This coming Monday marks the 180th birthday of one of North America’s most celebrated writers and satirists, Mark Twain, born in 1835. Credited with being “the father of American literature”, Twain – real name Samuel Clemens – is a hugely important figure in the canon of English literature. Having lead an accomplished literary life, Twain authored many great works throughout the late 19th century, most notably The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi, to name just a few.
To celebrate his contributions to Western literature, we examine 5 interesting facts about his life and legacy (including a couple of rather amusing ones, in the spirit of Twain himself…):
He changed the face of American literature
For American readers in the late 19th century, Twain’s colloquial writing style was refreshingly authentic. Other American authors from earlier in the century often tried to replicate the sentimental language of esteemed British writers of the era, therefore failing to connect with a national voice and shared experience. Twain changed this with works like Huckleberry Finn, the tale of a Mississippian boy whose conscience leads him to ally with a black slave in spite of the stigma and illegality attached in doing so.
The manner in which Twain broached this subject matter in his writing, which honoured regional dialect with devices such as everyday humour, was entirely deliberate: he strongly believed that evoking realism through fiction was necessary for elevating discourse on social issues as well as inciting necessary political action.
He was born and died alongside two appearances of Halley’s Comet
Knowing his death was looming at the age of 74, Twain hoped to pass away soon after Halley’s Comet (which orbits the sun once every three-quarters of a century) was next due to soar across the night sky, as he had been born just after its previous appearance in 1835. Quite amazingly, this actually happened: he died of a heart attack just one day after the comet returned in 1910. He said the following in 1909:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.”
He did, in fact, start the fire (but not entirely)
America’s famous Lake Tahoe has a peculiar link with Twain. The expansive freshwater lake, which sits along the border beside Northern California and Nevada, was a favoured natural venue for Twain. It features in his semi-autobiographical travel book Roughing It, and it’s here in which he describes accidentally kick-starting a monstrous spread of wildfire in the Tahoe Basin with fellow forester John Kinney. After lighting a small fire between gathering resources…
“I heard a shout from Johnny, and looking up I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises!”
The spectacular and blunderous scene told by Twain isn’t entirely representative, however. The hot conditions of the Sierra Nevada mountain range gave way to regular forest fires (and still does!), an occurrence local American Indians took advantage of by setting fire to brushes to propagate even larger fires for easier foraging and hunting. Even still, the resultant devastation of the duo’s camping carelessness – small as it was – would surely end them up in prison nowadays.
He wasn’t exactly a fan of Jane Austen’s work
“Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”
– quoted in Remembered Yesterdays, Robert Underwood Johnson
“To me his prose is unreadable — like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”
– Letter to W. D. Howells, 18 January 1909
“I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
– Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898
The ‘Mark Twain Prize for American Humor’ was established in 1998
In 1998, The Kennedy Center established an annual award to celebrate the achievements of American comedians who have had a significant impact on mainstream culture and society. As he is known as one of the nation’s best-loved satirists and social commentators, the award was given the title of the ‘Mark Twain Prize for American Humor’.
Recipients of the award in receiving order since 1998 include Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and… Will Ferrell. Well, it was a nice idea, anyway.
BONUS: He loved cats!
“When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.”