Mark Twain, one of Missouri's most beloved authors, also managed to find his way into the stories of many of his most famous contemporaries.
Lucas Schwartze, park historic site specialist for the Missouri State Museum, said Twain didn't just stay cooped up with a pen and paper — he sought out and befriended other well-known figures.
"It's easy to forget he was more than just an author," Schwartze said. "Mark Twain was a human being just like all of us, and like all of us, he was connected to a lot of other people."
Schwartze gave a virtual presentation on those connections Tuesday as part of the "Missouri Trailblazers" series co-hosted by the Daniel Boone Regional Library and the Missouri State Museum.
Born Samuel Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, Twain went on to be a steamboat pilot, prospector, journalist, humorist and author of such classics as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
A man prone to humorous exaggeration, Twain may have overstated his early connection with Ulysses S. Grant.
As the Civil War raged, Twain "felt caught up in the fervor of the town youth" and joined a Confederate militia for a few weeks before deserting. During those weeks, Twain claims the militia was pursued through Missouri by none other than future Union general and president Grant.
After deserting, Twain wanted to get away from Missouri. His brother, Orion Clemens, was a staunch abolitionist who campaigned for President Abraham Lincoln. Following Lincoln's election, Clemens was appointed secretary of Nevada Territory. Twain offered to help pay for Clemens' trip west and act as Clemens' secretary — if he could come along. (Later in life, after Clemens' farm and law practice failed, a now-wealthy Twain continued to support his brother.)
Twain wasn't much of a secretary, so he left to try his hand at prospecting for gold.
"His prospecting venture didn't pan out either so he returned to practicing journalism," Schwartze said.
When news was slow, Twain would write fictional but entertaining stories instead. He found a kindred spirit in Charles Farrar Browne, who, under the stage name Artemus Ward, may have been America's first stand-up comic. The two met in Virginia City, Nevada, and became fast friends.
"Ward, Twain and another friend all became drunk one night and decided to take a rooftop tour of the city, hopping from one roof to next," Schwartze recounted. "They refused to come down from the rooftops until local constable arrived with a shotgun loaded with rock salt."
Ward encouraged Twain to make the jump from journalism to publishing fiction. It was at Ward's urging Twain would write (and, again with Ward's help, publish) the short story that made him famous: "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."
Though Twain claims to have evaded Grant during the Civil War, the two met several times and ultimately became close friends. They met at a party in the 1860s and then again after Grant became president, when an overawed Twain is reported to have said to him: "Mr. President, I am embarrassed, are you?"
In 1879, Twain was invited to speak during a dinner in Grant's honor. After a number of other speakers spent the evening praising Grant, it was midnight when Twain took the floor. Twain decided to poke fun at Grant instead.
"While the other guests were shocked, Grant was rolling with laughter, and the two became close friends from that night on," Schwartze said.
Toward the end of his life, Grant was ill with cancer and in dire financial straits. Wanting to care for his family after his death, he penned an autobiography, but his possible publisher would only pay 10 percent royalties. Twain connected Grant with his own publishers, who promised a 70 percent royalty. Grant accepted the offer and finished the autobiography days before his death. The book was a hit, and Grant's widow raked in more than $450,000 in royalties, equivalent to about $12 million in today's money.
"(Grant's) family was saved from financial ruin thanks to Mark Twain," Schwartze said.
Mark Twain got to know two prominent abolitionists and authors — Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe — through his wife, Olivia Langdon, whose family was wealthy and politically active. In fact, when Douglass escaped from slavery at age 20, he stayed in Langdon's parents' home on the Underground Railroad.
Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," was an especially close friend. The two lived next door to each other in Nook Farm, Connecticut, and had an "open-door policy." Stowe often stopped by to play the piano — or pranks
"Mark Twain would later recollect 'She would slip up behind a person that was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump a person out of his clothes,'" Schwartze recounted.
Twain was enthusiastic about new technology, especially anything related to electricity. His enthusiasm brought him into contact with the rival inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, whose clash over the merits of direct and alternating current (respectively) electrified the nation.
Edison took the only known film footage of Twain, which can still be watched online to this day. Twain was also fascinated by Edison's phonograph, which he thought might be a good tool for drafting books: He could dictate to the phonograph and an assistant could type out his words at a later time. Ultimately, Twain decided he preferred his trusty typewriter.
Twain's relationship with Tesla was even closer. Tesla, who grew up in Serbia, discovered Twain's books while recovering from a terrible bout of cholera. They provided vital distraction as Tesla rode out the disease.
"He even credited the books with helping him to recover," Schwartze said.
After Tesla's then-employer, the Continental Edison Company, transferred him to the U.S., Tesla left the company and began developing his own ideas.
"With (Tesla) as interested in Mark Twain was in new inventions it was natural that these two would eventually meet," Schwartze said.
Tesla told him about how Twain's books had helped him endure cholera. Twain was moved to tears, Schwartze said. The two became friends, with Twain inviting Tesla to his daughter's wedding.
Some Twain scholars suspect the main character in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," a bombastic engineer, was inspired in part by Tesla and in part by another of Twain's acquaintances, the circus showman P.T. Barnum.
Perhaps Twain's most famous friendship was with Helen Keller, the author, disability rights advocate and political activist known for learning how to communicate with the help of the teacher Anne Sullivan. Twain coined Sullivan's nickname, "The Miracle Worker," and met Keller when she was 14.
Twain was able to introduce Keller to a number of wealthy acquaintances, who in turn helped fund her education at Harvard University.
Of Keller, Twain wrote: "She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals."
In return, Keller dedicated a chapter of her autobiography to her friendship with Twain, writing, "He treated me not as a freak but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties."
A Forrest Gumpian figure, Twain not only rubbed shoulders with his famous contemporaries — he helped shape their lives and was shaped by them in return.
"As you can see, Mark Twain was not just an author, he was connected with some of the great movers and shakers of the era," Schwartze concluded. "If you were Mark Twain's friend, he would always try to support you."
DBRL and the Missouri State Museum's "Missouri Trailblazer" talks will take place at 1 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month from now until August. The next talk will take place March 16.
"A trailblazer is someone who has impacted our culture to major events, leadership, innovation and more," explained Lauren Williams, DBRL's adult and community service manager.
View and register for future Missouri Trailblazer events at events.dbrl.org/events?r=thismonth. The presentations will be recorded and archived on the museum's YouTube channel.