On this date 185 years ago, as Halley's comet induced Americans to look skyward in awe, Mark Twain was born in the Missouri town of Florida, a small farming village on the banks of the Salt River. The men who built it envisioned a prosperous trading center, but their hopes were dashed by basic geography: When I said the town was on the banks of the Salt River, a more precise way to say it is that Florida was constructed at the confluence of all three forks of the Salt River, which meant that it was prone to severe flooding.
When the future icon of American letters was born there in 1835 (and christened Samuel Langhorne Clemens), 100 hearty souls called it home. "The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by 1 per cent," he once quipped. "It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town."
Later, after he was famous, a fan sent him a photograph of his parents' rudimentary dwelling. "Recently someone in Missouri sent me a picture of the house I was born in," he wrote, adding wryly, "Heretofore I have always stated it was a palace, but I shall be more guarded now."
Today, that entire two-room cabin is preserved in a museum at Mark Twain State Park, established a century ago but transformed when a hydroelectric dam finally tamed the Salt River and created a lake in the mid-1960s. It's unlikely that Twain himself remembered it well, if at all: His parents gave up on the place by the time he was 4 and moved to the Mississippi River hamlet of Hannibal, which is truly Mark Twain's home town.
In his youth, Samuel Clemens looked upon the men who piloted the steamboats that plied the Mississippi River as heroic role models. His father's death when Twain was 11 altered his plans: The boy left school the following year and became a printer's apprentice, then a typesetter in the newspaper trade. Old Man River still exerted its call on him, however, and at 21 he apprenticed himself to a riverboat captain. By the time the Civil War broke out, disrupting commerce up and down that river, he had received his own pilot's license.
Young Clemens made for a piss-poor soldier, as it turned out, and was in uniform only briefly. He wasn't much of a miner, either, which he discovered after following an older brother out West. So he returned to the newspaper business, this time as a writer, where his talent manifested itself quickly. He was, if you don't mind the comparison, a kind of comet. His first byline as "Mark Twain" came in early 1863 while employed by the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.
The pseudonym comes from a river term that means two fathoms deep -- navigable water for a steamboat. In other words, the phrase "mark twain" denoted safe going. In the coming years, however, a vast roster of politicians, preachers, blowhards, hypocrites, stuffed shirts, and unjust American traditions would never be fully safe from Twain's keen eye or mocking pen.
By 1865, Mark Twain delighted the nation with his witty California-based essay, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Four years later, Twain's first book, "The Innocents Abroad," cemented his reputation as a writer; "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876) and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885) made him world famous.
Occasionally, Twain would ruminate about the vagaries of fame in a roundabout way: by linking his own life with Halley's comet, which orbits the Earth every 75 to 76 years. It must have been something in 1835, before electric lights, when Americans could really see the sky at night. Even in 1910, its return was eagerly anticipated.
"I came in with Halley's comet," Twain noted in 1909. "It is coming again, and I expect to go out with it. ... The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'"
And so it came to pass. Mark Twain went to his reward on April 21, 1910, as the comet reappeared in the heavens. On the 150th anniversary of Twain's birth, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the writer -- and Halley's celestial orbit. The New York Times noted that Twain's prediction about the two going out together in 1910 had come true, adding, "but he could not have realized that his fame would continue into the next appearance of the comet, not to mention its future visits."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.