Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, died on April 21, 1910, bringing to a close the life of one of the most important US writers and an entire epoch of American literature. As a novelist, humorist, and essayist, Twain gave to American literature a fully distinctive voice, building on the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.
Twain’s works were suffused with an intimate knowledge of the racial, regional, and class complexities of US life, yet were characterized by simple, direct language rich in irony. No doubt this had much to do with the breadth of Twain’s own experiences.
Born in 1835 in Missouri, then a slave state, Twain worked as a union typesetter, a newspaperman, a miner, and a steamboat pilot, and lived at various times in St. Louis, Cincinnati, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Buffalo, Connecticut, the “wild west” of 1860s Nevada, and, of course, up and down the Mississippi River in the years before the Civil War, experiences that informed his masterwork, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Twain moved freely in different social worlds as well, gaining knowledge of slaves, artisans, pioneers, prospectors, socialists, European aristocrats, robber barons, scientists, and the best writers of the day. Both as writer and public figure, Twain was a critic of the existing order, declaring, “I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt.” Late in life he emerged as the foremost opponent of US imperialism and its atrocities in the Philippines.