"The prairie in its loneliness and peace; that was what came back to him towards the end of his life, after he had pulled the rug out from all the literary nabobs, and fired off all his nubs and snappers, and sashayed through all the nations, and collected all his ceremonial gowns and degrees, and tweaked all the grinning presidents, and schmoozed all the newspaper reporters, and stuck it to all his enemies, and shocked all the librarians, and cried out all his midnight blasphemies, and buried most of his family."
—Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life
Be good, and you will be lonesome
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 women 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 Nietzsche Wannabe 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:
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
- The Mysterious Stranger
- The Prince and the Pauper
Partial Bibliography, Related Works, and 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 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!"
- Inexplicably Identical Individuals: Twain refers to every tour guide he encounters on the European continent as 'Ferguson'. This also counts as a Running Gag, and, eventually, a Crowning Moment of Awesome. Really.
- 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.
- The Gilded Age (1873)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
- The Prince and the Pauper (1882)
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)
- Puddin' Head Wilson (1894)
- Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences (1895)
- Is He Living Or Is He Dead? (1898)
- The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900)
- To the Person Sitting in Darkness (1901)
- King Leopold's Soliloquy (1905)
- 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.
- The War Prayer (Written c. 1904-05, published 1917)
- Jap Herron (A book that Emily Grant Hutchings claimed to have written that was dictated by Mark Twain via the ouija board; published 1917)
- 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.
- The Mysterious Stranger (Written c. 1890-1910, published 1969)
- Bluenose Bowdlerizer: 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.
- 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.
- Carpet of Virility: Look in the picture.
- Daydream Believer: Clemens had a somewhat shaky grasp on what was real and what wasn't. 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."
- Dead Little Brother: His younger brother Henry, who died in a boiler explosion on the steamboat Clemens piloted, but had just been fired due to getting into a fistfight with another crew member.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: To make things worse, Sam had dreamed of his brother'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.
- Deadpan Snarker: So very, very much.
- Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe
- Gonzo Journalism: Clemens' whiskey-fueled 'news' articles in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. One of which got him run out of town.
- Germans Love David Hasselhoff: Of a sort. He's popular among Filipino historians (and Filipino history geeks who've heard of him) because of his outspoken protests against the American colonization of the Philippines. You'll often one or two of his quotes on the subject in many Filipino publications about the Philippine-American War.
- Humans Are Bastards: Clemens never pulled any punches about his contempt and disdain for the 'damned human race'.
- "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."
- "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 to feel shame, and the only one to need to." (Or something like that.)
- The title of one of his later works: What is Man? His answer: "A machine."
- “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.
- Intergenerational Friendship: Clemens and his angelfish, surrogate granddaughters he 'adopted' as he neared the end of his life in 1907-08.
- Man in White: Took to wearing white suits after the death of his wife.
- 14 white suits, two for each day of the week.
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Clemens himself after his wife Livy died.
- "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
- Nikola Tesla: One of Clemens' close friends.
- Odd Friendship: Clemens' friendship with robber baron Henry Huttleston Rogers.
- 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.
- Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Trope Namer (sort of). The actual quote is "The report of my death is an exaggeration."
- The Roast: Clemens was the inadvertent creator of the celebrity roast, after an attempt to tell a self-deprecating story at a banquet backfired horribly. He was later called on to do the same thing for Ulysses S Grant.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Always very cynical. It Got Worse after he outlived his wife and all but one of his children.
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.
- 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'.
- Actually, 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.
- Actually, he was more like a minor villain, because he thought the crew came back in time for their own amusement. They didn't.
- 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.
- 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.
- Twain is co-host of The American Adventure attraction at Epcot, along with Benjamin Franklin.
- 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.
- Mark Twain appears as a character in the Transformers comic Hearts of Steel, helping out the Autobots and even defeating Ravage by himself.
- Webcomic Girly had 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").
- Oh, and Lucky Luke has met him, of course.
- Appears in Harry Turtledove's Alternate History novel How Few Remain as Samuel Clemens, a newspaper editor in California.
- He appeared in a Johnny Bravo episode, begging people not to abuse The Prince and the Pauper for comedy.
- He is the inspiration for Colonel Sassacre in Homestuck.
- Bonanza had Sam Clemens working as a reporter in Virginia City in an early episode, with later guest appearances showing him as famed author Twain.
- In Tales Designed to Thrizzle he and Albert Einstein are Buddy Cops.
- In The Venture Brothers, Clemens was a founding member of the original Guild
of Calamitous Intent(along with Col. Venture, Eugen Sandow, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley and even Fantomas) 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.
- Appears as a friend of Kid Detective PK Pinkerton in The Western Mysteries
- During the archery contest in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Robin disguises himself at Mark Twain. Prince John even calls him on it.