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Toasting the Babies

Mark Twain's half-century as a public speaker can be divided into two very different categories. His organized tours, undertaken to promote a recent book or reprise a trusted lecture, were business ventures, and he grew to hate them. His club and after-dinner talks, delivered for no or little fee, were a type of social theater, offering the sort of spotlight he found irresistible. His talent and stamina for such occasions created a steady flow of invitations, whether to toast dignitaries and tycoons, to enlighten the Little Mother's Aid Association, or the Organization for the Prevention of Unnecessary Noise, or to regale the Stomach Club of Paris or the Yorick Club of Melbourne.

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Barbs in Boston

Mark Twain's "Old Times on the Mississippi," a series of sketches about his days as a cub river pilot, were published by the Atlantic in seven monthly installments beginning in January, 1875. Though not quite his debut there, the Atlantic sketches are regarded as Twain's entry to the East Coast literary establishment. Immediately pirated by the major newspapers, they also helped consolidate Twain's fame across the U.S., as they did across England when published there in 1877 as Mark Twain's Mississippi.

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Tom as Twain, and America

In his preface to the first edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain says that Tom is a composite of three boys from hometown Hannibal, Tom's adventures those of his friends rather than his own. Most Twain biographers treat these statements as unreliable disclaimers, and proceed as if young Sam Clemens is Tom—until, having grown "from careless mischief to extreme unruliness" (Andrew Hoffman, Inventing Mark Twain), he is Huck.

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Selling the Sketches

Of the half-dozen books which Mark Twain published during the 1870s, two of his least remembered are also among his most important. Sketches, New and Old (1875, a detail from the frontispiece shown here) and Punch, Brothers, Punch! and other Sketches (1878) are collections from Twain's "alternate writing career"—brief magazine pieces, some short stories, a sprinkling of speeches, and other occasional material. Dating from as far back as his roving days in Nevada and California, the topics themselves jump all over the map, but their wide appeal and distribution kept Twain's name in constant view of the broader reading public.

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Orion & the Comet

On a midsummer morning in 1861, Sam and Orion Clemens lit out for the Nevada Territory together. Sam was twenty-five, and giving up steamboats for prospecting; Orion was ten years older and, having struggled as a lawyer and a newspaperman, eager to take up his appointment as the Territory's first Secretary. Each brother made a record of the three-week, 1700-mile trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada, the two texts as different as the two men.

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The Hartford Steamboat

When Mark Twain moved to Buffalo in 1869, taking his new bride and taking up his new position at the Buffalo Express, he expected to live in boarding house conditions. Instead, courtesy of his in-laws, he found himself the owner of a stately and comfortable home. When Twain decided to give up the newspaper job for full-time writing, and to move closer to East Coast literary society, he upgraded from comfort to splendor, if not to ostentation and eccentricity. The result was his nineteen-room Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, described by one biographer as "part steamboat, part medieval stronghold and part cuckoo clock."

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The Wild Humorist & The Human Angel

The central event of Mark Twain's life was his 1870 marriage to Olivia Langdon. When the two began courting thirteen months earlier, Livy had been a twenty-three-year-old semi-invalid with waning hope of finding full health or a suitable husband. Twain was ten years older and a rising star, his fame built upon his popular travel book The Innocents Abroad, just published, and his self-promotion as the "Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope."

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Chasing Colonel Sellers

If the 1880s represent Mark Twain's best years, they also reflect his worst habits as a writer, and his dizzying capacity to spend time on everything but writing. When not socializing, Twain was preparing and giving speeches—on presidential politics, copyright law, foreign critics, war veterans, women, phrenology, billiards, or "What is Happiness?" According to this snapshot provided by Twain on January 14, 1884, even a quiet night's reading was a whistle-stop tour.

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Who Do You Reckon it Was?

Mark Twain started Huckleberry Finn in 1876, but it was soon in drydock at his "literary shipyard." "I like it only tolerably well," he wrote William Dean Howells, "and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the MS when it is done." Bouts of writing and pigeonholing went on for the next six years. Then, in the spring of 1882 and after decades away, he made a nostalgic trip home in order to gather research for Life on the Mississippi. Read more...

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Death on the Mississippi

Mark Twain’s book-publishing career spans thirty years, 1867-97. Standing back-to-back at the midpoint of these three decades are the two books which anchor Twain’s literary legacy, Life on the Mississippi (1883) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), If only to meet the needs of the subscription-book market, Life on the Mississippi is a fat, mixed-genre composite — history, geography, travel, social commentary, tall tales, memoir, and Huckleberry Finn itself. Read more...

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The Literary Shipyard

Writing a friend during the push to finish The Prince and the Pauper in the spring of 1880, Mark Twain offered a glimpse of what writing meant to him. Read more...

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Tramping & Trampling

Mark Twain shaped his place in American Literature in the 1880s, a decade in which he published Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi. The decade began with the travel book A Tramp Abroad, this conceived as a money-maker aimed at the same readership which had made The Innocents Abroad a hit ten years earlier. Traveling by rail, raft, donkey cart and foot, the Tramp returns to some of the same places the Innocent visited in the first book. He also returns to Hannibal and the Mississippi, “The Author’s Memories” (caption for the illustration shown here) providing the text with a Midwest American counterpoint to the hallowed stops on the European Tour. If Twain found the Tour trying he found writing about it worse, no doubt because he couldn’t put his true feelings into it. Read more...

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The Lion of St. Mark

In 1889 Mark Twain wrote William Dean Howells that he regretted completing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court because of all the social opinions he had to leave out: “They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can't ever be said. And besides, they would require a library—and a pen warmed up in hell.”

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Innocents & Guilt

One of the last in the gallery of Innocents drifting, stumbling and charging through Mark Twain’s books and talks is Joan of Arc, whom Twain regarded as “by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” Although he declared Joan of Arc the best of his books, it became one of his worst sellers, his readers unable to enjoy his idealized heroine, unaided by even the hint of a joke, taking on “every advantage that learning has over ignorance, age over youth, experience over inexperience, chicane over artlessness, every trick and trap and gin devisable by malice and the cunning of sharp intellects practiced in setting snares for the unwary.”

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Riding the Waves

Reflecting upon the thousands who "came to shake hands & let me know that they were on deck & all was well," Mark Twain figured that the American leg of his 1895-96 international lecture tour paid "a compliment worth being in debt for." But the whistle-stop month had left him with the recurring dream of standing before a packed audience in his shirttail, and the weeks aboard a mail steamer to Australia brought welcome relief. Read more...

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"Mark Twain Tonight!"

In 1895, faced with the "imperious moral necessity" of repaying his debts, Mark Twain used the same habit of over-enthusiasm which got him into financial trouble to get him out. When the impresario James Pond suggested a North American lecture series, Twain added the idea of a year-long world tour, with a book to follow. Read more...

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Believing in Miracles

Mark Twain had a streak of riverboat gambler, a belief that he could find, spot, or invent a winner. This was often harmless. But Twain lost his shirt on the Paige Compositor, a "mechanical miracle" which seldom worked. The only surviving model of the typesetting machine now sits in the basement of Hartford's Mark Twain House & Museum, the assembly of its 18,000 moving parts so complicated that it can't be moved. Read more...

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1890-1894: Trying to Stay Afloat

Beset by troubles, Mark Twain left for Europe in the summer of 1891, taking with him his two surest literary assets -- Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Read more...

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1890-1900: Travel & Talk

The last entry in Mark Twain's Autobiography shows him feeling beaten and bewildered. His daughter Jean had died suddenly two days earlier, on Christmas Eve morning, 1909. Too weak and distraught to attend the December 26th funeral in Elmira, New York, Twain stayed in Connecticut, watching the clock.... Read more...

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The Other Woman

Faced with conflicting evidence and no smoking kiss, the biographers of Twain's last years have staked claims on every available patch of the 'other woman' question. Some are convinced that Twain's relationship with Isabel Lyon, his secretary and house manager, was the affection of a lonely widower for a compassionate helpmeet. Read more in the fifth installment of our Twain: Milestones series. Read more...

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The Matrimonial Pit

A year before his marriage, Mark Twain predicted that by taking on "the task of making a Christian of me," Olivia Langdon would "unwittingly dig a matrimonial pit and end by tumbling into it." When Livy died in 1904, after thirty-four years of marriage, it was Twain's turn to tumble. Read more in the fourth installment of our Twain: Milestones series. Read more...

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Twain's "Aquarium Club"

In Mark Twain's last years, he had "reached the grandfather stage of life without grandchildren," and said he had nothing but "a forlorn sea of banquets and speechmaking" to replenish his "dry and dusty" heart. His answer was to create an "Aquarium Club" of young devotees. Read more in the third installment of our Twain: Milestones series. Read more...

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"My vain self-complacency rides high"

Twain's last big trip -- and hurrah -- was to Oxford University in the summer of 1907 to receive an Honorary Doctorate, which he esteemed as "the highest honor that has ever fallen to my share of this life's prizes." His final public address before sailing for home was his "Begum of Bengal" speech, now regarded as one of his best. Read more in the second installment of our Twain: Milestones series.

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“Heaven for climate, and hell for society”

Our feeling for Mark Twain is as his for the Mississippi River — a book that cannot be thrown aside. And if its life-stories are shifting or not now full of their intended wonder, they are also enduring. In this first installment of the B&N “Milestone” series, we will follow the arc of Twain’s life backwards, from his April 21, 1910 death to his November 30, 1835 birth. Seven-and-a-half decades covered on these pages over the next seven-and-a-half months — making the same sort of allowances Twain made when claiming that his birth (twenty days late) and his death (one day late) coincided with the appearance of Haley’s Comet. Read more...

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

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The Promise of Hope

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Winter Mythologies and Abbots

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