Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Twain, Mark

Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


Pseudonym of US author Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), whose early life and work revolved around the Mississippi River, initially as a steamboat pilot 1857-1861, a job he loved and whose loss because of the outbreak of the Civil War was deeply wounding to him, though he had in fact begun publishing very early, his first piece being "A Gallant Fireman" (16 January 1851 Western Union). His 1860s sojourn in California may have been fruitful – his first fame dates from these years, as well as the Tall Tales and spoofs assembled in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (coll 1867) – but his heart lay in the region of his birth, though he never returned to his home territory to stay.

Clemens took his pseudonym from the work-phrase "by the mark twain", a pilot's shouted signal to the captain that the river is two fathoms or twelve feet deep, a navigable depth; his freshest nonfiction work, Life on the Mississippi (1883), depicted that life. The memory of the irremediable loss of that life shapes his greatest novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1884; vt Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) 1885; definitive text with cuts restored as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 2003), where the protagonists' Fantastic Voyage down the great river into the heart of darkness – though there are many differing readings of the core import of what may be the central American novel – can be centrally understood as a lament for the irretrievable loss of old America, all the more telling because Huck's descent from Pastoral to nightmare takes place around 1850; it is a transition indelibly dramatized – as Leo Marx (1919-2022) argues in The Machine in the Garden (1964) – through the destruction of his original raft by the forces of Technology as embodied in a demonic, oblivious steamboat. In the famous last paragraph, Huck hopes by "lighting out for the Territory" to escape the entanglements of the River as civilization chokes it, and turn his tale into a Western; but Twain's derisory sequel, Tom Sawyer Abroad by Huck Finn Edited by Mark Twain (1894), allows Huck no escape. Robert Coover's very late direct Sequel by Other Hands, the fantasticated Huck Out West (2017), leaves the river behind, but gives Huck no real solace in the treacherous hinterlands westward (again see Westerns).

So the immuring River remains central. As he drifts downstream on versions of his raft, Huck encounters an array of dialect-distinctive barge-cities or towns strung along the great river, an Archipelago of distinct but cumulatively conjoined societies, a conversation of micro-worlds whose ultimate function in the tale is to predict the end of the glory days of the Mississippi, and the coming of the Gilded Age, and much else. Twain's Mississippi is almost certainly the first river (followed by the Thames, the Nile, the Amazon, the Jordan) that Western writers of Fantastika will have at the back of their minds when creating their own chthonic, defining, dividing streams. It seems very likely that it was for this reason Philip José Farmer makes Twain the central character of his Recursive The Fabulous Riverboat (July-August 1967 and June-August 1971 If as "The Felled Star" and "The Fabulous Riverboat"; fixup 1971). What Farmer's homage also evokes is a sharpened awareness that a significant portion of Twain's output – including his second-best novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889; vt A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur 1889) – is sf.

One of Twain's models was clearly Edgar Allan Poe, some of whose sf tales, especially those explicitly constructed as hoaxes, were humorous; but Twain – who drew additionally on the tradition of the Tall Tale [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and much of whose early career was spent on stage performing tall tales he collected or wrote – was the first American writer fully to exploit the possibilities for Humour in sf, inaugurating a rich but narrow vein in tales like "Petrified Man" (4 October 1862 The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise), a newspaper hoax; or the skewed Utopia, "The Curious Republic of Gondour" (October 1875 Atlantic Monthly) as by Anon, in which certain classes of people have more votes than others: the privileged include land owners, but more importantly the educated, who gain more votes as they gain higher degrees: schools are free, and full. Further work of this sort is assembled in The Curious Republic of Gondour and Other Whimsical Sketches (coll 1919). Some of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, whose "Harrison Bergeron" [October 1961 F&SF] presents a topsy-turvy version of "Gondour", seems directly linked to this vein of humour.

Twain's career is not easy to describe in good order. Much of his most interesting work, from the 1860s until the end of his life, was left either unfinished or left (still unpublished when he died) in more than one version; nonfiction sketches and fragmentary visions proliferate. Posthumous collections of this work include Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events (coll 1940) and Letters from the Earth (coll 1962), both edited by Bernard DeVoto. The Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (coll 1992 2vols) assembles much of the short work, but excludes without explanation tales like "Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes" [see below]. Several earlier collections fill in this and other gaps, including Which Was the Dream? and Other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years (coll 1966) edited by John S Tuckey; Mark Twain's Fables of Man (coll 1972) edited by John S Tuckey; What Is Man? and Other Philosophical Writings (coll 1973) edited by Paul Baender; and The Science Fiction of Mark Twain (coll 1984; exp vt Tales of Wonder 2003) edited by David Ketterer, the twenty stories and fragments here selected arguably including everything resembling sf, of less than book length, in Twain's oeuvre. Unlike the Library of America set, these volumes come with vital explanatory material.

A typical example of Twain's scattershot career can be traced through his interest – like Poe before him – in the possibilities of ballooning. As early as 1868 he began a story about a Frenchman's Balloon journey from Paris to a prairie in Illinois, but left it unfinished because of the American publication of Jules Verne's Cinq semaines en ballon (1863; trans "William Lackland" as Five Weeks in a Balloon 1869). He then returned to the topic in the long-unavailable A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage by Mark Twain as Written by Him in April 1876 and Now for the First Time Privately Printed (written 1876; 1943 chap), and then again in the mercilessly routine, hardly-read Tom Sawyer Abroad by Huck Finn Edited by Mark Twain (1894; vt Tom Sawyer Abroad 1894), in which the hero crosses the Atlantic by powered balloon – more properly an Airship, the Invention of a Mad Scientist – ending up with his pals Huck and Jim in Cairo before escaping westward, against the wind. At points Twain is clearly Parodying aspects of Dime Novel, like those assembled in the Frank Reade Library; but despite the presence of chums the story itself has little in common with what would become the short-lived Airship Boys genre.

There is a sense that over the course of his career Twain's views darkened markedly, as the Gilded Age passed into the twentieth century, which proved difficult to spoof, though he makes a fairly mild attempt in A Double Barrelled Detective Story (January-February 1902 Harper's Magazine as "The Double-Barrelled Detective Story"; 1902), a Sherlock Holmes parody; one of the protagonists has modest extrasensory powers. In "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (December 1899 Harper's New Monthly Magazine), a Mysterious Stranger invades the eponymous enclave, which famously insists upon a Utopian level of honesty from its inhabitants, and tricks the good burghers into a series of greed-inspired falsehoods. It should be noted, however, that much of his late work was drafted years or decades before he published it (when, that is – see above – he did so at all). The skewed view of an ideal state offered in Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (written 1870s or later; December 1907-January 1908 Harper's Magazine; 1909; exp as Report from Paradise 1952) is a clear example of late work drafted early. The materialist Heaven of this tale is located in interstellar space, through which Stormfield sails with an increasing number of companions, rather in the manner of the narrator in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937). To begin with, Stormfield races a Comet, a not unlikely invention for a writer whose arrival and departure from Earth coincided with the timetable of Halley's Comet (a fragment from the 1880s is entitled "A Letter from the Comet"). Twain's interest in astronomical distances, evident elsewhere, is particularly apparent here.

A parallel interest in vast temporal perspectives and geological ages is conspicuous in the many pieces that constitute Twain's down-home Adam and Eve stories, including practical speculations about the daily lives of Adam and Eve in Extracts from Adam's Diary: Translated from the Original Ms by Mark Twain (in The Niagara Book: A Complete Souvenir of Niagara Falls Containing Sketches, anth 1893; 1904 chap); in Eve's Diary: Translated from the Original Ms by Mark Twain (December 1905 Harper's Magazine; 1906); and in "Papers of the Adam Family" (written 1870s or later) and "Letters from the Earth" (written 1909), both posthumously assembled in Letters from the Earth (coll 1962). A considerably darkened sense of time and cyclical history informs "The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire" (written 1901-1902; in Mark Twain's Fables of Man, coll 1972), a horrific but uncompleted vision of a future, 1000 years hence, where Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science rules the world, and Twain himself, the potential saviour, is confused with Adam; Twain's acerbic views on Eddy (1821-1910) are fully presented in his Christian Science with Notes Containing Corrections to Date (1907).

Given his fascination with Time and history, it is not surprising that Twain's best and most influential work of sf, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, should be concerned with Time Travel via Timeslip. The tale which seems to have inspired A Connecticut Yankee, Max Adeler's "Professor Baffin's Adventures" (in Beeton's Christmas Annual, anth 1880; vt "The Fortunate Island" in The Fortunate Island and Other Stories, coll 1882), is an implicit time-travel story, but Twain's novel is a very early genuine time-travel story, though preceded by Enrique Gaspar's "El anacronópete" (in Novelas, coll 1887; trans Yolanda Molina-Gavilán and Andrea Bell as The Time Ship: A Chrononautical Journey 2012), which he would not have encountered before writing his own novel. A Connecticut Yankee certainly established the pattern for that kind of sf (predominantly US) in which the hero, more or less single-handedly, affects the destiny of an entire world or Universe (the destructive ending takes care of the anachronism issue): a classic Genre SF example of this kind of single-handed exercise in Cultural Engineering is L Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (December 1939 Unknown; exp 1941; rev 1949). While writing A Connecticut Yankee, Twain, who like his Promethean hero was gripped by the march of invention – his own Inventions included a history Game and a notebook with ears, and he anticipated Radio and Television – became disastrously involved financially with the Paige typesetter. That was one reason it has been suggested that after A Connecticut Yankee the dark began to dominate in Twain's work, though it has become increasingly clear that his personal and cultural pessimism (Optimism and Pessimism) long predated his not infrequent bad business decisions, most of them made near the end of the century. It is certainly the case that the tone of Connecticut Yankee is consistent with the gloomy, quasi-Darwinist, philosophical ideas explored in such non-sf works as What Is Man? (first version written 1898; 1906) – the answer being a Machine – and The Mysterious Stranger (three incomplete versions written between September 1897 and 1908; fraudulent composite text assembled by Albert Bigelow Paine May-November 1916 Harper's Magazine; 1916; original texts assembled as Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts 1969) (see again Mysterious Stranger). Both tales claim that everything is determined and that reality is all a dream anyway. New to The Mysterious Stranger (in all versions) is the scathing invective applied to the concept of a just God "who mouths mercy and invented hell" and who insists that his victims worship him.

The same ideas pervade Twain's explorations in microcosmic worlds (see Great and Small) in two extended but unfinished works. "The Great Dark" (written 1898; in Letters from the Earth, coll 1962) – so titled by Paine rather than Twain – is about an apocalyptic Fantastic Voyage in a drop of water – recalling Fitz-James O'Brien's "The Diamond Lens" (January 1858 Atlantic Monthly). The narrator of the Satire, "Three Thousand Years among the Microbes" (written 1905; in Which Was the Dream? and Other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years, coll 1967), having been reduced to microscopic size by a wizard (see Miniaturization), explores the world-body of a diseased tramp, Blitzowski (one of whose inhabitants is called Lemuel Gulliver, the influence of Jonathan Swift being apparent throughout); it is implied that the Universe we inhabit is actually God's diseased body. (This kind of macrocosm/microcosm relationship is hinted at in Twain's 1883 notebook outline for what, in anticipation of the Generation-Starship theme, might be called a generation-iceberg story.) In The American Claimant (1892), Colonel Mulberry Sellers claims, among other inventions, to have perfected the "Materializer", which can reconstruct the dead from whatever original atoms remain, and to be able to affect the climate by shifting sunspots.

If travel or communication can be conceived of as instantaneous – in A Connecticut Yankee and the microscopic-world stories the transference is indeed instantaneous – it seems logical that Twain's fictional presentations of the fragility of the physical world and therefore of existence are augmentations of his abiding conviction that reality was as insubstantial and vagrant as a thought or a dream (see Perception). In this connection, and as evidence of Twain's concern with psychic possibilities (including the whirligig of schizophrenia), we should note the essays "Mental Telegraphy: A Manuscript with a History" (December 1891 Harper's) and "Mental Telegraphy Again" (September 1895 Harper's), which argue for the reality of ESP. Reference is made to the English Society for Psychical Research, and it is suggested that something called a "phrenophone" might communicate thoughts instantaneously just as the telephone communicates words. In "From the 'London Times' of 1904" (November 1898 The Century) another futuristic Invention, called the "telelectroscope", a visual telephone or videophone, is used seemingly to disprove a murder. But it is precisely the divorce between image and reality afforded by this kind of instantaneous communication which causes ontological anxiety, and so the suspected murderer is executed anyway.

Twain himself has appeared in various novels, including Philip José Farmer's Riverworld sequence – in particular The Fabulous Riverboat (fixup 1971) – Robert A Heinlein's To Sail Beyond the Sunset: The Life and Loves of Maureen Johnson: (Being the Memoirs of a Somewhat Irregular Lady) (1987) and Dan Simmons's Fires of Eden (1994); and in various Steampunk-inflected tales and Comics, sometimes in the company of Nikola Tesla. He also appears in several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). Notable recent novels to feature him include Walter Jon Williams's The Boolean Gate (2012) and Joyce Carol Oates's The Accursed (2013); these authors tend not to focus on Twain's actual work, though a long homage to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appears in Dan Simmons's The Fall of Hyperion (1990).

In the end, the two or three masterpieces – restored where necessary – remain central to American literature, and his work in general remains of more significance in the sophistication of early American sf than had been realized before the relatively recent publication in organized form of his disjecta membra, much of this material being fantastic. Masterpieces aside, it should also be remembered that Twain, even more than Charles Dickens, was a performance artist; and that, unlike Dickens, who completed almost everything he started, he is perhaps best grasped on the wing. The recent release in unaltered form of the deliberately loose-slung nonconsecutive memoirs/speculations of his last years – beginning with the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 1 (2010) – will significantly improve readers' chance of capturing his sf thoughts as he performed them in his head. [DK/JC/DRL]

see also: Edisonade; History of SF; Meme; Pocket Universe; SF Music; Shakespeare; Shared Worlds; Worldcon.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens

born Florida, Missouri: 30 November 1835

died Redding, Connecticut: 21 April 1910

works (selected)

Mark Twain, Jules Verne and Rudyard Kipling are bibliographically more complex than perhaps any other writers of interest in this encyclopedia: Kipling meant to do that; Verne was plagued by pirate translators and shifting markets; Twain, who left various versions of many works unpublished at his death, many of them incomplete, did exactly intend to confuse. We register here only the surface of his bibliographical record.


Adam and Eve

individual titles

collections and stories




  • Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 1 (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2010) [nonfiction: edited with an introduction and notes by Harriet Eleanor Smith et al: first complete text: taken from manuscript: Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library: Autobiography: hb/Sandy Drooker]
  • Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 2 (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2013) [nonfiction: edited with an introduction and notes by Harriet Eleanor Smith et al: first complete text: taken from manuscript: Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library: Autobiography: hb/Sandy Drooker]
  • Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 3 (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2015) [nonfiction: edited with an introduction and notes by Harriet Eleanor Smith et al: first complete text: taken from manuscript: Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library: Autobiography: hb/Sandy Drooker]

individual autobiographical volumes

individual nonfiction titles (selected)

about the author


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies