Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the pen name of Samuel L. Clemens, the writer H. L. Mencken called "the true father of our national literature". This title may be justified, for Twain made a more extensive combination of American folk humor and serious literature than previous writers had done.
Clemens was born in the backwoods of Missouri, but while he was yet a small boy the family moved to Hannibal on the Mississippi River. There Sam developed a passion for the river and a desire to become the pilot on a riverboat. This was the dream of all the boys along the river, and Twain was very proud of himself when, later on, he actually became a pilot.
Clemens' father had wanted to be a lawyer, and did actually serve as a justice of the peace and judge, but had to make his living as a farmer and storekeeper. He was a popular man in Hannibal, but remained poor, and when he died Sam was apprenticed to a printer. Thus at age 11 Sam's formal schooling ended, though he continued to read extensively. As was the case with many 19th-century writers, the printshop and journalism served as preparation for his literary career.
After working on his brother's newspaper for awhile, in 1854 Sam set out on his own, working as a printer in various Eastern and midwestern towns. In 1856 he fulfilled his boyhood dream by becoming a riverboat pilot. When the boats stopped operating during the Civil War, Clemens served for a time as a volunteer soldier and then, in 1862, he went West.
Clemens first wrote for a newspaper in Nevada and then moved to San Francisco. During this period he wrote mainly humorous sketches, the most famous being "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Between 1865 and 1870, Clemens went on tours of Hawaii, Europe, and the Middle East as a correspondent; later his adventures served as the subject of several books. His newspaper accounts of his travels spread his popularity, so that on his return he also became a successful humorous lecturer.
In 1870, Clemens married a wealthy and rather aristocratic girl and settled in the East, first in Buffalo and then permanently in Hartford, Connecticut. When he moved to Hartford, Clemens gave up journalism to make fiction writing his career. His writing was popular and sold well, although he sometimes found lecture tours necessary to supplement his income.
In Hartford, Clemens was surrounded by a wealthy, genteel society including several other popular authors of the time, and it has been assumed that this influence modified the boisterous writer of newspaper days, curbing his wit and social criticism.
This assumption is not entirely true, for the "Mark Twain" who appeared autobiographically in the stories of the West, and the Samuel Clemens of Hartford society were both, to some degree, social poses. Clemens' work does not suffer from being overly genteel, and his satirical writing is a sharp attack on society. In his last years, Clemens became increasingly bitter; some of his writing of this period is so pessimistic that he withheld it from publication.
The typical motif in Clemens' writing was the narration of a story by a young or naive person or a story in which the main character was an Easterner unaccustomed to frontier life. In Clemens' stories the over-refined Easterner was usually outwitted by Westerners. When he wrote from a youth's perspective, the youth was usually wise beyond his years but retained an idealism which Clemens contrasted with the hypocrisy and cruelty of the adult world.