Famous Friendships That Shaped Mark Twain

American writer, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer, Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “No man is a failure who has friends.” From presidents to inventors, the “father of American Literature” was friends with many of history’s giants. But his relationships are just as interesting as the man himself since friendships shaped his lives and his shaped theirs in return. This quality makes Mark Twain a perfect candidate for the next example of friendships in literature for my series, New Year; New Types of Friends. (Check out my earlier posts with examples of friendships in politics, sports, movies, and television).

About Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910) is better known by his pen name Mark Twain. His novels include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the latter of which has often been called the “Great American Novel”. His obituary in The New York Times called him the “greatest humorist the United States has produced.”

In 1839, Clemen’s family moved to the port town of Hannibal, Missouri in search of greater economic opportunities. Samuel’s father was an attorney and judge, but died of pneumonia in 1847 when Samuel was just 11. The following year, Samuel left school after the fifth grade to become a printer’s apprentice. In 1851, he began working as a typesetter, contributing articles and humorous sketches to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper that his older brother, Orion owned. At age 18, Samuel left Hannibal to work as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, after joining the newly formed International Typographical Union, the printer’s trade union. He educated himself in public libraries in the evenings, finding wider information than at a conventional school.

Later, Samuel joined his brother, Orion on a move west. After Orion is named secretary to Nevada Territory governor James W. Nye in 1861, the brothers traveled over two weeks on a stagecoach before settling in the silver-mining town of Virginia City, Nevada.

After failing as a miner, Samuel went to work at the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise. He earned a great deal of money from his writings and lectures but also invested in ventures that lost most of it—such as the Paige Compositor, a mechanical typesetting machine that failed because of its complexity and imprecision in the 1890s. He filed for bankruptcy in the wake of these financial setbacks. 

Over time though, Clemens overcame his financial troubles by making money as a famous author and speaker. 

The Origin of “Mark Twain”

Samuel Clemens first signed his pen name in February 1863 on a humorous travel account in the Territorial Enterprise titled “Letter From Carson – re: Joe Goodman; party at Gov. Johnson’s; music.” “Mark Twain” (meaning “Mark number two”) was a Mississippi River term: the second mark on the line that measured depth signified two fathoms, or twelve feet—a safe depth for the steamboat. Twain had studied the Mississippi River, learning its landmarks, how to navigate its currents effectively, and how to read its constantly shifting channels, reefs, submerged snags, and rocks.  

A Virginia City legend indicates Clemens acquired the nickname before it appeared in print, derived from his habit of striding into the Old Corner Saloon and calling out to the barkeep to “Mark Twain!” This was a phrase that meant to bring two blasts of whisky to Sam Clemens and make two chalk marks against his account on the back wall of the saloon.

His Family Life

Clemens’ wife, Olivia Langdon originally rejected Sam’s first marriage proposal before they married in Elmira, New York in February 1870. She came from a “wealthy but liberal family” so Twain met many abolitionists, “socialists, principled atheists and activists for women’s rights and social equality”. The Langdon family status led to many famous friendships for Samuel.

The Clemens family lived in Buffalo, New York where Samuel owned a stake in a newspaper and worked as an editor and writer. While they lived in Buffalo, their 19-month-old son, Langdon died of diphtheria . They had three daughters: Susy (1872–1896), Clara (1874–1962), and Jean (1880–1909). The family moved in 1871 to Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain wrote many of his classic novels during his 17 years there and during summers at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York; the home of Olivia’s sister, Susan Crane.

Their marriage lasted 34 years until Olivia’s death in 1904. All of the Clemens family are buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

His Famous Friendships

Over the years, Twain formed friendships with many notable figures in history that shaped his work and the way he saw the world.

An Author

Harriet Beecher Stowe

One of Mark Twain’s good friends and neighbors was an American author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet’s brother, Thomas Beecher, performed the ceremony at Twain’s wedding. Her other brother also helped Twain to negotiate publishing terms. Twain was interested in the reaction to Stowe’s book and hoped that he could replicate the success.

When Twain moved his family to Hartford in 1873, he arranged the building of a home next door to Stowe. He would later come to defend Stowe who published a scandalous exposé in The Atlantic Monthly on her peer, George Gordon Byron, also known as Lord Byron. Regarded as one of the greatest English poets and a leading figure of the Romantic movement), Stowe alleged that Byron “fell into the depths of a secret adulterous intrigue with a blood relation, so near in consanguinity that discovery must have been utter ruin and expulsion from civilized society.”. Twain defended Stowe not once, but seven times, illustrating his intense interest in Stowe’s literary career. 

A Slave

Fredrick Douglass

Through Olivia’s family, Mark Twain met social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, Frederick Douglass. Twain’s father-in-law, Jervis Langdon was wealthy and politically active. As a passionate abolitionist, Jervis played a major role in Douglass’ escape from slavery at age 20 when Fredrick stayed in Langdon’s parents’ home on the Underground Railroad.

Twain, raised in slaveholding Missouri, grew up immersed in the racism of the south. Yet his attitudes changed as he traveled the nation. By 1869, as editor of the Buffalo newspaper, he was writing editorials that attacked a lynching in Tennessee. At about the same time, Twain had his first chance to meet Douglass. Their first handshake evolved into a lasting friendship.  

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men shared impressive literary and oratorical talents. Douglass was a prolific author in his own right, who attended a reading of Huckleberry Finn in Washington, D.C. Both were popular speakers who frequented the same circles on the lecture circuit. 

Twain thought so highly of his friend, “Fred Douglass” that he wrote an unsolicited letter to President-elect Garfield in 1881 asking that he reappoint Douglass to the office of Marshal of the District of Columbia. Twain wrote, “I so honor this man’s high & blemishless character & so admire his brave long crusade for the liberties & elevation of his race.” Twain’s parents had enslaved people to work on their farm when he was a child. As an adult, Twain became “an early advocate for reparations,” once writing to a friend regarding slavery “the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.”

A Playwright

William Dean Howells

Realist novelist, literary critic, and playwright, William Dean Howells became a long-time friend of Mark Twain. Howells was born at Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, into a large family with radical political and religious tendencies. He was apprenticed to his father, a printer, and became a journalist. 

Twain and Howells first met in 1869 when both were in their early thirties. Howells was an assistant editor at The Atlantic Monthly. Charged with finding new voices from the West, he took the unorthodox step of reviewing a new book by Twain, The Innocents Abroad, that the publishing company only sold by subscription. Howells found  “always good-humored humor . . . and even in its impudence it is charming.” 

Howells used his position at the epicenter of American letters to assure Twain’s success. He also served as editor, proofreader, and sounding board. In literature, Howells championed and practiced realism. His best novels were The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). He memorialized his good friend in My Mark Twain (1910).

An Inventor

Nikola Tesla

Twain was also good friends with the inventor and visionary Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Tesla Motors, the American manufacturer of electric automobiles, solar panels, and batteries for cars and home power storage, is named after him.

Twain and Tesla met sometime in the 1890s and remained friends until Twain’s death in 1910. The sharp-tongued writer Twain and electricity wizard Tesla shared their intellectual curiosity. The two titans often exchanged letters after meeting in the New York social scene of the 1890s. Twain was a frequent visitor to Tesla’s lab. During many hours in this workshop of scientific oddities, Tesla wowed Twain with demonstrations of high voltage electricity. The men also experimented with early x-ray photography.

Tesla and Twain’s mutual admiration for each was so great that each claimed the other had once cured him of an illness. In his autobiography, Tesla wrote that when he was bedridden as a young man, Twain’s “captivating” novels had been a much-needed solace that helped jump-start his recovery from depression. After the two became friends, Tesla repaid the favor when he cured Twain of a severe bout of constipation by having him stand on a high-frequency oscillator.

A Blind Person

Helen Keller

One of the people who left the most lasting impression on Twain was Helen Keller. Twain and William Dean Howells, met Keller when she was just 14. In spite of the age difference, the two got along instantly. Helen reminded the author of his youngest daughter, Jean Clemens. They first met in 1894 at the home of Laurence Hutton, a mutual friend. Keller wrote to her mother that Mark Twain’s stories “made us laugh till we cried,” and Twain would later call Keller “the eighth wonder of the world.” Twain was interested in Keller’s uncanny ability to “see into things,” when most people with the gift of sight, could only stare at the world around them. He wrote that “She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander…Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.” 

Twain even went so far as to secure funding for Keller’s higher education. Keller, who had financial difficulties, passed the entrance exam for Radcliffe College. Twain wrote to the wife of the Standard Oil magnate, Henry Rogers to suggest he sponsor some of Keller’s education. Instead, Henry Rogers decided he would personally pay for all of Helen Keller’s college. It wasn’t the last time Twain would come to Keller’s rescue.

The two kept up a correspondence until Twain’s death in 1910, bonding over their passion for radical politics. The two weren’t always on the same page, though; Keller would often make fun of Twain for his pessimism.

A President

Ulysses S. Grant

Twain wasn’t just Helen Keller’s champion. Twain also saved U.S President and General Ulysses S. Grant from financial ruin. Grant and Twain first met when the former was still president. Twain was one of the few individuals who could make Grant break his rigid character and laugh. After his term in office, Grant ran into financial troubles. Ferdinand Ward, one of the greatest swindlers in American history, was one of Grant’s colleagues. He had developed a Ponzi scheme and invested Grant’s money in it. When the scheme collapsed Grant lost everything. In order to recuperate his losses, Grant began writing his memoirs as well as publishing articles. However, Grant did not have much confidence in his writing. At about this time, Grant was also diagnosed with throat cancer. Dying and broke, Grant’s family would have been left in ruin if not for Twain.

Twain overheard the editor of Century magazine talking about the articles Grant had been writing. When Twain heard that Grant was paid $500 for each article he was stunned. Twain considered it a massive insult to the former president. Twain went to Grant and looked at the contract drawn up for his memoirs. The deal offered Grant 10% of the royalty and half the profits of the book. Twain told Grant that the deal was absurd and offered him a much better contract through his own publishing house. Eventually, Grant agreed to Twain’s offer but was reluctant to take an advance because he was afraid Twain would lose out on the deal. 

Five days after finishing his memoirs, Grant succumbed to throat cancer. His memoirs became an instant bestseller and at 75% net royalties, made his family around $450,000, firmly reestablishing the fortune they had lost.  

Before his death in 1910, Mark Twain dictated over 5,000 pages of his autobiography, specifying that the manuscript should not get published until 100 years after his death so he could “speak freely from the grave.”

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GodBuddy Focus

You don’t need to be well-known, a great writer, or marry into a well-connected family like Mark Twain to have great friends. It also doesn’t matter how different you are from each other, you will help shape your friends’ lives. In fact, Twain’s famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn demonstrate this well. One of the boys is a simpleton, and the other is cunning and mischievous. But they stick by each other through thick and thin; just like your GodBuddy will.

My next post starts with a new subset of friendships in fantasy and adventure literature.


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