Mark Twain, the literary genius who created such characters as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, lived a life packed with drama and tragedy. And literary success wasn’t something that came for him overnight: he was already 41 when Adventures of Tom Sawyer was first published. Before he became a success as a writer, he tried his hand at everything from printing to riverboat piloting and gold prospecting. Read on to learn about the remarkable life of this extraordinary man.
1. A fraught relationship with the Mississippi
In his autobiography, which is not always entirely dependable, Twain claimed he’d fallen into the Mississippi and nearly drowned on no fewer than nine occasions. Fortunately, the non-swimmer was rescued each time. Perhaps this fraught relationship with the great river was what prompted him to take on an apprenticeship as a steamboat pilot in 1857 in his early 20s.
A family tragedy
Around the time Twain started as an apprentice, a family disaster struck on the Mississippi. His younger brother Samuel had joined him as crewman aboard the Pennsylvania riverboat. Twain had not long left the Pennsylvania when its boiler exploded. Some 160 died in the disaster, including Samuel. Twain was grief-stricken, but even so he went on to obtain his pilot’s license a couple of years later.
2. One over the odds
Twain was a convivial sort who enjoyed a drink or two. One quote attributed to him runs thus: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” One night, it seems he was well pickled when his drinking buddy Artemus Ward decided he would like nothing better than an evening stroll. But Ward didn’t want to saunter along the sidewalk — he wanted to be as near the sky as he could be.
A close call
Twain joined Ward as he clambered up onto a house roof — not quite the sky but as high as they could conveniently rise. A night watchman spotted the duo and reasonably enough assumed they were burglars. So the guard leveled his sidearm at the revelers and took aim. Luckily, a friend of the inebriated duo was able to identify them as innocent drunks in the nick of time, and the two survived their close call.