The Man Who Rode Halley’s Comet
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together” ~Samuel Clemens, 1909
Born in Florida, Missouri in 1835 just 2 weeks after Halley’s Comet closest approach, Samuel Clemens was the 6th of 7 children born of Jane and John Marshall Clemens. Only four children would survive past childhood, his older brother and older sister, Orion and Pamela, and his younger sibling Henry. Though born in Florida, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri (less than 30 miles away) when he was very young. It was growing up in Hannibal, the people, the place, the experiences, that would shape his most popular works: The adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
A ‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read”
Samuel Clemens, of course, was more well known by the moniker MARK TWAIN. Twain, a pen name based on a unit of measurement in riverboating, was one of many that he used. Prior to settling on Mark Twain, he signed sketches as “Josh” and was often known as the humorist Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.
“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”
A tour through Hannibal today will lead you to many Mark Twain landmarks as the city has fully embraced itself as the home of the man William Faulkner called “the father of American Literature.” There still stands his childhood home, and even the fence that would be the inspiration to the infamous whitewashing scene in Tom Sawyer.
Just across the street you’ll find the home of Laura Hawkins; the inspiration for Becky Thatcher. One of the tiny homes that Tom Blankenship, Twain’s best friend and the basis of the character Huck Finn, has been restored and can be visited as well.
“In ‘Huckleberry Finn’ I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly how he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as any boy had.”
The museum in Hannibal offers a wonderful exhibit where you can walk through his most famous works. Including A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, Roughing It, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. As well as a look at his time on the riverboats of the Mississippi; where he got the pen name we all know him by today.
“Mark Twain was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who used to write river news over it for the New Orleans Picayune. He died in 1863 and as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains.”
Mark Twain was well traveled doing speaking lectures — that bordered upon what we know today as Stand-Up Comedy — around the world and everywhere within North America. Within the United States, he held residence at one time or another in Missouri, Nevada, California, Connecticut, and New York (where he and his wife are buried, side by side).
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
It was due to his experiences growing up in a slave state in the pre-civil war era that shaped Mark Twain into the pro-emancipation, abolitionist that he was. Twain was also known to support the women’s suffrage movement and fought for worker’s rights. He also advocated for disability rights. Twain’s working partnerships and friends included people like Frederick Douglas, Helen Keller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Prudence Crandall, William Dean Howell, among others. To further his own point about travel and bigotry Mark Twain’s opinions on Indigenous people, of various lands, grew more as he ventured around the world and saw the trauma left behind by imperial colonizers.
“There are many humorous things in this world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
He was Presbyterian, but was critical of organized religion in general, especially late in life. So much so, that his most critical writings were not published until well after his death.
“But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?”
Besides being a writer, a miner (which he was no good at), a riverboat pilot, a speaker, and an activist, Twain was also an inventor. He shared a friendship with Nikola Tesla and was one of only a few people who ever spent extended time in Tesla’s lab. Twain would go on to patent a few inventions of his own including one in use today: The elastic hook closure for bras. A patent which he filed under “An Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments.” He had hope that it would do away with suspenders, which he hated.
“…for the vest, pantaloons, or other garment upon which my strap is to be used.”
During the final year of his life he would write (dictate) his autobiography. The first edition was 736 pages long, but the notes were compiled by others and the order changed from which he recited it. It was not published in its intended, non-chronological form, until 2010 and became an unexpected hit, which put Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain, in the very limited writer’s club of having a new bestselling book in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Mark Twain died in his home just one day after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to the Earth in April of 1910.
“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
After his death Mark Twain went on to make appearances in television and film including Star Trek, Touched By An Angel, Holmes & Watson, and Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues**
“It is no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
He lived a legendary life. He grew, he learned, he observed the world and all its good and bad. He wrote much of it, and spoke on the rest. He was not a perfect man, but he lived an extraordinary life, riding a comet through history.
“I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”
**Disclaimer: Samuel Clemens may not have been the actual person portraying Mark Twain on screen.
“When in doubt, tell the truth.”