As we celebrate the award of the Booker Prize to the modern-day classic ‘Shuggie Bain’ by the Scots-American author Douglas Stuart, we should remember another working-class literary genius from the other side of the pond. Monday November 30th marked the 185thanniversary of the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who was born in 1835. He has been called the ‘Father of American Literature’, with his famous novels like ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, ‘Pudd'nhead Wilson’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Clemens’ 70th birthday party, held in the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in 44th Street, New York on 24th November, 1905, was one of the great literary events of the early 20th century. It was organised and paid for by his publisher, Colonel George Harvey. 170 guests were treated to a sumptuous 12-course feast, washed down with gallons of Champagne and whisky. 

Clemens’ favourite dram was Scotch whisky. Andrew Carnegie, the multi-millionaire Scots-born industrialist and philanthropist, who was a guest at the birthday dinner, used to send Clemens regular casks of quality whisky as a gift. In one of his thankyou letters, Clemens wrote: ‘The whisky arrived in due course from over the water; last week one bottle of it was extracted from the wood and inserted into me, on the instalment plan … with this result, that I believe it to be the best, smoothest whisky now on the planet.’

The guest list for the party, of Mark Twain’s contemporaries and friends, revealed a lot about this extraordinary man. Unusually, for that time, almost half the guests were women. They were not simply the spouses or partners of male guests. On the contrary, these were talented authors, renowned in their own right, many of them young, emerging writers, demonstrating Twain’s disdain for chauvinism and prejudice and his love of equality. As an ardent anti-imperialist and a believer in women’s suffrage, women’s rights, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves, Mark Twain had become the voice of a young nation.

Samuel Clemens was born two months prematurely in a little shack, in the tiny village of Florida, Missouri. Son of a stern and authoritarian father – John Clemens, a Justice of the Peace, who rarely smiled and a gregarious mother Jane, who loved storytelling, dancing and enjoying village life, ‘Little Sammy’ was the sickly, second youngest of seven siblings, of whom only four survived to adulthood. When Little Sammy was four, the family moved northwest to the small port town of Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, which later provided the setting for some of Mark Twain’s most celebrated novels including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Samuel’s father died shortly after being appointed as a justice of the peace or local judge. Samuel’s elder brother Orion was sent to St. Louis to earn a living as an apprentice printer, sending money home to keep the Clemens family afloat. 

At the age of 15, Samuel Clemens left school and got a job as an apprentice printer at the Missouri Courier, until his elder brother returned to Hannibal and purchased the local paper – The Hannibal Journal – and gave young Sam a job writing humorous sketches and poetry. By the time Sam turned 21 he was earning good money from his writing and he was keen to explore further afield. He boarded a Mississippi steamboat on the first leg of an intended journey to Brazil. However, his love of life on the river convinced young Sam that he should train as a steamboat pilot. He learned to judge the river’s depth by listening to the calls of the leadsmen, who would shout out terms like “quarter twain,” “half-twain” and “mark twain”, the latter denoting a safe depth. It became the inspiration for his pseudonym.

He was settling into a career on the river when, in 1860, the civil war broke out, abruptly ending all commercial traffic on the Mississippi. Sam headed west to Nevada trying his hand unsuccessfully as a silver miner, but inevitably ending up utilising his real skill as a writer in a fulltime job on the Territorial Enterprise, Nevada’s first newspaper, where he began to use the pen-name Mark Twain. His fame was growing and with it his earnings, but his wanderlust got him moving again, this time to San Francisco where he took up a lucrative post with the Morning Calling, although he contrived to fall out with the editor and was fired. Twain was jailed for drunkenness, when suddenly news arrived that a story he’d written had appeared in the New York Saturday Press to huge acclaim and then had been syndicated in many other papers. On the back of this success he headed off to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), writing amusing travel tales of life in Honolulu. Thus, began his career as the Bill Bryson of his day, writing often satirical and comical tales of his worldwide adventures. 

In 1867, the 32-year-old Mark Twain fell head-over-heels in love with ‘Livy’. She was ten years younger than him, beautiful, deeply religious and somewhat perplexed by this rough-hewn country boy. She finally agreed to marry him in February 1870, after forcing him to pledge that he would give up drinking and cursing. Livy came from a wealthy, liberal family and it was through them that Twain came to meet socialists, abolitionists, women’s rights activists and even principled atheists. The utopian socialist William Dean Howells became Twain’s lifelong friend and indeed made the key introductory speech at Twain’s momentous seventieth birthday party in New York many years later. 

Mark Twain famously said “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” He undoubtedly accomplished many things. He was constantly at war with politicians and other writers. He had many failures in his life, including failed newspapers and a failed printing press. But he knew that his accomplishments far outweighed those shortcomings. Mark Twain died in his sleep on 21st April 1910, at the age of 75.