Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, is considered one of the greatest writers in American literature. Born in Missouri in 1835, he became a renowned writer, humorist, and lecturer, much esteemed and treasured by the general public — so much so that his friend, inventor Thomas Edison, once said, “An average American loves his family. If he has any love left over for some other person, he generally selects Mark Twain.”
Twain’s influence over American culture and literature has not faded since his passing in 1910. His books, including classics like Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, continue to be read and studied across the nation today. He also remains one of the most quotable (and misquoted) figures in the history of the English language — a testament to the timeless nature of his words.
To better understand the monumental character of the man, here are a few things you might not know about the magnificent Mark Twain.
Twain was quite a handful as a boy
Twain was born Samuel Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. He was two months premature and was quite sickly for the first 10 years of his life. As such, his mother, Jane Clemens, spoiled him to the extent that he became something of a mischief-maker — not unlike the young Tom Sawyer. When Twain’s mother was in her 80s, he asked her about his early years of ill health and whether she was “uneasy” about him. “Yes, the whole time,” she replied. “Afraid I wouldn’t live?” asked Twain. “No,” she said, “afraid you would.”
Twain was a steamboat pilot
As a teenager, Twain wanted nothing more than to be a steamboat pilot. “Pilot was the grandest position of all,” he later wrote. “The pilot, even in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary—from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.” Twain became an apprentice pilot and, after more than two years, received his pilot's license. He worked as a pilot until the Civil War broke out in 1861.
He was no stranger to tragedy
Twain's childhood was marked by tragedy. Three of his six siblings died from disease while they were still children, and his father died of pneumonia when Twain was 12. Later, while training as a steamboat pilot, he invited his younger brother, Henry, to come work with him on the riverboat Pennsylvania. Henry was killed when one of the boat’s boilers exploded; Twain was not on board at the time, but he blamed himself for the rest of his life.
Twain’s pen name comes from his steamboat days
Twain used a number of peculiar noms de plume before deciding on “Mark Twain,” including W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and Josh. His pseudonym Mark Twain first appeared in print in 1863. Twain himself wrote that his pen name came from his years working on the Mississippi River, where riverboatmen would cry out “mark twain” to indicate a depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe for a steamboat to navigate.
Twain almost got himself into a duel
When he was 28, Twain managed to get himself in such a mess that he ended up challenging the editor of a rival newspaper to a duel. It all started with one of Twain’s satirical articles—written while drunk—about a charity fundraiser was published in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise. It caused quite a scandal. The precise details of the events have been clouded by conflicting accounts and later embellishments, but at least three challenges to duels were issued, one by Twain himself, and two from men demanding a faceoff with Twain. All the bluster eventually died down without a single shot fired.
Twain preferred cats to people
At one point in his life, Twain owned 19 cats, with names ranging from Beelzebub to Blatherskite to Buffalo Bill. He was obsessed with cats — they appear frequently in his stories — and seemed to prefer their company to that of people. “If man could be crossed with the cat,” he once wrote, “it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat."
He was a fan of inventions and inventors
Twain had a great interest in science and innovation. He himself patented three inventions: an elastic strap designed to replace suspenders; a history trivia game about European monarchs; and a self-pasting scrapbook. Twain also became great friends with inventors like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Twain and Tesla appear in a number of photographs together, and Tesla once cured Twain’s constipation by placing the writer on an electromechanical oscillator.
Twain wasn’t the world’s wisest investor
Despite his ingenuity, Twain lost a huge amount of money investing in new inventions and technology. His most disastrous investment was the Paige typesetting machine. He invested around $300,000 on it — around $8 million today — only for the machine to be rendered obsolete before it was finished . He also famously turned down the investment of a lifetime: Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. “I declined,” Twain later explained. “I said I didn't want anything more to do with wildcat speculation.”
He ran up a huge amount of debt — but paid it all back
Twain made good money from his writing, but his terrible investments saw him run up a lot of debt and ultimately file for bankruptcy. Being an honorable man, however, he wanted to make things right. In 1895, he set off on a year-long, worldwide lecture tour. It was tough going, but by the end he had earned enough to pay off his creditors in full — even though he was no longer legally obliged to do so.
The only known movie footage of Twain was shot by Thomas Edison
In 1909, Thomas Edison visited Twain at Stormfield House, his home in Redding, Connecticut. Edison took his camera and shot what is believed to be the only movie footage of Mark Twain in existence. The short film shows the writer walking outside his home, dressed in his characteristic white suit, and then seated with his two daughters, Clara and Jean. Twain died at Stormfield the following year at the age of 74.
Photo credit: RBM Vintage Images/ Alamy Stock Photo