Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri. His immortal pseudonym is a riverboat leadsman’s call, “mark twain,” shouted out to indicate that the boat is in a safe two fathoms of water; as such it is an ironic pen name for a man whose life seldom sailed smooth water.
Before he was an established writer he was a printer, steamboat pilot, Confederate soldier in constant retreat, silver miner, journalist and lecturer. Throughout his life he championed the underdog, lampooned the powerful and boosted humane causes with a satiric humor that knew no subject too mighty to be exempted from his pen and speech. Legislative bodies were a frequent target as the above quotation and the following excerpt from a letter to an unidentified person show: “I was a reporter in a legislature two sessions and the same in Congress one session—and thus learned to know personally three simplebodies of the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes.”
In his greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain, perhaps better than any writer, expresses the soul of nineteenth-century America in conflict over slavery. In a notebook entry ten years after its publication, Mark Twain defined Huckleberry Finn as “a book of mine where a sound heart & a deformed conscience came into collision & conscience suffers defeat.” Here he emphasizes the irony of Huck’s belief that helping a runaway slave, Jim, escape was a mortal sin; yet Huck’s love of Jim’s genuine goodness and loyalty will not allow him to return his friend to slavery. The intuitive truth in Huck’s heart overcomes the learned bigotry that had deformed his conscience.
Truth, intuitive and experiential, remained the focus of Mark Twain’s writing and lecturing careers.