Pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), American writer and humorist, whose best work is characterized by broad, often irreverent humor or biting social satire. Twain’s writing is also known for realism of place and language, memorable characters, and hatred of hypocrisy and oppression.
Born in Florida, Missouri, Clemens moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, a port on the Mississippi River, when he was four years old. In 1851 he began setting type for and contributing sketches to his brother Orion’s Hannibal Journal. Later, Clemens was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the American Civil War (1861-1865). In 1862 he became a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1863 he began signing his articles with the pseudonym Mark Twain, a Mississippi River phrase meaning “two fathoms deep.” In 1865 Twain published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and within months the author and the story had become national sensations.
Much of Twain’s best work was written in the 1870s and 1880s. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) celebrates boyhood in a town on the Mississippi River; The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a children’s book, focuses on switched identities in Tudor England; and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) satirizes oppression in feudal England (see Feudalism). One of Twain’s most significant works of the 1890s and 1900s is Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), a novel set in the South before the Civil War that criticizes racism by focusing on mistaken racial identities.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the sequel to Tom Sawyer, is considered Twain’s masterpiece. The book is the story of the title character, known as Huck, a boy who flees his father by rafting down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave, Jim. Huckleberry Finn is especially noted for its authentic language. Twain’s skill in capturing the rhythms of life along the Mississippi River before the Civil War helps make the book one of the masterpieces of American literature.
Twain’s work was inspired by the unconventional West, and the popularity of his work marked the end of the domination of American literature by New England writers. He portrayed uniquely American subjects in a humorous and colloquial, yet poetic, language. His success in creating this plain but evocative language precipitated the end of American reverence for British and European culture and for the more formal language associated with those traditions. His adherence to American themes, settings, and language set him apart from many other novelists of the day and had a powerful effect on such later American writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.