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Samuel L. Clemens (1836–1902). Jim Smily and His Jumping Frog.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS, the son of a country merchant from Tennessee, was born at Florida Missouri, on November 30, 1835. His boyhood was spent in Hannibal, Missouri; but his father’s death in 1847 cut short the boy’s schooling and sent him out into the world at an early age. He learned type-setting, and in the pursuit of this craft he wandered as far east as New York. When he was seventeen he returned to the west and became a pilot on the Mississippi, an occupation he followed until traffic was interrupted by the war. Drifting farther west to Nevada, he saw something of mining and began to write for the newspapers, using as his pen name “Mark Twain,” from a call used in recording soundings on the Mississippi. Finally reaching California, he made the acquaintance of Bret Harte, then in the San Francisco Mint, and told him the story of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” It was the publication of this famous yarn that first brought him into notice; and a San Francisco newspaper enabled him to join a party which had chartered a steamer for a Mediterranean tour. His first book, “The Innocents Abroad,” was made from the letters written on this trip, and it immediately achieved a wide popularity. Availing himself of the publicity thus won, he took to the lecture platform, where he delighted his audiences with his extraordinary talent for story-telling and his droll humor. After a short period as editor of a Buffalo newspaper, he settled with his wife at Hartford, Connecticut, and devoted himself to writing. The chief publications of the next few years were “Roughing It” (1872); “The Gilded Age,” in which he collaborated with C. D. Warner and which was successfully dramatized; and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1875), the first of his novels of the Mississippi Valley. A second trip to Europe produced “A Tramp Abroad” (1880), followed by “The Prince and the Pauper,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” (1884) a sequel to “Tom Sawyer;” “A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur;” and “The American Claimant.”

Meantime he had become heavily interested in a New York publishing house, which went into bankruptcy about 1893. Like Sir Walter Scott in similar circumstances, he set himself to pay off his indebtedness, and by 1900 he was again clear. In the interval he had produced his third novel of the Mississippi Valley, “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson” (1894) and a historical romance, “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” He made a tour of the world, lecturing and collecting material for his “Following the Equator,” and arranged for a complete edition of his works, issued in 1899–1900.

Though he continued to write almost to the end, his most distinguished work was done, and during the last ten years of his life he reaped the reward he had richly earned. His books brought him in a large income, and he had become the “grand old man” of American letters. Oxford University gave him the degree of doctor of literature in 1907, and his reception in England was marked by great enthusiasm. He died at Redding, Connecticut, on April 21, 1910.

Mark Twain is most widely known as a humorist, and among American humorists it may fairly be claimed that he stands first. In his comic exaggeration and solemn, inextricable mingling of fact and absurdity he was carried to its highest point the type of humor most characteristic of this country. But he was much more than a humorist. He was a master of simple and effective narrative and of vivid description; and his novels of the Mississippi belong to that valuable class which have fixed for posterity a whole phase of life that has passed away. Moreover, underneath his comedy there lay depths of a somewhat melancholy wisdom, and a great capacity for righteous indignation. More and more America has come to recognize that her chief master of comedy was also a sage.

W. A. N.