right when he says that he alone is not responsible. After all, if his soldiers did not obey his orders to kill and mutilate the natives, and if Western society did not consider Africans to be subhuman, none of this would have happened even with him on the throne.
- Insane Troll Logic: used repeatedly when he wants to justify everything he has done or put the blame in others, including the victims themselves if needed.
- Lack of Empathy: Leopold doesnt give one iota for anyone who is not a king, and not even his own family is safe from his depredations. (Its implied that he raped his wife and his daughter.) And those outside his race and social class have it even worse.
- Never My Fault: He is able to find justifications for any of the atrocities he has committed or allowed, putting the blame on the people who denounce them as he considers they are nothing more than shameless spies who have no right to criticize anything a king appointed by God does. Or even blaming the helpless victims, such as when he says widows must be overtaxed and overworked to death too as "there is nothing much left, now, but widows" and "business is business".
- Protagonist-Centered Morality: Belgium's King Leopold II argues that he's brought prosperity, peace, and dignity to the Belgian Congo. By enslaving the populace and forcing them to work on rubber plantations, and chopping off the hands of women and children as a warning.
- Take That!: Not only are King Leopold and Tsar Nicholas portrayed as utter monsters, but all of contemporary society, including each individual reader, is condemned, because such atrocities and the unjust social order that enables them could only come into being through popular consent.
3000 Years Among the Microbes (Written c. 1905, published 1980)
- Anachronic Order: Written as a recollection, the book jumps from a subject to another rather than following a linear plot. Also, there are notes added "7000 years" after the first draft.
- Bad is Good and Good is Bad: A version of it — what humans see as illness and filth, microbes see as prosperous countries.
- Cut Short: The novel is unfinished.
- "Fantastic Voyage" Plot: The protagonist takes permanent residence inside a human body.
- Forced Transformation: The novel starts with the protagonist being turned into a cholera germ.
- Mega-Microbes: Of the "protagonist is shrunk" variety. Oddly enough, microbes don't look like microbes to each other — they look the same as humans look to each other, for reasons never explained.
- Mouse World: An extreme case — a microbe world, actually an old tramp's body that appears as large as a world to its "inhabitants".
- Recursive Reality: Germs inside a vagrant's body conduct lives not unlike those of humans. But germs have their own parasites — microscopic even from the germs' point of view — which also have very human behavior. The protagonist wonders if humans themselves might be parasites inside a cosmic-sized being, but there are no further explicit revelations.
- Self-Serving Memory: The protagonist's memories of his human life are a bit fuzzy after 3000+ years, and his sense of his own importance seems to have inflated over time — for instance, he claims to have invented logarithms.
- Time Abyss: The protagonist himself from the point of view of other microbes, since he lives at least 10,000 years. No explanation is given for his longevity — perhaps he's still aging on a human scale (see Year Inside, Hour Outside below).
- Unreliable Narrator: There are hints that the protagonist sees himself as better than he really is — see Self-Serving Memory.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: A microbe "year" is only 10 minutes long. The 3000 years in the title correspond to only 3 weeks for a human.
The War Prayer (Written c. 1904-05, published 1923)
- An Aesop: The short story is a polemic against war and the cognitive dissonance that causes it to be celebrated.
- Ignored Epiphany: The angel explains to people what their prayer for victory entails: the mass death of the enemy, plus massive untold suffering. However, they're unmoved, simply declaring him a lunatic.
- Patriotic Fervor: The people are so caught up in patriotic feelings the implication of the prayers for victory (i.e. wishing death and suffering on the enemy) simply doesn't occur to them.
- Prayer of Malice: The angel points out that this is the subtext of people's victory prayer. By wishing for victory, they are implicitly wishing death and misery upon the other side.
- Shaming the Mob: Subverted. The angel tries to do this by explaining that the people's prayer for victors entails all manner of horrors brought down on the enemy, but it doesn't work. They just say he was a lunatic, going on like he never spoke at all.
- Take That!: The story is a scathing attack on war, patriotic fervor, and religion being used to support them.
- War Is Glorious: The townspeople think it is. The angel shows them otherwise, but they denounce him as a lunatic.
Christian Science (Written c. 1903-1904, published 1907)
- Church of Happyology: Though it predated the Trope Namer by a little over a century, Twain's denunciations of Christian Science's beliefs and practices wouldn't seem that out of place.
- 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 Mary Baker Eddy, predicting it would rapidly spread across the world, trampling liberty.
- Take That!: A book-long one to Christian Science in general and its founder Mary Baker Eddy in particular. Clemens did have some belief that mental healing worked but felt Christian Science went too far in its claims 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 be an issue.
Letters from the Earth (Written 1909, published 1939)
- Humans Are Bastards: Written after the deaths of Clemens' wife and favorite daughter, this is where he crosses the line from a cynic to a misanthrope.
Appearances in Fiction:Twain appears as a Historical Domain Character in numerous stories, TV shows, movies and comics.
- The Dagger of Kamui, inexplicably speaking Japanese. (Then again, so did everybody else, including the Native Americans in the novel.)
- Mark Twain appears as a character in the Transformers comic Hearts of Steel, helping out the Autobots and even defeating Ravage by himself.
- Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders' comic, The Five Fists of Science, features Twain and his real life friend Nikola Tesla fighting an evil Thomas Edison.
- Neil Gaiman's comic, The Sandman (1989), in the issue "Three Septembers and a January" Emperor Norton makes Twain the Official Teller of Stories for the United States.
- In Tales Designed to Thrizzle he and Albert Einstein are Buddy Cops.
- He appears in the Lucky Luke series.
- Twain makes a very short appearance in an early volume of The Unwritten, a story where an Ancient Conspiracy has spent centuries trying to take control of the very essence of imagination itself, with the end goal of shaping and using it for their own ends. Except for their immortal Dragon-in-Chief Pullman, who is trying to kill off imagination itself for reasons of his own. To aid in this, they recruit influential storytellers as Unwitting Pawns. Twain tells Rudyard Kipling that he was aware of the conspiracy before they approached him and pretended to be a country bumpkin until they gave up recruiting him and just left him alone. Kipling wasn't nearly so fortunate.
- During the archery contest in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Robin disguises himself as an older man with a large false mustache. Prince John even compares him to Mark Twain.
- Appears as a friend of Kid Detective PK Pinkerton in The Western Mysteries.
- Appears in Harry Turtledove's Alternate History novel How Few Remain as Samuel Clemens, a newspaper editor in California.
- Mark Twain was the central character in a series of historical mysteries by Peter Heck called, unsurprisingly, The Mark Twain Mysteries.
- Twain comes back to Earth for a visit in 1986 via Halley's Comet, remarking on how things have changed or haven't changed, with his usual acerbic wit, in David Carkeet's I Been There Before.
- Philip José 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 — He 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 their reasons weren't sinister.Troi: Poverty was eliminated on Earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it — hopelessness, despair, cruelty...Twain: Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace and power is an end unto itself. And you're telling me that isn't how it is anymore?Troi: That's right.Twain: Hmmm... well... maybe... it's worth giving up cigars for, after all.
- Picard is upset he can only speak to Twain for a few moments, wanting to get to know him better. Twain smiles and replies that Picard only needs to read his books. All of Twain is in his work.
- Twain asks the crew if they ever encountered Halley's Comet; he never indicates why he is curious, but as noted earlier, he probably wanted to know how the other "freak" was doing.
- Bonanza has Sam Clemens working as a reporter in Virginia City in an early episode, with later guest appearances showing him as famed author 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.
- The Murdoch Mysteries episode "Marked Twain" stars William Shatner as Clemens, whose anti-imperialist views result in a clash with members of Toronto's Empire Club, and who inadvertently survives three attempts on his life. He also derives some amusement from Constable Crabtree's ability to trick Constable Higgins into interviewing a suspect ten miles out of town.Twain: Too bad you don't need a fence painted.
- In Team StarKid's Holy Musical B@man! Lauren Lopez as Commissioner Gordon looks more like Mark Twain, and at one point he talks about writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- He is the inspiration for Colonel Sassacre in Homestuck, who has a dog named Halley.
- 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!").
- In The Venture Bros., Clemens is a founding member of the original Guild of Calamitous Intent (along with Col. Venture, Eugen Sandow, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley and even Fantômas) sometime near the turn of the century (before Wilde's death). Oddly, the Guild's enemies included Samuel's real-life friend Nikola Tesla, who may or may not have split from the group for their handling of the the ORB.
- He appeared in a Johnny Bravo episode, begging people not to abuse The Prince and the Pauper for comedy.
- Mr. Burns owns the only existing nude photograph of Mark Twain, according to The Simpsons episode "Rosebud".
- The animated film The Adventures of Mark Twain, a loving Deconstruction of his Nietzsche Wannabe works, has Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thacher stowing away in Twain's Cool Airship.
- Appeared as a character in one of The Lone Ranger (1980) 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.
- He appears in an episode of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, where he teaches Xavier about how laughter can make hard things easier.
- Twain is co-host of The American Adventure attraction at Epcot, along with Benjamin Franklin.
- Hal Holbrook made a career out of his one-man show where he played Twain. He retired from the role in 2017 at age 92. The real Twain only lived to 74.
- Val Kilmer is an admirer of Twain and played him in several one-man shows.