Mark Twain

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Mark Twain’s first article in Harper’s was misattributed to Mark Swain. The story, “Forty-three Days in an Open Boat” (December 1866), is an account of the Hornet, a clipper ship that caught fire in the ocean, leaving its crew adrift. Twain referred to it as the “first magazine article I ever published,” though he had published numerous pieces in other periodicals and newspapers under such names as Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass; W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab; Rambler; Grumbler; and Peter Pencilcase’s Son, John Snooks.

Twain was born thirty-one years earlier, and two months premature, as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, in Florida, Missouri. “When I first saw him I could see no promise in him,” his mother said. The Clemenses moved several miles upstate, to the Missouri River-side Hannibal, when he was four; the town would later inspire the fictional St. Petersburg of his two most famous works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

Harper’s serialized Twain’s novels Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (printed under the name “Sieur Louis de Conte”) and Tom Sawyer, Detective in May and August 1895, respectively; they were published whole the following year by Harper & Brothers, which founded Harper’s and later acquired the rights to, among other Twain works, the earlier Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), which William Dean Howells, writing for Harper’s, provided with one of its few positive reviews.

Harper’s published many of Twain’s most revered stories and articles, among them “Mental Telegraphy,” “A Majestic Literary Fossil,” “A Petition to the Queen of England,” “Was it Heaven? Or Hell?,” and several additions to his “Unpublished chapters from the autobiography of Mark Twain,” including “My Debut as a Literary Person,” about the publication of “Forty-three Days” in Harper’s.

Twain was a Freemason and a member of the Society for Psychical Research and Yale University’s secret society Scroll and Key. He received an honorary degree from Oxford University and, according to the New York Times, was “Suggested for the Honor” of the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature. Public schools, an U.S. Army installation in Germany, a bridge, a comet, and at least three awards are named after him.

From the Archive — From the May 2014 issue

Humor

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Readings — From the October 2010 issue

The burglary at Stormfield

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Readings — From the December 2009 issue

Sitting in darkness

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Readings — From the April 2009 issue

The quarrel in the strong-box

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Readings — From the June 2000 issue

A presidential candidate

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Left to the tender mercies of the state, a group of veterans and their families continue to reside in a shut-down town

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Stonewall at Fifty·

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Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

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Downstream·

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The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

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Is Poverty Necessary?·

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In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

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What it Means to Be Alive·

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My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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