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The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

~ Mark Twain  

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The Mark Twain Prize
About Mark Twain

Mark Twain (1835–1910) was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, and died in 1910. One of six children, at the age of four he moved with his family to Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. He left school at the age of 12 and worked as a printer and riverboat pilot. In 1861 Clemens spent a few unhappy weeks as a Confederate volunteer, and then went to Nevada, where he prospected for gold. He soon began editing a newspaper. In 1863 he took as his pen name the two-fathoms call used when sounding the river shallows, "Mark Twain!" He achieved his first success as a reporter in San Francisco with his story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865) and was well on his way to becoming one of the 19th century’s most successful and well-known writers. His career encompassed journalism, short story writing, novels, and nonfiction.

Twain visited the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866 on a newspaper assignment, where he wrote articles that furthered his growing reputation and launched his career as a lecturer. He chronicled his 1867 trip to Europe and the Holy Land in The Innocents Abroad (1869), filling the book with humorous descriptions of his travel experiences. His reputation broadened, and he followed that success with later travel books: Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Life on the Mississippi (1883). He settled in the East after his return from Europe in 1867 and in 1870 married Olivia Langdon, daughter of a wealthy New York coal merchant. Their family eventually included four children. In 1871 the family built a distinctive house in Hartford, Connecticut (now open to the public as The Mark Twain House and Museum), in the center of the Nook Farm artists community. He collaborated with one of them, Charles Dudley Warner, on The Gilded Age (1873), a novel satirizing post-Civil War America. Now at the zenith of his career, Twain was turning out such works as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1882), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884–85), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), which achieved tremendous popularity among readers of all ages.

"That Twain could successfully write for all ages at the same time is as much a mark of his greatness as the fact that his work is as popular now, among both young and old, as it was when first published."1 During his lifetime — and even by today’s standards — Twain’s descriptions of boyhood pranks, adventurous explorations, and hilariously amusing situations frequently exceeded the limits considered suitable for young people, and his twists of irony are often beyond their comprehension. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn eventually came to be regarded as a seminal work of American literature. Poor investments wiped out most of Twain’s earnings by 1894, but a world lecture tour and sales of his books restored some of his wealth. Beneath his humor there had always been a layer of disillusion and pessimism. By 1909, the loss of a son, two daughters, and his wife (only his daughter, Clara, survived him) had hardened this attitude, expressed in such works as What Is Man? (1906) and The Mysterious Stranger (1916). In his final years Twain was greatly honored (especially in England), and his opinions on everything were sought out by the public, but the posthumous publication of his autobiography in 1924 revealed the dim view he held of his fellow humans.

To learn more about Mark Twain, visit the Web site for Mark Twain: A Film by Ken Burns on PBS.org.

1 Donald A. Barclay, in Children’s Books and Their Creators, Anita Silvey, Editor, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

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