"Appealing . . . a useful resource for teachers and student researchers." —Children's Literature
Mark Twain for Kids: His Life and Times with 21 Activitiesby R. Kent Rasmussen
Nineteenth-century America and the world of Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, come to life as children journey back in time with this history- and literature-laden activity book. The comprehensive biographical information explores Mark Twain as a multi-talented man of his times, from his childhood in the rough-and-tumble West of Missouri to his many
Nineteenth-century America and the world of Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, come to life as children journey back in time with this history- and literature-laden activity book. The comprehensive biographical information explores Mark Twain as a multi-talented man of his times, from his childhood in the rough-and-tumble West of Missouri to his many careers—steamboat pilot, printer, miner, inventor, world traveler, businessman, lecturer, newspaper reporter, and most important, author—and how these experiences influenced his writing. Twain-inspired activities include making printer’s type, building a model paddlewheel boat, unmasking a hoax, inventing new words, cooking cornpone, planning a newspaper, observing people, and writing maxims. An extensive resource section offers information on Twain’s classics, such as Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as a listing of recommended web sites to explore.
"Appealing . . . a useful resource for teachers and student researchers." —Children's Literature
Mary Ellen Snodgrass
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Mark Twain for Kids
His Life and Times, 21 Activities
By R. Kent Rasmussen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 R. Kent Rasmussen
All rights reserved.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens first saw the light of day in the north-eastern Missouri village of Florida — a place so small that he later called it "nearly invisible." It had a population of only 100 people when he was born. When he grew up, he bragged that not only had he single-handedly raised the village's population by one percent, but he could have done the same for any town. Wild exaggerations like that would someday become a trademark of Mark Twain's humor.
Like most people of his time, Sam was born in his family's home — a two-room house that was little larger than a shack. The date was November 30, 1835. At that time, Andrew Jackson was president of the United States, the nation's frontier began just west of the Mississippi River, and government troops were busy fighting the Seminole Indians of Florida.
Sam's father named him after his own father, Samuel B. Clemens, who died long before Sam was born. When Sam's grandfather was only 35 years old, he was crushed by a rolling log while helping neighbors build a log cabin in a Virginia county that later became part of West Virginia.
Family history would later find fictional expression in many of the books that Sam was to write. Indeed, the history of his family's move from Tennessee to Missouri is the starting point of The Gilded Age, a novel that he wrote with his friend Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. In that novel, the members of the fictional Hawkins family are modeled on the Clemenses, and Sam's own fictional counterpart is Clay Hawkins.
Sam's father came from a family that was proud of its elite ancestry. Sam himself liked to boast about one ancestor, an Englishman named Geoffrey Clement, who helped to have England's King Charles I beheaded in the 17th century. Sam's mother's side of the family also claimed noble descent; they were related to an English family named Lambton (which became "Lampton" when the family emigrated to America), whose men were heirs to an earldom. Sam's interest in noble descent shows up in several of his novels. The most famous examples can be found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of that novel's two scoundrels claims to be the rightful duke of Bridgewater, and the other, the king of France. Much of the fun of the story comes from Huck's pretending to believe the scoundrels' outrageous claims.
Sam's father, John Marshall Clemens, was born in Virginia in 1798. He was named after the prominent Virginian John Marshall, who later became a famous chief justice of the United States. However, John Clemens had a hard childhood. After the early death of his father, his mother remarried and moved to Kentucky, and he was soon forced to go to work. Eventually, he had to give most of what he had inherited from his father to his stepfather in return for raising him. With what he had left, he married Jane Lampton, of Kentucky, in 1823. Two years later, they moved across the border into Tennessee, where all five of Sam's older siblings were born.
The Clemenses lived in several different Tennessee towns. John Clemens held some important government jobs and had a small law practice. He even saved enough money to buy more than 100 square miles of land in eastern Tennessee, as an investment for his family's future.
During the early 1830s, Jane Clemens's sister Patsy and her husband, John Quarles, moved from Tennessee to the town of Florida, in northeastern Missouri. There they established a small farm and ran a general store. The Quarleses thought that Florida's future was bright, and they encouraged the Clemenses to follow them there. Around the middle of 1835, John and Jane Clemens left Tennessee and joined their relatives in Missouri. Sam was born in Florida, Missouri, about six months after they arrived. His only younger brother, Henry, was also born there, three years later.
During their first few years in Missouri, things went well for the Clemenses. Sam's father helped his brother-in-law run his store, then established his own dry-goods store. He also became a community leader. He had important jobs on a committee that was organized to develop navigation on the nearby Salt River, which fed into the Mississippi, and on another committee that was working to bring the railroad to Florida. He also became a country judge. If Florida became the prosperous center of commerce that they envisioned, the family's future would be bright.
However, the town did not prosper, and the Clemenses suffered for it. The Salt River never became important, and no railroad line ever reached the town. In fact, Florida never grew much larger than it was then. John Clemens's efforts to develop a law practice and run a store failed. To make matters worse, Sam's nine-year-old sister, Margaret, died in 1839. A few months later, John Clemens sold his property and moved the family to Hannibal, Missouri, a larger town on the Mississippi River, about 35 miles northeast of Florida.
The Family Moves to Hannibal
Sam was not quite four years old when the family moved to Hannibal. He couldn't have remembered Florida well from the time his family lived there. However, almost every year he lived in Hannibal, his family returned to Florida during the summer to stay on the Quarleses' farm. Florida thus remained important to Sam throughout his childhood. The fictional Mississippi riverfront village of St. Petersburg that is featured in Sam's best-known books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is modeled after the town of Hannibal. However, St. Petersburg also contains many elements of Florida, and of the Quarles farm.
Most of what we know about Sam's childhood comes from his own writings, especially the long, rambling autobiography that he wrote and dictated toward the end of his life. The stories of his youth that he told are rich and colorful, but they aren't always reliable. Sam always liked to take a good story and make it better, whether the result was true or not. His talent for doing this is one of the things that makes his books fun to read. However, that same talent also makes it difficult for us to know what to believe about his recollections about his early life.
One of the reasons that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has become a beloved classic is that it offers a joyous picture of a time and place that seems like a paradise for the children, particularly the boys, who are at the center of all the novel's adventures. Tom and his friends enjoy fishing, swimming, rafting, watching circuses and traveling troupes of actors, and playing adventure games such as pretending to be Robin Hood. Tom never has to look very far to find a companion with whom to share an adventure, and every time the novel places a dangerous challenge in his path, he emerges triumphant. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of the most satisfying boyhood adventure stories ever written, and the book has made Sam's boyhood home of Hannibal famous as a symbol of American values during a simpler time. However, the real Hannibal of Sam Clemens's boyhood in Missouri wasn't quite the paradise that the fictional St. Petersburg is. In fact, a careful read of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer reveals that St. Petersburg itself can be a dangerous and scary place.
In the real world of Sam Clemens's youth during the mid-19th century, life was far harder than it is now. This was especially true along the frontier, of which Missouri was still a part during the 1830s and 1840s. People had to work hard merely to get by. There was no electricity. Water didn't come from taps; it had to be pumped by hand. Stoves and heaters burned wood, which had to be chopped, carried, lighted, and tended. Most of the food that people ate didn't come from grocery stores, but from gardens and farms, and it required hard work to produce. If a harsh winter or other disaster damaged crops, times could be tough, indeed.
People who didn't produce their own food and clothes needed money or goods to trade for the items they required. For John Clemens to prosper as a merchant, there had to be customers to buy his goods. When times were tough, everyone in the community felt the pinch.
In addition to facing an uncertain economic future, the real Hannibal was a place in which violence — even murder — was common. It was also a place in which diseases such as measles, cholera, and typhoid periodically threatened to wipe out large parts of the population. Although The Adventures of Tom Sawyer suggests a picture of carefree life for boys, it also hints at the danger that existed in a town like Hannibal.
Judging by the many violent events that Sam witnessed when he was growing up, Hannibal was anything but a completely safe place. With his own eyes, he saw several murders, several attempted murders, a hanging, an attempted lynching, and a man burned to death in a jail. He also saw friends drown, and he came close to drowning himself several times. Those awful experiences gave him nightmares that haunted him for years. However, they also gave him ideas that he would later use in his books.
While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is generally a cheerful story in which mostly good things happen to its young hero, it has an undercurrent of danger. Early in the story, Tom and Huck go to a graveyard at night to try out a magical cure for warts. There they happen to see a doctor and two other men dig up a recently buried body. The grave robbers get into an argument, and one of them (Injun Joe) kills the doctor while the third man, Muff Potter, is passed out.
What Tom and Huck see that night nearly scares them to death. The next day they return to the graveyard, where the villagers are gathering to look at the murder scene. When Injun Joe says that Muff killed the doctor, Tom and Huck are amazed that God doesn't strike Joe dead for lying, and they become even more afraid of him than ever. They run off together and sign an oath in their own blood, swearing never to tell their terrible secret to anyone else. Huck is afraid that if he or Tom tells their secret, and Injun Joe isn't hanged, "Why, he'd kill us some time or other, just as dead sure as we're a-laying here."
Even though Tom and Huck renew their pledge to keep their secret, Tom becomes a witness at Muff's murder trial and must reveal the truth. The moment he tells everyone that Injun Joe killed the doctor, Joe jumps out the courtroom window and disappears. Afterward, Tom is treated as a hero for saving Muff, but he is now haunted by even scarier nightmares. When Tom finally meets Joe again, in a dark cave, the effect is electric. If Sam Clemens's own boyhood had been less scary, it's doubtful that he would have written scenes such as these.
Several scenes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn describe other violent incidents that Sam saw as a boy. In one, a man named Boggs is shot simply for pestering a man. Sam's description of Boggs's death is an almost exact duplicate of his recollections of the murder of a real Hannibal man named Smarr. Boggs, like Smarr, is shot in the chest and laid down on a floor, and someone places a heavy Bible on his chest, thinking that God's words will comfort him. Sam grew up having nightmares about Smarr's murder.
While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at least acknowledges the existence of violence and danger in the fictional St. Petersburg, it barely hints at another unhappy reality of Sam Clemens's boyhood village: African American slavery. Like all the states of the pre-Civil War South, Missouri permitted people to own other human beings as their property, just as one might own a horse or a piece of furniture. The first hint in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that slavery exists in St. Petersburg is the brief appearance of a "small colored boy" named Jim, who does chores for Aunt Polly. A second hint is a footnote in a later chapter, which explains the difference between how dogs and slaves were named in Sam's time.
African Americans in Sam's Life
Sam grew up around slaves. His own family owned several when he was a boy. In fact, he modeled "Jim," a character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, on a family slave named Sandy. In his autobiography, he later recalled how Sandy's nonstop singing once drove him nearly crazy with distraction. When he complained to his mother about it, she had the sensitivity to appreciate Sandy's unhappiness. She explained to Sam that when Sandy sang, it meant he wasn't remembering his mother, whom he would never see again.
Sam was descended from slaveowners on both sides of his family. When his parents married in 1823, each of them already owned a few slaves. Over the years, they bought and sold other slaves, and they didn't always treat them well. In fact, Sam's father was capable of ruthlessly beating his slaves — a fact that Sam later chose to forget.
In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery, they were wise and said nothing. In Hannibal we seldom saw a slave misused; on the farm, never.
The last sentence reveals how Sam could look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Slaves were misused in Hannibal. In fact, his own father was not only an occasionally cruel master, he was also a strong enemy of abolitionists — people who worked to free slaves and to abolish slavery itself. It says a great deal about the kind of man that Sam became that he would grow up not only to despise slavery, but also to believe that it was the duty of every white person to make up for the terrible wrongs that had been done to African Americans.
Sam's warm feelings about black people came from his close associations with slaves during his youth, especially during the summers that he spent on his uncle's farm. He and the other white children played games with the black children on nearly equal terms. Sam especially liked an old slave known as Uncle Daniel, "whose sympathies were wide and warm, and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile." At night, all the children liked to gather around the fire in Daniel's kitchen and listen to him tell wonderful stories. Sam would later use Daniel's stories in own writings, and when he created the heroic character Jim for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was thinking mostly of Uncle Daniel.
It was thus mainly on the farm that Sam developed his strong liking for black people and his appreciation of their fine qualities. Sixty years later, he wrote that the "black face is as welcome to me now as it was then." As an adult, Sam would favor full civil rights for African Americans, and he quietly funded an African American law student's education at Yale.
In addition to the violence and social injustice that Sam saw as he was growing up, he lived during an era in which people were terrified by the constant threat of disease. He would live to see revolutionary changes in the medical sciences. But when he was still a boy, European and American medicine hadn't advanced much beyond the few discoveries that had been made by the ancient Greeks.
In the mid-19th century, little was known about how diseases spread, and still less was known about how to prevent or cure them. Inoculations against disease were only beginning to be understood. There were no antibiotics, and there were few drugs that really helped to prevent or cure anything. Consequently, people living along the western frontier had little confidence that their children would survive. Families usually had large numbers of children to ensure that at least some would reach adulthood.
Sam himself was the sixth of his parents' seven children. He had four brothers and two sisters. One brother, Pleasant, died in infancy about six years before Sam was born, and his name was almost forgotten in the family. Another brother and a sister also died while Sam was still young. Only his oldest brother, Orion, his oldest sister, Pamela, and his younger brother, Henry, made it to adulthood. Sam would not only outlive all of them, he would also outlive three of his own four children, as well as his wife.
Excerpted from Mark Twain for Kids by R. Kent Rasmussen. Copyright © 2004 R. Kent Rasmussen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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