Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the town of Florida, Missouri, in 1835. When he was four years old, his family moved to Hannibal, a town on the Mississippi River much like the towns depicted in his two most famous novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Clemens spent his young life in a fairly affluent family that owned a number of household slaves. The death of Clemens’s father in 1847, however, left the family in hardship. Clemens left school, worked for a printer, and, in 1851, having finished his apprenticeship, began to set type for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. But Hannibal proved too small to hold Clemens, who soon became a sort of itinerant printer and found work in a number of American cities, including New York and Philadelphia.
While still in his early twenties, Clemens gave up his printing career in order to work on riverboats on the Mississippi. Clemens eventually became a riverboat pilot, and his life on the river influenced him a great deal. Perhaps most important, the riverboat life provided him with the pen name Mark Twain, derived from the riverboat leadsmen’s signal—“By the mark, twain”—that the water was deep enough for safe passage. Life on the river also gave Twain material for several of his books, including the raft scenes of Huckleberry Finn and the material for his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi (1883).
Clemens continued to work on the river until 1861, when the Civil War exploded across America and shut down the Mississippi for travel and shipping. Although Clemens joined a Confederate cavalry division, he was no ardent Confederate, and when his division deserted en masse, he did too. He then made his way west with his brother Orion, working first as a silver miner in Nevada and then stumbling into his true calling, journalism. In 1863, Clemens began to sign articles with the name Mark Twain.
Throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, Twain’s articles, stories, memoirs, and novels, characterized by an irrepressible wit and a deft ear for language and dialect, garnered him immense celebrity. His novel The Innocents Abroad (1869) was an instant bestseller, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) received even greater national acclaim and cemented Twain’s position as a giant in American literary circles. As the nation prospered economically in the post–Civil War period—an era that came to be known as the Gilded Age, an epithet that Twain coined—so too did Twain. His books were sold door-to-door, and he became wealthy enough to build a large house in Hartford, Connecticut, for himself and his wife, Olivia, whom he had married in 1870.
Twain began work on Huckleberry Finn, a sequel to Tom Sawyer, in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of the earlier novel. This new novel took on a more serious character, however, as Twain focused increasingly on the institution of slavery and the South. Twain soon set Huckleberry Finn aside, perhaps because its darker tone did not fit the optimistic sentiments of the Gilded Age. In the early 1880s, however, the hopefulness of the post–Civil War years began to fade. Reconstruction, the political program designed to reintegrate the defeated South into the Union as a slavery-free region, began to fail. The harsh measures the victorious North imposed only embittered the South. Concerned about maintaining power, many Southern politicians began an effort to control and oppress the black men and women whom the war had freed.
Meanwhile, Twain’s personal life began to collapse. His wife had long been sickly, and the couple lost their first son after just nineteen months. Twain also made a number of poor investments and financial decisions and, in 1891, found himself mired in debilitating debt. As his personal fortune dwindled, he continued to devote himself to writing. Drawing from his personal plight and the prevalent national troubles of the day, he finished a draft of Huckleberry Finn in 1883, and by 1884 had it ready for publication. The novel met with great public and critical acclaim.
Twain continued to write over the next ten years. He published two more popular novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), but went into a considerable decline afterward, never again publishing work that matched the high standard he had set with Huckleberry Finn. Personal tragedy also continued to hound Twain: his finances remained troublesome, and within the course of a few years, his wife and two of his daughters passed away. Twain’s writing from this period until the end of his life reflects a depression and a sort of righteous rage at the injustices of the world. Despite his personal troubles, however, Twain continued to enjoy immense esteem and fame and continued to be in demand as a public speaker until his death in 1910.
The story of Huckleberry Finn, however, does not end with the death of its author. Through the twentieth century, the novel has become famous not merely as the crown jewel in the work of one of America’s preeminent writers, but also as a subject of intense controversy. The novel occasionally has been banned in Southern states because of its steadfastly critical take on the South and the hypocrisies of slavery. Others have dismissed Huckleberry Finn as vulgar or racist because it uses the word nigger, a term whose connotations obscure the novel’s deeper themes—which are unequivocally antislavery—and even prevent some from reading and enjoying it altogether. The fact that the historical context in which Twain wrote made his use of the word insignificant—and, indeed, part of the realism he wanted to create—offers little solace to some modern readers. Ultimately, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has proved significant not only as a novel that explores the racial and moral world of its time but also, through the controversies that continue to surround it, as an artifact of those same moral and racial tensions as they have evolved to the present day.