Few figures in the annals of literature can have generated more words than Mark Twain. If it was not the many works that this fabled giant of letters created during his 74-year lifetime, it was the reams of praise that have come afterwards.
Whether or not the man born – and known to his family – as Samuel Langhorne Clemens ranks as the greatest of all American novelists is perhaps an issue that can be settled only by a debate in some celestial bar with the spirits of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck also in attendance (all of whom might decide that the answer to the question is still on terra firma in the shape of Harper Lee). But there can be no doubt that, more than a century on from his death, Twain’s reputation in the literary firmament is still lofty indeed, his most important books – notably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) – still in position as cornerstones of art in the English language.
Last month marked his 180th birthday (November 30, 1835). And if you want to follow in his footsteps, he is not a difficult fellow to find.
Indeed, the prime issue might be where to start looking. By the standards of the 21st Century, let alone the 19th, Twain was hugely well travelled, his various journeys taking him to Pacific islands such as Hawaii and Fiji, up into India, and across the torso of Europe to the Holy Land (this latter adventure, in 1867, being recounted with no little wit in his 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad).
Yet he is most easily encountered in the America that shaped him – in the Midwest of his youth, the Wild West of his formative wanderings, in the New England where he put down roots.
Twain’s birthplace was not a major dot on the map when he arrived in 1835. The writer would later describe Florida as "a nearly invisible village", remarking that it "contained a hundred people, and I increased the population by 1 per cent".
Hidden in rural Missouri – framed on three sides by distinct arms of the Salt River – Florida has scarcely become a more vibrant metropolis in the interim (the 2010 US census listed it as now being uninhabited). But seek out this scrap of civilisation – it lies about 210 kilometres northwest of St Louis – and you cannot fail to trip over Twain’s legend.
It is there in tribute in the form of Mark Twain Lake (as this dammed portion of the Salt River is called). It is there as a natural haven in Mark Twain State Park – where holidaymakers paddle out on kayaks and swim in the Salt River.
And it is there, most significantly, in the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Park – which cocoons the rudimentary two-room wooden cabin where he emerged into to the world, and lived until he was four. An adjacent museum includes artefacts such as a hand-written manuscript for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Twain spent his childhood and adolescence in this considerably larger (though by no means vast) Missouri town. The fact that it is only just in Missouri – the state line with Illinois is immediately present in the woozy currents of the River Mississippi – has long helped define it, and played a crucial role in the winsome tales that Twain would craft.
Both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – that evocative cocktail of small-town Americana and juvenile mischief – and its successor, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – were the products of this creative cauldron. Hannibal was very much the inspiration for the fictional St Petersburg, in which both boys charge through life – to the extent that several fragments of the narratives are visible in the real world.
The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum on Hill Street is abutted by the fabled white picket fence which Sawyer is regularly asked to paint as punishment for his assorted misdemeanours by his stern Aunt Polly. The museum complex also boasts the Becky Thatcher House (the home not so much of the object of Sawyer’s affections, Becky Thatcher, as Twain’s own sweetheart Laura Hawkins) and the Huck Finn House (the real-life property where Tom Blankenship, the son of a local sawmill worker, and the blueprint for the older of Twain’s two greatest characters, lived).
America’s most iconic river was a crucial element in Twain’s own story. Not only does it flow through the heart of the Sawyer and Finn adventures, but it was the author’s place of work for five years.
Between 1856 and 1861, Twain was a steamboat pilot, charting vessels through many of this leviathan waterway’s 3,730 kilometres of twists and bends. He would recall this era – and the respect he had for the river – in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi.
A pilot, he wrote, had to "get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood, and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of the river". Indeed, his pen name owes its existence to this era – "mark twain!" being a steamboatman’s call to declare that the water in front is sufficiently deep.
The outbreak of the American Civil War curtailed Twain’s career on the Mississippi – but you can ride in his wake in the 21st Century. The Mark Twain Riverboat offers regular cruises from the Center Street Landing in Hannibal.
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Having dispensed with the river, Twain went west, spending four years amid the dust of Nevada (1861-1864) – particularly in the silver mines around Virginia City (in the far west of the state, close to the California line). It was here that he first used his pseudonym while working as a journalist on the city’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper – a period that he recounted in his 1872 tome Roughing It – including the two duels which were hanging over his head when he left town, his reporting having sufficiently annoyed two local figures for challenges to be issued.
The Territorial Enterprise Building, which stands at 23 South C Street, was the publication’s third offices – and, opened in 1876, did not hear the scratch of Twain’s pen. But it has a small Mark Twain Museum nonetheless. Items here include his old desk.
Twain’s exile in the west also took him, in 1865, to this unassuming outpost in the northeast of California (some 210 kilometres east of San Francisco). It was in this unlikely context – specifically at the Angels Hotel – that Twain hit upon the story that would spark his rise to fame.
Folklore has it that he was entertained one evening by the bartender – one Simon Wheeler – who told him a merry yarn about a gambler, Jim Smiley, who loses an unlikely wager on the leaping abilities of a frog he has captured. Twain took this raw matter and turned it into The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County – a short story that proved to be his first big success.
The hotel is no longer open, but a Frog Hop of Fame on the pavement outside the building (at Main Street and Birds Way) lists the annual winners of the town’s Jumping Frog Jubilee – which, every May, brings madcap amphibian colour to Twain’s quirky retelling.
Twain finally settled down to family life in this pleasant New England town. The 25-room Gothic mansion that he called home from 1874 to 1891 is now safeguarded as the Mark Twain House & Museum.
It was here that Twain penned his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn keystones – while also being touched by tragedy. His daughter Susy died of meningitis in the property in 1896 (prompting its later sale in 1903). The museum remembers the writer in detail via 16,000 artefacts, from his last pair of spectacles to a Paige Compositor – a type-setting machine in which Twain’s ill-fated investment would push him to bankruptcy in 1894.
Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910. His headstone – at Woodlawn Cemetery, in the town of Elmira, New York (350 kilometres northwest of New York City) – is a simple affair that uses both his names.
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This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.