Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mark Twain

On this day in 1865, Mark Twain made his first impression on the reading public with the publication of "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" in the New York Saturday Press. He was 29. The story was retitled "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and became the title story of his first book in 1867.

Twain was a Midwesterner transplanted to the California gold fields writing for a New York audience, but there was something universal, or at least All-American, in his colloquial humor and his mixture of high and low life. People felt they knew his characters; the lowlifes put on airs and the toffs were phonies, and only the reader and the author were wise.

Twain appears ten times in A Book of Ages. When he was 21 he was training to be a riverboat pilot. (An education as rigorous as becoming an airline pilot today, a process he describes in his book Life on the Mississippi). At age 27 he set aside Samuel Clemens and began writing under the famous pen name. He didn't write his masterpiece until he was 49.

At 60 he was a famous novelist––and bankrupt. To recoup his losses he embarked on a world lecture tour. He met Gandhi and Sigmund Freud, visited Rome and the Taj Mahal. He had dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt. He owned a grand house in Connecticut. But his finances were always tenuous. Success was a fragile thing. This realization fed his cynicism and made him the greatest American writer of his time.

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