Growing up as Samuel Clemens: The Childhood of Mark Twain

If Mark Twain were still alive, he would be celebrating his birthday this Wednesday. You are probably familiar with his name because of his fiction writing, which included The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But how much do we know about the man behind the writing, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens? (Mark Twain was a pseudonym, or pen name that Clemens used in his writings).

Twain was born in the ironically named town of Florida, Missouri. Although his family left the small town of about 300 people when Twain was a small child, there were some things that he learned there which would influence his writing. His uncle had slaves and Twain would often listen to their stories. One slave in particular, called Uncle Dan, told scary ghost stories. Twain looked up to him as a father figure because his relationship with his own father was strained. While Twain and his mother’s side of the family enjoyed singing, parties and a good joke, Twain’s father had no sense of humor.

Both Twain and his mother felt the loss of their extended family when they left Florida for Hannibal, Missouri; however, Twain’s maternal uncle bought a farm nearby where Twain and his siblings spent their summers. In fact, Twain had so much fun on the farm that he didn’t mind going to school a few days a week though he tried to avoid school at all costs when at home. In his autobiography Twain admits that his younger brother Henry was much better behaved but believed that “the unbroken monotony of his goodness and truthfulness and obedience would have been a burden for her [his mother] but for the relief and variety which I furnished in the other direction.” Given his mother’s sense of humor, that statement might have some truth in it, though she probably didn’t appreciate his daredevil attempt to catch the measles from his friend or his skating adventure on ice that was not completely frozen and might have resulted in his drowning.

During the summers Twain reconnected with Uncle Dan and the other slaves owned by his uncle. In his autobiography, Twain says “we had a faithful and affectionate good friend, ally and advisor in ‘Uncle Dan’l’…whose sympathies were wide and warm, and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile.” Later Dan became Twain’s inspiration for the character Jim in Huckleberry Finn. As a child, Twain was taught to accept slavery and saw nothing wrong with it, particularly since his uncle’s slaves were well treated. His father, however, beat a slave in front of his son. Throughout his writings, Twain struggled with these different impressions of slavery.

After his father died, Twain’s older brother Orion had him apprenticed to a printer. Eventually Twain worked for a Missouri paper that his brother owned, but the arrangement didn’t last. Twain wanted to write satire and humor, but Orion had no use for either. Twain felt trapped in a job where he could not express himself. He visited family in St. Louis where he made enough money to travel East. Now Twain was a young man determined to explore the world.

 

 

 

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