1835 - 1910  (W4, Va, Vb, Vc, E7)


Twain: produced by the photographic studio of the Abdullah Frères, three Armenian brothers, Vhichen, Hovsep and Kevork, based in Istanbul, 1858-1900 – Library of Congress, Washington. Alcott: 1857, artist unknown. Brer Rabbit: from the London satirical magazine Punch, March 1892, artist unknown – eBook, The Project Gutenberg. Brer Fox: from the London satirical magazine Punch, December 1890, artist unknown – eBook, The Project Gutenberg.


Louisa May Alcott,

Mary Elizabeth Dodge,

and Joel Chandler Harris


xxxxxSamuel Langhorne Clemens, universally known as Mark Twain, is regarded as one of America’s finest writers. He gained international fame both as an author of adventure and travel books, and as a public speaker. His books of this period, notably Old Times on the Mississippi (1875), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and the travelogues The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1873) and A Tramp Abroad (1880), were largely autobiographical, based on his boyhood days, his work as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, and his travels in the American West, Europe and the Holy Land. His writings and his lectures, combined a lively sense of humour with some serious facts and some biting comment. And his use of the vernacular and his knowledge of the local people captured as never before the American way of life out west. As we shall see, it was in 1885 (Vc) that he published his masterpiece in the United States, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, generally considered to be the first great all-American novel.

xxxxxMark Twain, one of America’s finest writers, gained international fame within his own lifetime, both as an author of adventure and travel books, and as an accomplished public speaker. As a true man of the people, he used his delightful sense of humour and his abundant caustic wit to satirize the corrupt and money grabbing society which was emerging from the turmoil of a civil war. And as a true writer of the people he brought to life, by his knowledge of ordinary folk and their day-to-day language, America’s West Frontier, a world far removed from the literary salons and the comfortable living of East Coast society. It is hardly surprising that for many he is regarded as the “father of American literature”.

xxxxxFor the most part, Twain’s tales of adventure and his series of lectures were based on his varied work experience and his extensive travels. Born in Florida, Missouri, he spent an idyllic boyhood at Hannibal on the Mississippi River. Many happy, carefree hours spent on the river and exploring the surrounding countryside gave him ample material for his two famous stories, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and his masterpiece, the more weighty The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, produced in the United States in 1885. On leaving school in 1847 he worked for a short time as apprentice to a local printer, and then in 1851 began contributing articles, mostly humorous in nature, to the Hannibal Western Union, a paper run by his elder brother Orion. In 1853, when this paper began to fold up, he embarked upon his travels, finding work as a journeyman printer in a number of cities, including St. Louis, New York City and Philadelphia. During this time, however, he continued to write amusing articles for a variety of local newspapers.

xxxxxThen in 1857 came an unexpected change of occupation. It was during a journey down the Mississippi in that year that he got into conversation with a steamboat pilot named Horace Bixby. He took Twain on as an apprentice, and he worked on the river for the next four years, obtaining his licence in 1859. His experience as a pilot, his love of the river and its people, and his colourful life aboard a steamship - the haunt of gamblers and tricksters - provided strong story lines for his Old Times on the Mississippi of 1875, and his expanded version Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883.

xxxxxIn 1861 his life as a pilot on the Mississippi came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the American Civil War and the closure of the river to steamboat traffic. For a few weeks Twain became a volunteer soldier in the Confederate militia, but he had no stomach for fighting and even less for killing. Later that year he and his brother Orion decided to journey out West. They travelled by stagecoach to Carson City in the new territory of Nevada, and it was here that Twain tried his hand at silver and gold mining. Unsuccessful in these pursuits, he began working for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. It was while writing for this newspaper that, early in 1863, he started to sign his amusing sketches and articles with his famous pseudonym Mark Twain - a phrase called out by Mississippi boatmen to confirm that the water was “two fathoms” deep, the minimum depth required for a steamboat. It became the name by which he is known today.


xxxxxIn 1864 Twain moved on to San Francisco, and it was there that he gained his first claim to fame with am amusing story he had heard told in a mining camp. Given the title The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras, this outlandish tale centred around a certain Jim Smiley - an habitual gambler - who claimed that his frog could out jump any frog in the country! Published in The Saturday Press, a New York periodical, in November 1865, it proved a huge success and was reprinted nationwide.

xxxxxThe following year Twain visited Hawaii, writing about his travels for the Sacramento Union, and then in 1867 embarked on an extensive tour of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land as “travelling correspondent” for the Daily Alta California. On his return he began a long and highly successful career as a public speaker - charming audiences with amusing tales about his travels - and the articles he had written about his trip were collated and published under the title The Innocents Abroad (or The New Pilgrim’s Progress) in 1869. This down-to-earth travel book that combined a great deal of humour with serious assessment, interesting facts and touches of criticism proved extremely popular. Over 70,000 copies were sold in the first year. This was followed four years later by a work in similar style. Entitled Roughing it, this gave a witty and colourful account of his trip to Nevada and his subsequent life in California - plus his visit to Hawaii in 1866. The book sold well, but it never enjoyed the same popularity.

xxxxxIn 1870 Twain married Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy coal magnate of Elmira, New York, and in September the following year they moved to Hartford, Connecticut (where they lived for twenty years and had three daughters, Susy, Clara and Jean). He now gave up his work as a journalist to devote more time to literature, working from home or in his delightful study at Quarry Farm, Elmira. It was during the 1870s that, calling upon past experiences, he wrote Roughing It, Old Times on the Mississippi, and his classic tale Tom Sawyer of 1876, a nostalgic look back at his eventful childhood. And to this period belongs the novel The Gilded Age, a satire on the greed and political corruption of the day, written in collaboration with the Hartford journalist Charles Dudley Warner. In 1878 Twain and his family travelled to Europe for a walking holiday in the Black Forest and this, with embellishment, provided the material for A Tramp Abroad, a light hearted but informative travel book, published in 1880.

xxxxxAs we shall see, Twain’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was published in the United States in 1885 (Vc). Considered as the first great, all-American novel, it confirmed him as a writer of stature. Other notable works were to follow, but the early 1890s were to see him in serious financial difficulties, and his later years were to be tinged with sadness.

xxxxxIncidentally, the name Mark Twain was not of his own making. It was used by an old steamboat captain called Isaiah Sellers when writing brief notes about the condition of the river. Twain learnt of this when working as a cub pilot, and he adopted the name when Sellers died in 1863. Nor was it his only pen-name. Some comic letters sent to the Keokuk Daily Post in 1856 were signed “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass”, and he used the pseudonym “Josh” in his early days out west. ……

xxxxx…… The word fathom, implied in the term “mark twain”, comes from the Old English word faeom meaning outstretched arms. An international fathom is 6ft. ……

xxxxx…… Twain met Olivia Langden in 1867, and their first date was going to hear a reading by Charles Dickens in New York City. He wrote about 190 love letters to her during their courtship. She proved a devoted wife and companion. ……

xxxxx…… During a visit to England in 1873 Twain met, amongst other notables, Robert Browning, Anthony Trollope and Lewis Carroll. ……

Xxxxx……  In 1874 Twain bought an early model of the Remington typewriter and became one of the first authors to provide his publisher with typescript. The American manufacturer Philo Remington (1816-1889) began producing the first practicable typewriter in 1873 - having bought the patent taken out by the American inventor Christopher Sholes (1819-1890) in 1867 - and five years later produced the first machine with a shift-key, thereby providing both lower and upper case letters. Earlier in his career he had worked in his father’s small-arms factory, and assisted him in the development of the Remington breech-loading rifle.

xxxxxIt was in 1868, the year Mark Twain returned from the Holy Land, that the American writer Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) produced her children’s classic Little Women. Based on her own childhood experiences in Concord, Massachusetts, it traced the lives and loves of four sisters in a New England family during the American Civil War. The book was an immediate success, and was followed by three sequels, Good Wives in 1869, Little Men in 1871, and Joy’s Boys in 1886. She first gained recognition in 1863 with Hospital Sketches, a book based on her time as an army nurse in Washington. Her other works included An Old-Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and Under the Lilacs, all published in the 1870s.

xxxxxIt was in 1868, the year Mark Twain returned from his tour of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land, that the American writer Louisa May Alcott published her charming children’s classic Little Women. Based on her own family life and with Jo, the principal character, close to a self-portrait, it traced with commendable insight the lives and loves of four sisters in a modest New England family during the American Civil War. It was an immediate success and merited three sequels, Good Wives in 1869, Little Men in 1871, and Jo’s Boys in 1886.

xxxxxAlcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832. She spent most of her childhood in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts and, like her three sisters, was educated at home by her father, an able, progressive teacher. A tomboy by nature, and keen on writing melodramas and short stories as a child (like her creation Jo), she was determined to make a name for herself and help her family out of its money troubles. In 1862 she worked as an army nurse in Washington, tending the wounded from the civil war, and her book Hospital Sketches, based on this experience, was well received when published in 1863. On the advice of her publisher she then put her mind to writing “a book for girls” based in part on her own childhood. The result, five years later, was the publication of Little Women and an end to her family’s financial problems.

xxxxxShe later became an active member of the suffragette movement, but the last years of her life were saddened by ill-health and by the death of her mother and youngest sister May. She wrote some 30 novels during her career. These included An Old-Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and Under the Lilacs, all produced in the 1870s. She died in March 1888, just two days after the death of her father, and was laid to rest in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.

xxxxxTwo other American authors of this period deserve mention, both writing with children in mind. In 1865 Mary Elizabeth Dodge (1831-1905) produced her classic tale Hans Brinker, or The Silver Blades. This story of a poor Dutch boy and his sister Gretel, who, by their determined efforts to win a skating competition, help their sick father to recover, proved extremely popular, and had gone through one hundred editions by the turn of the century. As a result, the name Hans Brinker became associated with the little lad in Dutch legend who saved his country from flooding by putting his finger in a hole in the damn until help arrived.

xxxxxShe gained her first success with her Irvington Stories in 1864, a collection of tales about an American colonial family, and, after Hans Blinker, wrote a number of books, including Theophilus and Others and When Life is Young. For a number of years she assisted Harriet Beecher Stowe in editing the journal Hearth and Home, founded in 1868, and from 1873 she was editor of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas. This gained such a good reputation that its subscribers included Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.

xxxxxThe American writer-cum-journalist Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) gained fame as the creator of “Uncle Remus” a kindly old black man and former slave who tells a series of amusing stories to a young white boy, son of the plantation owner. Based on black American folklore and brilliantly written in the dialect of the Southern slave, they include some memorable animal characters - such as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Wolf - and are interspersed with some home-spun philosophy on life in general.

xxxxxSuch characters first appeared in his newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution, in July 1879 under the heading Negro Folklore: The Story of Mr Rabbit and Mr Fox, as Told by Uncle Remus. This proved so popular that the following year he published a collection of such tales entitled Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings. A number of sequels followed: Nights with Uncle Remus, Uncle Remus and His Friends, Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, and Uncle Remus and the Little Boy, published posthumously. He wrote a number of other children’s books, including The Story of Aaron, Aaron in the Wildwoods, Mingo, and Other Sketches in Black and White.