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) 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 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 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.
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 24, 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.
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 Mysterious Stranger
- The Prince and the Pauper
Additional Works with Related Tropes:
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867)
The Innocents Abroad (1869)
- Adventurer Archaeologist: During the Holy Land leg of their journey, Twain's fellow passengers on the SS 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!"
- Covert Pervert: When Twain visited France and the Can Can Dancers, he mentioned he was shocked and covered his eyes at such a scene — but peeked through his fingers. Keep in mind, real Can Can Dancers didn't wear any underwear.
- Inexplicably Identical Individuals: Twain refers to every tour guide he encounters on the European continent as "Ferguson". This also counts as a Running Gag.
- 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. He and the fellows he played cards and drank with at night, he called the "Nighthawks".
- Self-Deprecation: One of Twain's most famous tales in the book are how a camel feasted on some of his belongings. It finally choked to death on some of the material he wrote; even the camel couldn't stomach it.
- Slobs vs. 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.
- Twain earned a few chuckles from the pious tourists who asked the ship captain if they could stop sailing on Sunday as a way to observe Sabbath.
- World Tour: Clemens travels through Europe.
Roughing It (1872)
- Aloha Sandwich Islands
- 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, shocked at the topless natives in Hawai'i. 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.
- Scenery Porn: Clemens' vivid descriptions of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Utah and Nevada deserts are some of the finest ever written.
- Surfer Dude: Twain encounters some in the Sandwich Islands. Yes, they existed in the 1860s. In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.
The Gilded Age (1873)
- 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 servant Mary Ann Cord, 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?"
"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 very real 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)
- Fingerprinting Air: As the title character basically invents fingerprinting in the course of the story, this qualifies.
- 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: "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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped: It wouldnt be anywhere near as effective if the atrocities in the Congo had not all been real, and if the West did not largely ignore them because the victims were black.
- 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.
- Unreliable Narrator: 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.
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.
- Baleful Polymorph: The novel starts with the protagonist being turned into a cholera germ.
- Cut Short: The novel is unfinished.
- "Fantastic Voyage" Plot: The protagonist takes permanent residence inside a human body.
- 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 1917)
- Prayer of Malice: The angel points out that this is the subtext of their victory prayer.
- Shaming the Mob: Subverted.
- 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 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 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, 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 — 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.
- 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.
- 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.