"Style icon" might not be the first words that come to mind when you think of Mark Twain, but he was — in his own way — obsessed with style. He championed it, mocked it, and tried very hard to master it. He ruined his finances, partly in an attempt to keep up with Victorian ideals of high American style, and later tore those same Victorian ideals to shreds in his 1873 satire, "The Gilded Age."
Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) came from the Midwest and spent most of his childhood in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri, where his family home is now a tourist attraction and museum. He was born around the time that Halley's Comet appeared, and he would die, 74 years later, when it approached near the earth again. Twain vividly remembered the town and residents of Hannibal, and boys he played with as a child would later be re-envisioned as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and other characters in his novels. Next to his boyhood home is the fence that's said to have inspired the famous whitewashing story in Tom Sawyer. His father, a judge, was notoriously bad with money, and they were forced to move out of their home at one point due to poverty. Sam worked as an assistant and printer at the local paper, which was run by his brother, Orion. In the 1850s, he left Hannibal to travel and worked various jobs until he found his first real calling as a steamboat pilot. It was the golden age of steamboats, or "floating palaces," which were usually furnished with velvet upholstered chairs and decorated in ornate millwork and gilding. Twain loved his new job and discovered his pen name on the water — "Mark Twain," the depth at which the boat moves into safe water or enters the shallows, depending on which way it's going.
Twain's career as a steamboat pilot ended with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Half of his family supported the South, half supported the North, and Twain was noncommittal. After a brief stint with a small, loosely organized group of Missouri Confederates, he escaped the army and headed West, where he began the next phase of his life as a journalist for newspapers in the Nevada and California territories. He paid close attention to the dialect and stories of miners, and he wrote his famous "Jumping Frog" story after hearing the tale in a cabin on 'Jackass Hill' in California.
In the 1860s, he was sent to the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii) on assignment, and when he returned, he began giving lectures on what he saw. His style of humor, his gift with words, and his signature drawl made him a popular lecturer, and he embarked on a career as an orator and sometime-travel-journalist. He joined a cruise to Europe, and his experiences on the trip formed the material for his first full-length book, The Innocents Abroad.
Through a contact made on the ship, he met his wife, Olivia (Livy) Langdon, a wealthy woman from Elmira, New York. Mark Twain was lucky — he married for love and money. The young couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut where they commissioned an ornate house, funded largely by Livy's inheritance. Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, "The lack of money is the root of all evil," and they spared no expense on their house, decorating the interiors with hand-stenciled walls and glamorous furniture.
The Louis Comfort Tiffany company oversaw the interior decoration of the home, which operated at great expense — they had a daily budget for huge floral arrangements for nearly every room. Sam and Livy gave birth to three children, only one of whom survived into adulthood, but they loved their home and enjoyed many happy years while their children were young. Twain also wrote some of the greatest books of his career — including a large portion of Huckleberry Finn while they lived at the house. Eventually, Mark Twain ran into financial trouble (largely from overspending and some poor investment decisions) and they were forced to leave the Hartford House. He and his family traveled to Europe, where he began a lecture tour to make his money back and pay off his debts (which he eventually accomplished). Twain and his wife spent much of 1890s traveling, and Livy died in 1904, after falling ill in Florence. In his later years, Twain was a sharp and sad man, who had lost most of his family, save one daughter, Clara. He had cycled through several careers, traveled much of the world, and developed a disdain for American imperialism and overconsumption.
As he once said, "Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written," yet the new uncensored edition of his autobiography, to be released in November, continues to be news. Part of the fascination lies in the fact that he was never one person. His books, which remain controversial years and years after their publication, are the legacy of a layered life that still refuses to be pigeonholed into one style, one catch phrase, or one image. RESOURCES AND MORE INFORMATION • Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum • Mark Twain House and Museum • Dead for a Century, Twain Says What He Meant from the NY Times 2010 Photo Citations: (1) Photo by Matthew Brady or Levin Handy of Mark Twain (middle), American Civil War correspondent and author George Alfred Townsend (left), and David Gray, editor of the Buffalo Courier (right), February 7, 1871, Public Domain, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; (2) Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, Photo by Andrew Balet, used under Creative Commons License 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons, (3) Mark Twain Cabin, Jackass Hill, Tuolumne, CA, Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey: HABS, Public Domain; (4) Mark Twain House and Museum by Flickr member Ed Schipul used under Creative Commons License 2.0, (5) Mark Twain House and Museum by Flickr member cliff1066 used under Creative Commons License 2.0; (6) Entrance Hall, Mark Twain House, Detail of bust and wall stenciling, Library of Congress, HABS, Public Domain; (7) Mr. and Mrs. Clemens' Bedroom, Mark Twain House, Library of Congress, HABS, Public Domain; (8) Billiard Room, Mark Twain House, Library of Congress, HABS, Public Domain; (9) Tiffany Lamps, Mark Twain House and Museum by Flickr member cliff1066 used under Creative Commons License 2.0; (10) Mark Twain portrait, 1908, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain; (11) Mark Twain portrait, 1907, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain; (12) Mark Twain portrait, 1907, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain; (13) Cover of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; (14) Tourist Boat in Hannibal, Missouri, "The Mark Twain," by Flickr member Ian Weller used under Creative Commons License 2.0; (15) Mark Twain photo portrait, 1907, Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons