Mark Twain’s Internal Civil War

Mark Twain is as famous and talented a writer as Samuel Clemens was a divided man. Haunted by his guilty conscience, deeply torn by contemporary events, and plagued with debt, Sam Clemens did not live the positive life than many Americans expected of him. Mark Twain may have written classics that defined American literature, brilliantly recording American society in the Civil War era, but Samuel Clemens suffered nearly every possible hardship. Mark Twain was a celebrity famous for humor, but Samuel Clemens was a deeply depressed man. Within Samuel Clemens was a battle where the humorist Twain would battle the depressed Clemens, and each personality had successes as well as losses. At times, Twain would come out on top and humor would carry the day, while other times Clemens would simply slip into a deep depression. Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens were two sides of the same coin, both in conflict but also both necessary to make the man.

Clemens was a man constantly plagued by his guilted conscience. If something went wrong in his life, he would find some way to place the blame on his own shoulders. Unfortunately, plenty of things went wrong during his life. An early event that always stayed with him was the death of a tramp within the village jail when he was a boy. The tramp had burned to death, and Clemens had given him matches. Clemens wrote that the man:

lay across my conscience a hundred nights afterward and filled them with hideous dreams – dreams in which I saw his appealing face as I had seen it I the pathetic reality, pressed against the window bars, with the red hell glowing behind him – a face which seemed to say to say to me, “If you had not given me the matches this would not have happened; you are responsible for my death.” I was not responsible for it…but no matter, mine was a trained Presbyterian conscience and knew but the one duty – to hunt and harry its slave upon all pretexts and on all occasions, particularly when there was no sense nor reason in it.[1]

Clearly, to have been able to write so vivid an account of a childhood experience means that this event deeply affected Clemens. One of his most formative struggles came with the death of his beloved brother, Henry. To Clemens, Henry was the perfect younger brother, a shining example of humanity. Samuel had secured his brother a job on the Pennsylvania, a steamboat he was serving on. Shortly after Samuel left because of a dispute with the pilot, the ship suffered a boiler explosion. Hearing the news, Clemens rushed to the building where the wounded were being held. Writing about the event, he described a room where the dying would be taken as not to disturb the others, and said of his brother, “On the evening of the sixth day, his wandering mind busied itself with matters far away, and his nerveless fingers ‘picked at his coverlet.’ His hour had struck; we bore him to the death room, poor boy.”[2]

In his adult life, Clemens suffered even greater loss. First was the loss of his son Langdon. During a morning walk with his young son, Clemens seemed to have accidentally allowed a blanket to slip off of his son. Langdon later died of illness. Twain always felt guilty for the death of his son even though interpretations of the facts about the boy’s death dispute Twain’s responsibility. One writer noted that “Looking back on that carriage ride with Langdon, Clemens wrote in 1906: ‘I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s work.’”[3]

Much like the earlier examples of the tramp and Henry, Twain placed blame on himself for circumstances he could not possibly have predicted. Langdon death was not the only tragedy Clemens suffered in his adulthood. In 1896, while Clemens was still away on a tour meant to help pay off debts accrued by speculation in inventions, his daughter Susy Clemens died of meningitis. Twain had been especially close to Susy, an outspoken girl who often critiqued his lectures and work, and who wrote a touching biography on her father. Clemens was utterly devastated by her death. His writing about her death speaks volumes as to how Clemens coped with each tragedy that came his way:

It is one of the mysteries of nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize the real import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss – that is all. It will take the mind and memory months and possibly years to gather together the details and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss.[4]

To Clemens, trauma was not a quick happening. It was slow; it was ongoing. Trauma such as the loss of Suzy was trauma that took time to set in to his full understanding, and had plenty of time to properly torment him throughout his life. Following Suzy’s death was the death of Olivia Clemens, his beloved wife. Finally, Jean died. Plagued by seizures throughout her life, she drowned in a bath while visiting her father for Christmas. Mark Twain simply wrote, “It is true. Jean is dead.”[5] The width and depth of repeated tragedy had begun to wear away at Samuel Clemens.

His struggles with guilt and depression in his own life trickled into his writings as Mark Twain. He was very much “a prisoner of his conscience and of his confusion about the conscience,” and his “latent feeling of guilt manifested itself in much of his work.” [6] In later books, Twain deals with his depression in other ways. Twain’s writings become dark and bitter as Clemens suffered through first debt and then the loss of those he loved. Writing on Jean’s death, Clemens wrote, “A month ago I was writing bubbling and hilarious articles for magazines yet to appear, and now I am writing – this.”[7] Over his career, the lighthearted travel monologues and stories about growing up he began with were replaced with more serious stories. Even coming-of-age stories such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn found themselves filled with commentary on racism. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a brilliant representation of when Clemens’ darkness slipped into the writings of Twain. The novel begins as a humorous story of time travel and foolish shenanigans, but shifts into a moody telling of the apocalyptic nature of modern industrial society. Clemens described trauma and loss as a long, permanent process through an analogy comparing the loss of a person to the loss of a beloved home:

A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he misses this, then that, then the other thing. And when he casts about for it he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential – there was but one of its kind. It cannot be replaced. It was in that house. It is irrevocably lost. He did not realize that it was an essential when he had it; he only discovers it now when he finds himself balked, hampered, by its absence. It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of his disaster.[8]

Clearly, he never fully expected to recover completely from his losses. As such, Clemens’ depression would win battles over Twain’s wit, and find its way into writings criticizing religion, colonization, and the horrors of the modern world.

Samuel Clemens used Mark Twain as a way to easy his guilt and pain. One example is the characterization of Sid Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Modelled after Henry, Sid served as a way for Mark Twain to cope with the suffering Samuel Clemens had experienced. Through writing Sid as the perfect, temperate child, Clemens could better cope with his loss. “The tales of Henry’s unrivaled goodness echo the conflict between Tom and Sid Sawyer. The tale of Henry’s death, still emotional and raw after more than forty years…prompts him to revisit a dream that comes to signify not only Clemens’ worried conscience but also his mother’s insight into his tendency to embroider.”[9] By either writing his family into his stories or by shaping the way he spoke about them while dictating his autobiography later in life, Clemens found a way to cope with his guilt. Mourning and reconciliation are also at the heart of many of the later dictating sessions. Clemens’ self-indictment for his various failings (and his imagined liability for the suffering or deaths of family members such as Henry, Langdon, and Suzy, had no bounds. As dictation continued, he had also lost his wife, compounding his losses even further. “Clemens returned to the earlier manuscripts with the hope to spark his memory and generate talk that might help ease his conscience. That assuaging of conscience, that peace allied to domestic calm becomes doubly important as Clemens struggles with the combined loss of Suzy and Livy.”[10] Clemens found a way to cope with his losses through using Mark Twain as a vessel to either write his loved ones into his novels, or simply through compiling his autobiography, which allowed him to shape his memory and understanding of his life. Clemens had a remarkable ability to find ways to cope with tragedy, even at the end. Writing after Jean’s death, he said:

Shall I ever be cheerful again, happy again? Yes. And soon. For I know my temperament. And I know that the temperament is master of the man, and that he is its fettered and helpless slave and must in all things do as it commands. A man’s temperament is born in him, and no circumstances can ever change it. My temperament has never allowed my spirits to remain depressed long at a time.[11]

Although the legitimacy of that final sentence could be doubted, it remains clear that Samuel Clemens had faith in his tried and tested ability to recover and cope with trauma.

Ultimately, Mark Twain served as a way for Samuel Clemens to cope with the great difficulty and tragedy his life had been filled with. Unfortunately, the tragedies finally overwhelmed Twain’s ability to support Clemens. Although Twain continued to make public appearances, those who were close to him knew that he was extremely lonely. Ken Burns’ documentary, Mark Twain, noted that Twain surrounded himself with young girls towards the end of his life. They perhaps served to be his surrogate grandchildren, as Twain had lost his wife as well as several of his children. This loneliness slipped into the writings of Twain. Never again would his writings be the popular hits that lighthearted travel narratives had been. Instead, the writings began to take a dark turn. Many stories were deemed so negative in topic that they were not published until after Clemens’ death. The lights had gone out of Clemens’ life one by one, and Twain’s writings reflected that, even if many writings had, in fact, helped him to cope with tragedy.


[1] Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 53.

[2] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Dover Publications, 2000), 103.

[3] Sam B Girgus. “Conscience in Connecticut: Civilization and Its Discontents in Twain’s Camelot.” The New England Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1978): 547.

[4] Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 422.

[5] Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 494.

[6]  Sam B Girgus. “Conscience in Connecticut: Civilization and Its Discontents in Twain’s Camelot.” The New England Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1978): 547.

[7] Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York: HarperCollins, 1990),  494.

[8] Ibid., 422-423.

[9] Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), xlviii.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Albert Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography ; the Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Volume 4 (Harper & Brothers, New York, 2012), 1552.

4 Responses to Mark Twain’s Internal Civil War

  1. Sad to learn of so much tragedy to balance his great wit. One of the patriot from Missouri’s accomplishments was to assist President Grant in the publication of his war memoirs, which assured financial security for Grant’s family. Unfortunately, smoking all those cigars cut U.S. Grant’s life short and there was no autobiography of his Presidential years. With his support of civil rights and battles with the Klan those years deserve rehabilitation, much as General Longstreet’s war record and post-war service has been rescued from the myths of the Lost Cause.
    Thank you for this thought provoking article.

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