Samuel L. Clemens was born in the small village of Florida but the family soon moved to the town of Hannibal, Missouri. After a Tom Sawyer childhood, at the age of seventeen Sam set out to see the world supporting himself as a restless journeyman printer.
Possibly the best sources for learning about Twain's Hannibal Years are "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". For an analysis of this time see "Huck Finn's America", subtitled "Mark Twain and the Era that shaped his Masterpiece" by Andrew Levy.
Sam never truly left Hannibal—he carried it in his heart and memory and poured it out into The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal in those pages would become a universal boyhood home, an icon like the man himself. Sam would visit again in 1882 to gather material for Life on the Mississippi, and the last time in 1902. In many ways Sam Clemens would always be the boy of Hannibal—his wife Livy would call him “youth.”
One aspect of Sam Clemens' youth that intruded itself into his and his brother, Orion's life, was his fathers purchase of "The Tennessee Land". John Marshall Clemens may have acquired a tract as large as forty thousand acres in a single transaction, but he also bought numerous smaller parcels, beginning as early as 1826 and continuing until at least 1841. In 1857, ten years after his death, the family had ownership records for twenty-four tracts of unknown acreage. After surveying the land in 1858, Orion concluded that he could establish title to some 30,000 acres, less than half of the 75,000 acres that Clemens estimates here. "[The Tennessee Land]: note for 61.1–3," in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. 2010
Alan Gribben, in his Mark Twain’s Literary Resources, Vol 1, writes of Mark Twain’s early literary exposures that helped shape his views and influenced him throughout his life. From his Introduction and the article “Samuel L. Clemens’s Earliest Literary Experiences”:
Whatever books formed young Sam Clemens’s library, nearly all have tumbled into the void, though a few clues point to titles such as Joseph Cundall’s Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters (1841), a children’s work quoted in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). In his teenage years Clemens read George Lippard's Legends of the American Revolution; or, Washington and His Generals (1847), a book that figures in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Clemens would also recall the thrill he felt when by chance he ran across a scrap from a biography of Joan of Arc.
...we can only speculate about his youthful exposure to books, relying mainly on allusions in his writings and his late autobiographical reminiscences—along with the testimony of those who knew him in Hannibal and St. Louis, Missouri and Muscatine and Keokuk, Iowa, and who survived to give their impressions to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and other inquiring writers.
... two schoolroom textbooks in wide use in the 1840s, Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar in Familiar Lessons and Jesse Olney’s A Practical System of Modern Geography.
...“the old Britannica which was their father’s” and which Clemens described as “the old Cyclopedia (my father’s—I do not care for any later one).” Written by William Nicholson and published in 1818 as the American Edition of the British Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Comprising an Accurate and Popular View of the Present Improved State of Human Knowledge, it would have furnished the Clemens children with a wide array of entries on diverse subjects.”
... the family’s subscription to Peter Parley’s Magazine. Founded by Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who wrote under the pen name of Peter Parley, the magazine never enjoyed a large circulation. The numerous pen and ink drawings that adorned its stories and articles seemed to account for its survival during the era before the Transcontinental Railroad opened up vast new territories for literary journals.
...when Orion’s Hannibal Journal needed literary material to fill the spaces between news and advertisements, such eminent authors as Thackeray, Dickens (mainly his Pickwick Papers), Boswell, Frederick Marryat, Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Daniel Webster, Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Macaulay, Trollope, Goldsmith, Pope, Burns, Hannah More, Edward Young, Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and Benjamin Franklin were called upon to plug the newspaper gaps. One presumes, then, that there were copies of those authors accessible there in the print shop for this purpose—and possibly for printing apprentices to glance at between locking up the heavy type forms.
But a young person cannot live on classics alone. A lurid 1839 crime novel by William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard: A Romance, based on the life of a famous London thief, robber, and escape artist, definitely snagged Sam Clemens’s boyish attention.
... Stephen Percy's Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters, published in 1841 and often reprinted. It contained the exact line (with one spelling variant) that Tom Sawyer emphatically quotes to a confounded Joe Harper: “Robin Hood sprung up, and with one sudden back-handed stroke slew poor Guy of Gisborne upon the spot.” As usual, Tom misconstrues what he has read and instead of administering a backhanded stroke he orders poor Joe to turn around and let him stab him in the back to comply with the text. Decades later, in 1883, Clemens would write about “the fascination” that the Robin Hood story held for him when he was a boy—“a fascination so great that it paled the interest of all other books & made them tame & colorless. . . . I have always regretted that I did not belong to Robin Hood’s gang,” he declared,
There is sufficient evidence to assert that Tom Sawyer's beloved “authorities” came from Sam Clemens’s boyhood bookshelves. Tom's (and Sam's) readings definitely included the “wildcat” literature of Ned Buntline ... The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main; or, The Fiend of Blood (1847)... The Convict; or, The Conspirator’s Victim.
Sam Slick’s comical sketches in The Clockmaker entertained Clemens immensely. ... Eugene Sue's best-selling The Wandering Jew, with its implicitly anti-Catholic message (and its direct attack on the Jesuit order).
In Following the Equator Mark Twain remembered that this novel revived interest in the murderous Thugs of India
George Lippard’s patriotic book about General George Washington's military feats, Legends of the American Revolution; or, Washington and His Generals (1847), ... Clemens wrote to his brother Orion in 1853 from Philadelphia to describe a recent sight-seeing excursion: “Geo. Lippard, in his ‘Legends of Washington and his Generals,’ has rendered the Wissahickon [River] sacred in my eyes,” he announced.
... Clemens’s tale of finding a leaf from a book about Joan of Arc blowing down the street—an event that supposedly opened up for him the entire world of medieval history and religious persecution—must be left as an open question, inasmuch as his recitals of the incident differed (or were omitted entirely) from time to time.
Frederick Marryat ... Clemens owned and annotated an 1840 edition of Marryat's Diary in America, and that he would allude repeatedly to Captain Marryat’s impressions of America and its rivers in Life on the Mississippi.
Twain would designate Marryat as one of the favorite authors of Hannibal during his boyhood, which causes one to wonder if he did not encounter other titles that Marryat aimed at boy readers, such as Snarleyyow; or,The Dog Fiend (1837) and The Phantom Ship (1839). Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest, originally published in 1847, was one of the books that Clemens’s daughters often requested him to read aloud to them.
Clemens would recall Lord Byron as one of the Hannibal idols in the 1840s, and he also seemed to link Shelley with that era. The influence of Walter Scott in that decade was even more palpable.
Indeed, many of the Romantic era writers against whom Twain later revolted were part of his literary vocabulary in the first decades of his life, including James Fenimore Cooper (whose Native Americans Twain would lampoon) and Edgar Allan Poe, whose works he alternately praised or disparaged.
To the list of printed literary materials should be added the endless parade of visiting shows that the steamboats brought to the Hannibal wharf. Siamese twins, wild animal displays, minstrel shows, circuses, mesmerists, phrenologists, and many other attractions made calls at the town.
We should never forget, either, the folk tales that he heard the gifted oral interpreter Uncle Dan'l narrate on his Uncle John Quarles's farm during Sam Clemens’s summer sojourns in the hamlet of Florida, Missouri.
Two years before Clemens became an apprentice pilot he copied into his notebook entire pages of a volume about phrenology and the temperaments. This was George Sumner Weaver's Lectures on Mental Science According to the Philosophy of Phrenology.
One of the most verifiable of the books owned by Clemens in the 1850s is J. L. Comstock’s Elements of Geology (1851), which he signed “Samuel L. Clemens/1856./June25th, 1856” while he was living in Keokuk, Iowa.
Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was another of Clemens’s earliest reading experiences.
It has been established that Clemens owned and annotated a nine-volume set of ‘The Letters of Horace Walpole that was published in installments between 1861 and 1866.
“I... read the Walpole Letters when I was a boy. I absorbed them, gathered in their grace, wit, and humor, and put them away to be used by and by. One does that so unconsciously with things one really likes. I am reminded now of what use those letters have been to me.”
Clemens’s fascination with Daniel Defoe’s fictional castaway began early and continued unabated throughout his lifetime. ” The Arabian Nights over Clemens’s lifetime would become his second- most-cited literary source next to the Bible. The novels of Alexandre Dumas with their castle dungeons and ingenious prisoners— especially The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask—were seemingly etched into Clemens’s memory during his youth and then would return in various manifestations throughout his writings, most notably in Tom Sawyer's detailed demands that plagued the hapless Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In St. Louis in the 1850s Clemens would be introduced to the novels of Thackeray and Disraeli. Although he later became critical of Charles Dickens’s novels, he unmistakably knew many of them by the time he was prospecting and reporting in the Far West. He had additionally read works by Shakespeare, Cervantes, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine.
It could be said, then, that the foundations of Mark Twain's writing career were laid early and solidly by the range of his youthful curiosity about printed and oral materials, He had already gone through an ample library, both popular and classic literature, well before he undertook the profession of authorship.