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Being a writer, people always ask me who’s my favorite writer. I tell them it’s Mark Twain–hands down. To me, he’s one of a few All-American writers. Unlike many contemporary writers and those who followed him, he wrote for the common man. He traveled and wrote about places he visited, very much like I do. But his vision of America was unique.

"When I was a boy," said Twain in the Atlantic Monthly, "there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman."

At the age of 21, Twain became a "cub" for the famed pilot Horace Bixby. He spent the next two years memorizing the entire river from St. Louis to New Orleans, eventually getting a pilot's license himself.

It brought a big salary, fine cigars, and kid gloves; and Twain thought he would never need another career. But when the Civil War came, it shut down the river traffic, and the steamboat business never recovered. In its place came the barge, the tugboat, and Twain’s desire to record that vanished trade for all of time.

Mark Twain lived through the better part of the 19th Century, from 1835 to 1910, a time of tremendous growth and change in America. Although his name has become synonymous with the Mississippi River region, he worked, traveled, and lectured throughout the United States and Europe and saw the extremes of American society–from the Victorian elegance of the Gilded Age in the East to the rowdy gun-slinging ways of the Old West.

Next: Twain's Love Affairs

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