The Best of Mark Twain: Where to start with the influential American writer?

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,'” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills of Africa (1935). There is no denying Twain’s profound impact on subsequent generations of American writers.

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, and grew up in the little town of Hannibal, Missouri, near the banks of the Mississippi River, which served as the setting for many of his novels. He relied on his own experiences growing up in a river village, filling his stories with vivid depictions of life on the Mississippi.

At the age of 13, he dropped out of school and started working at the same newspaper where his brother Orion was employed. He started as a printer’s apprentice and soon became an editorial assistant, where he developed a passion for writing.

He continued to write for newspapers while simultaneously taking a job as the captain and driver of a riverboat. Soon enough, he was setting off for the West, trying to become wealthy during the Nevada Silver Rush.

As we all know, Twain failed as a miner but succeeded as a writer. He soon went to work at the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise, where he first used his pen name. He used other pen names, such as “Josh” and “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass”, before deciding on “Mark Twain”.

In 1865 was published his humorous story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” obtaining his first big success and even international attention as the story was translated into French.

Bigger successes were to come in the following decades, with the publication of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), painting a vivid picture of life in small-town America, then “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884), establishing him as a notable American author.

He married Olivia Langdon in 1870, and the couple had four kids. Two of their daughters, Susy and Jean, died in their 20s, Susy from spinal meningitis and Jean from a bout of epilepsy, while their son Langdon passed away when he was a child from diphtheria. Their surviving daughter, Clara, had one daughter of her own and lived to be 88 years old. There aren’t any direct surviving ancestors of Mark Twain because Clara’s daughter never had any of her own.

While Twain made a lot of money through his writing and lectures, he also lost a lot of money by investing in businesses that failed, such as the Paige Compositor, a mechanical typesetter that was too complicated and inaccurate to work.

Mark Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, leaving behind him an enduring legacy through his literary work and impact on American culture.

Listen to Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc on LibriVox.

Mark Twain’s Own Favorite Book

When you think of Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn likely come to mind more often than the religious figure Joan of Arc.

But it is actually his book called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc that was the work Mark Twain was the most proud of.

Coley Taylor recalled in an essay published in American Heritage, an exchange he had with Mark Twain as a child when he was his neighbor in Redding, Connecticut. After telling the writer how much he loved Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Twain became irritated and told the boy:

“Now listen to what an old man tells you. My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc . You are too young to understand and enjoy it now but read it when you are older. Remember then what I tell you now. Joan of Arc is my very best book.” I had never seen him so cross. I can see him yet, shaking that long forefinger at me.

He also wrote in a letter to an unknown correspondent on November 30, 1908:

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.

If well received in 1895 when first published, Recollections was not favored and often criticized by 20th-century critics. It has to be said that the book has recently created a new interest among readers and academics.

Frontpîece of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Illustration by Daniel Carter Beard.

Mark Twain’s Most Famous Books

The Mark Twain House & Museum is a non-profit organization with the mission to foster an appreciation of the legacy of Mark Twain. The institution provides tours of the author’s house in Hartford, Connecticut (a National Historic Landmark) where Twain lived and wrote his most important books, as well as other activities and educational programs.

On their website, the organization provides a list of Mark Twain’s major works in chronological order. Be free to read them in the order you like!

The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Roughing It (1872)
The Gilded Age (1873)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
A Tramp Abroad (1880)
The Prince and the Pauper (1881)
Life on the Mississippi (1883)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
The Diaries of Adam and Eve (1893/1905)
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)
Following the Equator (1897)
The Mysterious Stranger (1916)

Additionally, the organization recommends, in order to explore Twain’s shorter works, to dive into: Mark Twain: Collected Tales‚ Sketches‚ Speeches‚ & Essays‚ 1852-1890; Mark Twain: Collected Tales‚ Sketches‚ Speeches‚ & Essays‚ 1891-1910 and finally Mark Twain’s Helpful Hints for Good Living (2004).

More About Mark Twain

For more info on the author and his books:

Mark Twain Project Online. Authorative Texts, Documents and Historical Research
Mark Twain House.
Mark Twain by Ken Burns. Documentary.

For more classic American literature, complement by reading the best stories written by Ernest Hemingway.