River of Dreams Delivers a Writer of Genius

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: February 2, 1863
Location: Hannibal, Missouri, USA

After failing to strike it rich prospecting for gold and silver, an enterprising young American on this day wrote a humorous travel story for the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper serving Virginia City, Nevada. He was Samuel Longhorne Clemens and the pen-name he chose to use for the first time was . . . Mark Twain.

By his mid-thirties he had become one of the most popular writers in America and with novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn his fame was to spread worldwide.

A great story-teller both in print and in real life, his distinctive narrative style was funny, irreverent, often satirical and he always took delight in deflating those puffed up with their own self-importance.

Like Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain was a master of the epigram and delivered memorable lines such as:

* Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

* It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

* All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.

* Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

Clemens was born in 1835, the sixth child of a poverty-stricken family which moved, when he was four years old, to Hannibal, a bustling Missouri town on the banks of the Mississippi. But when he was just 12, Clemens’s father died, plunging the family into virtual destitution and forcing the boy to give up school and find a job.

He became an apprentice printer at the Hannibal Courier, but received no pay, just food. Things improved three years later when he got a job as a printer and part-time editor and writer at the Hannibal Western Union, but Clemens temporarily abandoned newspapers in 1857 when, at 21, he was taken on as a cub-pilot aboard a steamboat. It was a dream he had nurtured for years as he watched the whistle-tooting vessels call three times a day at Hannibal.

Two years later he was a qualified pilot and immensely enjoying his highly paid work plying the shoals and channels of the great river. Sadly for him, but fortunately for literature, it was not to last. The Civil War broke out in 1861 and civilian traffic on the river was stopped.

So that year he boarded a stagecoach and headed for Nevada and California hoping to find a vein of gold or silver. He failed, and in 1862, needing a job, he became a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise. There, he began churning out news stories and sketches, adopting his now celebrated pen-name, derived from a call on the riverboats when measuring the depth of the water. It was considered that a steamboat needed a depth of 12 feet for safe passage and this was represented by the second mark on a line thrown overboard to gauge the river depth. When the safety mark was indicated, the call “Mark Twain” (mark two) was shouted out.

Another of Mark Twain’s epigrams decreed that “there are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”

Samuel Clemens certainly belonged to the group of people who accomplish things. Just before he died he wrote: "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together; they must go out together’.”

His wish was granted. Clemens died of a heart attack the day after the comet appeared at its brightest in 1910.

Published: April 25, 2016

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