He was a Southerner and a Northerner, a Westerner and a New England Yankee—a tireless wanderer who lived in a thousand places all around the world. He would call just two of them home: the Missouri town of his childhood, which he would transform into the idealized hometown of every American boy, and the magnificent Connecticut house he built for his wife and children, which he hoped would shelter them from hardship, but where heartbreak found them nonetheless.
During his long life, he was a printer's apprentice and a riverboat pilot, a prospector who never struck gold, and a confederate soldier who never fought a battle. He was considered the funniest man on earth—a brilliant performer on the lecture circuit who could entertain almost any audience—and a spectacularly inept businessman whose countless schemes to get rich quick threatened again and again to bring him to ruin. But above all, Mark Twain was a writer, a natural born storyteller, and a self-taught genius with words who understood before anyone else that art could be created out of the American language.
He wrote constantly, newspaper stories, poetry, plays, political diatribes, travel pieces, irreverent musings about religion, and a series of autobiographical sketches noted as much, he admitted, for the tall tales they spun as for the truth they told. And he wrote books—books read by millions—including the deceptively simple story of a backwards boy and a runaway slave that showed his people a whole new way to think about themselves.
He was born Samuel Langhorn Clemens, the sixth of seven children, two months premature and so thin and sickly, his mother remembered, that "I could see no promise in him."
Every summer, Sam spent several weeks on his uncle's nearby farm. There, he and his cousins gathered in the evening in the cabin of an old slave they all called "Uncle Dan'l" who thrilled them with ghost stories and introduced them to spirituals and jubilees. According to Ron Powers, a Twain biographer, "race was always a factor in his consciousness partly because black people and black voices were the norm for him before he understood there were differences. They were the first voices of his youth and the most powerful, the most metaphorical, the most vivid storytelling voices of his childhood. Uncle Dan'l and Aunt Hannah, who was rumored to be a thousand years old and a confidant of Moses, these were towering personalities to him."
One of his most lasting childhood memories was of a dozen men and women chained together waiting to be shipped down river to the slave market. "They had," he said, "the saddest faces I ever saw."
By the 1870s, Samuel Clemens was an acclaimed writer, with a wife named Livy, three children, enormous wealth, and a magnificent house in Hartford, Conn., to match.
The Hartford house may have been the Clemens's home, but every summer for 20 years they packed up and moved back to Elmira, N.Y., to be with Livy's sister, Susan Crane, at her country place called Quarry Farm. The cook at Quarry Farm was an ex-slave named Mary Ann Cord. One late afternoon in 1874, as Sam and Livy and the children listened, she told them her life story. Twain was so moved by the way Mary Ann Cord told her story that he set out to put it down on paper, changing her name to "Aunt Rachel":
It was summer time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farm-house, on the summit of the hill, and "Aunt Rachel" was sitting respectfully below our level, on the steps, for she was our servant, and colored. She was 60 years old, a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than for a bird to sing.
I asked her, "Aunt Rachel, how is it that you've lived 60 years without trouble?"
She said, "Misto Clemens, is you in 'arnest?"
"Why," I said, "I thought—that is, I meant—why, you can't have had any trouble. I never heard you sigh, and never seen your eye when there wasn't a laugh in it."
She said, "Has I had any trouble? Misto Clemens, I's gwyne to tell you, den I leave it to you. I was bawn down 'mongst de slaves...."
* * *
Mary Ann Cord had been born a slave in Virginia, where she married and gave birth to seven children. Then in 1852, her family was torn apart.
An' dey sole my ole man, an' took him away, an' dey begin to sell my chil'en an' take dem away, an' I begin to cry; an' de man say, "Shet up yo' damn blubberin'," an' hit me on de mouf wid his han'. An' when de las' one was done but my little Henry, I grab' him clost up to my breas' an' I ris up an' says, "You shan't take him away," I says; "I'll kill de man dat tetches him!" But my little Henry whisper an' say, "I gwyne to run away, an' den I work an' buy yo' freedom." But dey got him, de men did.
She lost touch with her husband and all her children. Years later, during the Civil War, she was living in North Carolina when black troops fighting for the Union occupied her owner's plantation and asked her to bring them breakfast.
I was a-stoopin' down by de stove, an' I'd jist got de pan o' hot biscuits in my han' an' was 'bout to raise up, when I see a black face come aroun' under mine, an' de eyes a-lookin' up into mine, an' I jist stopped right dah, an' never budged! Jist gazed, an' gazed, an' de pan begin to tremble, an' all of a sudden I knowed! De pan drop' on de flo' an' I grab his lef' han' an' shove back his sleeve, an' den I goes for his forehead an' push de hair back so, an' "Boy!" I says, "if you ain't my Henry, what is you doin' wid dis welt on yo' wris' an' dat sk-yar on yo' forehead? De Lord God ob heaven be praise', I got my own ag'in!"
Oh, no, Misto Clemens, I hadn't had no trouble. An' no joy.
Mark Twain wrote down Mary Ann Cord's story precisely as she had told it and sent it off to Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells with a note warning, "It has no humor in it. You can pay as lightly as you choose for that, if you want it," he added, "for it is rather out of my line." Titled "A True Story Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It," it marked his first appearance in the Atlantic Monthly. The slaveowner's son from Missouri was discovering new ways of looking at the world.
Later, Twain began The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a work that would take him a decade to complete.
* * *
Huck's experiences with Jim turn upside down everything he has been taught about black people and white, about slavery and freedom, about good and evil. The novel reaches its moral climax when Huck is faced with a terrible choice. He believes he has committed a grievous sin in helping Jim escape and he finally writes out a letter telling Jim's owner where her runaway property can be found. Huck feels good about this at first he says and marvels at how close "I come to being lost and going to hell." But then he hesitates.
I got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I came back out of the fog; ... and such-like times; and would always call me honey, ... and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time ... [when he said] I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding me breath, and then says to myself:
"All right, then, I'll go to hell"—and tore it up.
• Start with PBS's online, interactive scrapbook: www.pbs.org/marktwain/scrapbook/index.html. Mark Twain loved making scrapbooks; this is one he would be proud of. With pictures, quotes, essays, and chapters highlighting his journey from boyhood to literary immortality, this is the perfect place to get acquainted with Twain.
• Next, order your copy of Ken Burns' Mark Twain: www.pbs.org/marktwain/filmmakers/shops.html. This fascinating, 220-minute documentary (which costs just $24.98) reveals Twain's awakening to the horrors of slavery, his great success as a writer and repeated failures as a businessman, and his dedication to his wife and children--almost all of whom he outlived.
• When you're ready to develop those lesson plans, head to the "Learn More" section: www.pbs.org/marktwain/learnmore/index.html. Here, you'll find five classroom activities for middle and high school students (don't miss #4 on how slavery affected Twain), selected writings (including excerpts from Huckleberry Finn and "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It"), a chronology of Twain's life, and links to other resources.
Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, and Geoffrey Ward collaborated to produce Mark Twain, a celebrated PBS documentary released in January 2002. Mark Twain carries viewers from rural Missouri, where Samuel Clemens spent his boyhood, to an estate in Connecticut where he raised his children and began to rethink his southern upbringings. This same team was responsible for PBS documentaries such as The Civil War and Baseball, for which they earned Emmy, Grammy, and People's Choice Awards. This article is excerpted with permission from the narrative of the film Mark Twain, produced by Florentine Films, Walpole, N.H.