Mark Twain Writing

Printer Anecdotes ~ 1851-56

After the tragic death of his father in 1847, Sam Clemens, aged 12, began doing odds jobs to assist the family finances, and in 1848 he began working as a printer’s devil for the Hannibal Gazette, apprenticed to Joseph Ament.

The job entailed “setting” type by hand using individual letters cast as small lead blocks. The letters were placed side-by-side to spell a word. Every sentence was laid out this way until the entire article was complete, after which the lines of type were placed carefully in a frame which was screwed together, becoming the bed of the press. After the page had been printed, it was Sam’s job to remove, clean, and sort the letters into their specific bins, ready to be used again.

In 1851, at the age of 15, Sam began working for his brother Orion’s newspaper the Hannibal Western Union. While Orion was away on business, Sam began adding sketches to “liven up the circulation” of the struggling paper, and he certainly did so.

Sam Clemens published his first story, A Gallant Fireman, in the Hannibal Western Union newspaper, on 16 January, 1851.

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“A Gallant Fireman” is “the first known venture of Sam Clemens into print!” It is a brief anecdote that appeared in his brother Orion Clemens’ Hannibal Western Union not long after Clemens had joined its staff subsequent to his apprenticeship on Joseph P. Ament’s Hannibal Missouri Courier. The “fireman” of the brief sketch is Jim Wolf (or Wolfe), an apprentice printer in Orion’s shop. For a while Jim roomed and boarded at the Clemens home, where he became a favorite target for the practical jokes of Clemens and his brother Henry. He is also the subject of Clemens’ 1867 sketch “Jim Wolf and the Tom-Cats”.


AT THE FIRE, on Thursday morning, we were apprehensive of our own safety, (being only one door from the building on fire) and commenced arranging our material in order to remove them in case of necessity. Our gallant devil, seeing us somewhat excited, concluded he would perform a noble deed, and immediately gathered the broom, an old mallet, the wash-pan and a dirty towel, and in a fit of patriotic excitement, rushed out of the office and deposited his precious burden some ten squares off, out of danger. Being of a snailish disposition, even in his quickest moments, the fire had been extinguished during his absence. He returned in the course of an hour, nearly out of breath, and thinking he had immortalized himself, threw his giant frame in a tragic attitude, and exclaimed, with an eloquent expression: “If that thar fire hadn’t bin put out, thar’d a’ bin the greatest confirmation of the age!”
Credit: ~ Early Tales and Sketches, Volume 15, Part 1, by Mark Twain.

Further humorous anecdotes followed, including:
The Dandy Frightening the Squatter (1 May, 1852).
Hannibal, Missouri (8 May, 1852).
A Family Muss (9 September, 1852).
“Local” Resolves to Commit Suicide (16 September, 1952).
Historical Exhibition – A No.1 Ruse (16 September, 1852)
“Pictur” Department (23 September, 1852).
Blab’s Tour (23 September, 1852).
Connubial Bliss (4 November, 1852).

Sam used a pen name for the first time in September, 1852, signing himself as “W. Epaminodas Adrastus Perkins”.

In June, 1853, Sam left Hannibal at the age of 18, to become a journeyman printer in St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia. In December that year, Orion took their mother, Jane Clemens, and Henry Clemens to Iowa, seeking better prospects as the owner of the Muscatine Journal. Sam Clemens published his first correspondence or travel letters, from Philadelphia, in Orion’s Muscatine Journal in 1855.

Orion then relocated the family to Keokuk, Iowa, as the owner of the Daily Post. Sam worked for Orion at the Daily Post until the Fall of 1856, when he found employment in Cincinnati, Ohio, as an assistant in a job printing shop.

Pilot Wit and a Pseudonym ~ 1857-61

In February of 1857, Sam Clemens took passage on the PAUL JONES from Cincinnati to New Orleans, intending to embark for the Amazon River, to seek his fortune in the thriving coca trade. He was 21 years old. His plans changed when he met pilot Horace Bixby. Before reaching New Orleans, Sam’s boyhood dream to become a steamboat pilot had been revived. He convinced Bixby to take him on as a Cub Pilot for $500, with $100 in advance and the balance from future wages.

After two years as a Cub Pilot, Sam became a fully licensed pilot on April 9, 1859, at the age of 23. He would be a pilot for another two years. His time on the river provided countless experiences that would be reflected in his later writing.

In May of 1859, Sam Clemens wrote a burlesque of a newspaper article written by Captain Isaiah Sellers, a long-serving and prominent steamboatman whose historic knowledge of the river was a barb in the side of younger pilots. Sellers contributed river information to newspapers in New Orleans and St. Louis. Sam showed his parody to some other pilots, who “rushed it into print”, something Sam later regretted:

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I burlesqued it broadly, very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred or a thousand words. … There was no malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in print.
Credit: ~ Chapter 50, Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

A side-by-side comparison of the articles written by Sellers and Clemens can be viewed on Twain Quotes:

Isaiah Sellers was the riverboat captain from whom Sam Clemens claimed to have appropriated the pseudonym Mark Twain.

Western Journalist ~ 1862-65

In April of 1861, when the Civil War caused the suspension of civilian river traffic on the Mississippi, Sam’s career as a steamboat pilot came to an abrupt end. In the summer of 1861 he found himself on a stagecoach heading west with his older brother Orion, who had been appointed by President Lincoln as secretary of the new Nevada Territory.

Prospectors were flocking to the region’s gold and silver strikes, in areas  including Humboldt, Esmeralda, and Aurora. Before long Sam was trying his luck. By about April of 1862, he was prospecting near Aurora, and it was now that he began contributing humorous letters to the Virgina City Territorial Enterprise signed “Josh”. These were so popular that owner Joe Goodman offered Sam $25 a week to work for the newspaper, an offer Sam finally accepted when Goodman increased it to $40.

In late September, 1862, Sam arrived in Virgina City to begin his seventeen month stint with the Territorial Enterprise, thriving on the literary freedom it afforded. This was one of the busiest and happiest periods of his life, recalled with enthusiasm in chapters 42 and 45 of Roughing It.

In May of 1864, he headed for San Francisco, working for the Call newspaper as a full-time reporter, and later as the Pacific correspondent for the Territorial Enterprise. He first used the pen name Mark Twain on the Enterprise in 1864. While in San Francisco he wrote for a number of publications including the Californian and the Golden Era.

In 1865 Sam visited Jackass Hill in California where he heard the Jumping Frog story; and tried gold mining. Subsequently, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was published in the 18 November issue of New York Saturday Press.

Travelogue Success ~ 1869

Sam traveled to Hawaii for the Sacramento Union in 1866, contributing a series of popular travel letters. The following year, he was commissioned to be a travel writer for the San Francisco Alta California aboard the Quaker City, an excursion to the Mediterranean and back from June 8 to November 19 of 1867. Sam’s first travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, was based on his travel letters from this journey. Revising the letters into a book was suggested by Elisha Bliss, who published it as a subscription book on July 20th, 1869. Within its first year it sold over 70,000 copies, and it remained Clemens’ best selling book throughout his lifetime.

Travel writing was second nature to Sam Clemens, whether he was writing letters to family and friends, or as a correspondent for publication. He returned  to this familiar formula in Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Following The Equator (1897).

Marriage and an Editor ~ 1870

With his marriage in 1870 to the 25-year-old Livy, Clemens’ life took a dramatic turn toward stabilization and normalcy. The couple settled down in Buffalo, N.Y., in a house bought by Livy’s father, and Sam worked on the Express as editor. He also wrote a monthly column for the Galaxy, a New York literary magazine. Besides all of this activity, Clemens contracted to write Roughing It, an account of his experiences in Nevada and California. During this period in 1870, however, tragedy struck the young couple. First Livy’s father died; then her close friend died while staying with the Clemenses; finally, their first child, Langdon, was born premature, and lived only two years in a sickly state.

In 1871, encouraged by Hartford’s literary notables, Sam leased a house in the Nook Farm neighbourhood and bought land beside Farmington Avenue on which to build a home. He continued his lecture tours and visited England for the first time. In February of 1872 he published Roughing It, and in March Susy Clemens was born. Sam, now 38-years-old and becoming a literary celebrity, returned to England with his family in 1873, meeting literary society favorites such as Ivan Turgenev, Robert Browning, Anthony Trollope, and Lewis Carroll.

That year also saw the publication of his first work of fiction, The Gilded Age written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner,

Octagonal Study for a Novelist ~ 1874

The Clemens family moved into the finished Hartford house during September of 1874. The busy literary society of Hartford left little time for writing, but during the summer months the family resided in the Elmira countryside with Olivia’s older sister, Susan Crane and her husband Theodore. Their farmhouse, Quarry Farm, was high on a hill overlooking Elmira and the Chemung Valley. It was a peaceful family sanctuary, a place where the Clemens children were born, and a place where Sam could write.

In the summer of 1874, the Cranes presented Sam with a unique octagonal study, situated on a knoll above the farmhouse, with a commanding view of the valley. Here he was able to separate himself from the common distractions of business and family life. During one summer at the breezy hillside farm he wrote, with typical wit, “This summer it is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie.”

In the remote Octagonal Study, Clemens wrote some of his finest works: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), both evocations of his boyhood in Hannibal; The Prince and the Pauper (1882), a novel for children with shades of social criticism; Life on the Mississippi (1883), his non-fiction ode to the Mississippi and a lost way of life. He also produced a travel book, A Tramp Abroad (1880), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Quote: ~
He found summer-time always his best period for literary effort, and on a hillside just by the old quarry, Mrs. Crane had built for him that spring a study ~ a little room of windows, somewhat suggestive of a pilot-house ~ overlooking the long sweep of grass and the dreamlike city below. Vines were planted that in the course of time would cover and embower it; there was a tiny fireplace for chilly days. To Twichell, of his new retreat, Clemens wrote:

“It is the loveliest study you ever saw. It is octagonal, with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window, and it sits perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes behind the hills beyond, and the rain beats upon the roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it.”

He worked steadily there that summer. He would go up mornings, after breakfast, remaining until nearly dinner-time, say until five o’clock or after, for it was not his habit to eat luncheon. Other members of the family did not venture near the place, and if he was urgently wanted they blew a horn. Each evening he brought down his day’s performance to read to the assembled family. … The Tom Sawyer tale progressed steadily and satisfactorily. Clemens wrote Dr. Brown:

“I have been writing fifty pages of manuscript a day, on an average, for some time now, on a book (a story), and consequently have been so wrapped up in it, and dead to everything else, that I have fallen mighty short in letter-writing…. On hot days I spread the study wide open, anchor my papers down with brickbats, and write in the midst of the hurricane, clothed in the same thin linen we make shirts of.”
Credit: ~ Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine.

Essays, Letters, Short Stories, Speeches …

Quote: ~
Mark Twain produced a considerable number of essays during his long writing career. But since he frequently combined fictional and nonfictional elements in his short works, Twain’s writing, as his editors have often noted, cannot always be easily classified according to traditional literary categories such as the short story or essay, making it difficult at times precisely to determine his output within a specific genre. His versatility as an essayist is shown by the broad range of essay forms he mastered: travel letters, sketches, articles, memoirs, literary and art criticism, social and political commentary, and philosophical treatises. Writing on an astonishing variety of topics, ranging from such trivial matters as curing a cold or riding a bicycle to the major cultural and social issues of his time, Twain attracted a large and diverse audience. His essays appeared in various newspapers and in magazines with a wide readership, including the Galaxy and Harper’s, as well as in the more prestigious and literary publications such as the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review.

Twain’s immense skill as a humorist greatly contributed to his popular appeal and became a hallmark of his writing style, which is also distinguished by his innovative use of narrative and rhetorical devices and an ability to render with accuracy and clarity the physical and emotional texture of places and events.
Credit: ~ The Encyclopedia of the Essay.


The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Claveras County (1867)
General Washington’s Negro Body-Servant (1868)
My Late Senatorial Secretaryship (1868)
The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Memoranda (1870-1871)
Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance (1871)
Roughing It (1872)
The Gilded Age ~ A Tale of Today (1873)
Sketches New and Old (1875)
Old Times on the Mississippi (1876)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage (1876)
A True Story and the Recent Carnival of Crime (1877)
The Invalid’s Story (1877)
Punch, Brothers, Punch! and other Sketches (1878)
A Tramp Abroad (1880)
1601: ~ Conversation, … by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors (1880)
The Prince and the Pauper (1882)
Life on the Mississippi (1883)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
The American Claimant (1892)
Merry Tales (1892)
Those Extraordinary Twins (1892)
The £1,000,000 Bank Note and Other New Stories (1893)
Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)
Following The Equator (1897)
How to Tell a Story and other Essays (1897)
Is He Dead? (1898)
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900)
A Salutation Speech From the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth (1900)
The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated (1901)
Edmund Burke on Croker and Tammany (1901)
To the Person Sitting in Darkness (1901)
A Double Barrelled Detective Story (1902)
A Dog’s Tale (1904)
Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1904)
King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905)
The War Prayer (1905)
The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories (1906)
What Is Man? (1906)
Eve’s Diary (1906)
Christian Science (1907)
A Horse’s Tale (1907)
Is Shakespeare Dead? (1907)
Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909)
Letters from the Earth (1909)
Queen Victoria’s Jubilee (1910)
My Platonic Sweetheart (1912)
The Mysterious Stranger (1916)
Mark Twain’s Autobiography (1924)
Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935)
Letters from the Earth (1962)
No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (1969)
Concerning the Jews (1985)
Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire:
~ Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine- American War (1992)
The Bible According to Mark Twain:
~ Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood (1995)