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MARK TWAIN in ODESA: a story of love and literary fame

MARK TWAIN in ODESA: a story of love and literary fame
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Midjourney


On a hot August day in 1867, the American journalist Samuel Clemens set foot on the Odesa land. For the rest of his life, he would call this journey «my happy voyage». And how else, if Clemens disappeared after the trip, and the famous writer Mark Twain appeared instead of him? But most importantly, it was from Odesa that the love story of 35 years began. Without this, there would be neither «The Adventures of Tom Sawyer», «The Prince and the Beggar Maid», or brilliant humorous stories.


Only two things we’ll regret on deathbed — that we are a little loved and little traveled


Mark Twain




To the future «father of American literature», as writer William Faulkner called Mark Twain, his father left nothing but debts. Therefore, the boy had to treat the vicissitudes of fate with trademark humor and learn to earn money himself.

At age 11, Samuel Clemens dropped out of school to work as a printer, engaged in parallel self-education, and entertained the public with humorous notes in the newspaper «Hannibal Journal», which was published by his older brother. Then, life in a port town on the Missouri River itself suggested the path to financial prosperity. And Samuel became a pilot — not only respected by all but also a very well-paid professional.

Few people in the port earned more than a pilot. So Samuel attracted his younger brother to the profession as well. His death as a result of a boiler explosion on the steamship «Pennsylvania» was the second serious psychological trauma for him after the death of his father.

This terrible death, Samuel saw in a prophetic dream a month before the tragedy and, for the rest of his life, considered himself guilty of what happened. Nevertheless, he has not lost courage, sense of humor, or business acumen.


Фото 15 летнего Сэмюэла Клеменса в молодости, держащего в руках печатную палочку с буквами SAM, декабрь 1850 года
Photo of 15-year-old Samuel Clemens in his youth, holding a printing stick with the letters SAM, December 1850 /




When the Civil War made shipping on the Missouri River impossible in 1861, he refocused on another «king’s wage» — silver mining in Nevada. However, working in the mines did not help Samuel get rich, and then he finally decided to concentrate on what he was best at — entertaining the public by writing.

Taking as a pseudonym the pilotage term «Mark Twain», which denoted the minimum depth allowed for navigation, he entered the history of literature under this name. Since then, humor and tragedy, a slight tendency to swindle, literary talent, love of travel, and money problems — all these ingredients made up that rattling cocktail, which we know today as the biography of Mark Twain.

With such initial data, fate simply had to bring him to one of the «world capitals of humor», Odesa. And it brought him there.




The success of the reader of Twain’s funny tale «The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County» resulted in two outcomes. The first gave Americans the idea of frog racing, which they immediately realized. The second was that newspaper editors were happy to finance Mark Twain’s travels, about which he wrote brilliant journalistic reports.

Tell me, could the «father of American literature», Mark Twain, pass by the invention of the «father of organized tourism», British Thomas Cook? Of course not. Therefore, when the first in the world history travel agency, Thomas Cook Group, equipped the first American tour group of 65 people to Europe, our hero was among them on the steamer «Quaker City».

It must be said that the success of the Baptist preacher Thomas Cook began almost as a curiosity. On weekends, the respectable English gentleman of the 19th century was frankly bored. So he sought to amuse himself with the traditional whiskey.




However, pastor Cook not only did not drink himself but also actively discouraged others from drinking alcohol. Instead of alcohol, he offered gentlemen membership in a sober society, a bun and tea, and, in addition, an innovative attraction for that time — a journey of 20 kilometers by train from Leicester to Lefborough. Not for free, of course, but for a shilling.

But even the Lord God himself did not expect that the pastor’s fight against alcoholism would turn out to be such a promising business and would go far beyond Leicester. To this day, the Thomas Cook Group is Britain’s largest travel company. It has 3,000 branches worldwide, 20,000 employees, and an airline with 100 planes.

Traveling from the United States to Europe was not cheap — $1,250, a fortune in those days. But Mark Twain had a gift for persuasion no worse than Ostap Bender. And in the end, the stern colonel John McComb, editor of «The Alta California newspaper», paid for the trip.


Поездка общества трезвости Кука считается первым в мире организованным групповым туром. Источник: Thomas Cook archive
Cook’s Sober Society trip is considered the world’s first organized group tour. Source: Thomas Cook archive


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 The tourist route was not supposed to visit Odesa, but the irony of fate once again did its job: at our shores, the excellent organization of Thomas Cook failed — the steamer suddenly ran out of coal. The crew had to replenish it in the nearest port, and Mark Twain had to get acquainted with the color of the «pearl by the sea».

Coming ashore on August 25, 1867, he immediately noted the presence of two outstanding sights — the monument to Duke Richelieu and Potemkin Stairs. It is so outstanding that Mark Twain reproduced a fictionalized version of Richelieu’s biography, attributing to him a tragic death in the Crimea surrounded by indifferent and ungrateful compatriots in loneliness and poverty.

Excuses the writer only that for 5$, this version was told to him by one talkative man from Odesa, and also that shortly before the trip to France, he saw with his own eyes the grave of this very Richelieu. This, in fact, was the end of all the attractions. However, Twain considered it even a plus, preferring idleness to tourist «must-see».




However, what impressed Twain most was Odesa’s entrepreneurial spirit. This city had an American soul.

«Coming ashore, I stepped on the sidewalks of Odesa and for the first time after a long break finally felt quite at home … Wherever you look: to the right, to the left — everywhere in front of us America!» — sincerely admired Mark Twain. It was still a long way from one of the «Great American Novels». But who knows if the writer’s childhood friend Tom Blankenship was the prototype of Huckleberry Finn?

Walking along Moldavanka, the writer met a typical Odesa barefoot man. Local «Huckleberry» Mark Twain bet 5 dollars — apparently, to work with smaller bills Odesa considered beneath their dignity. Through a translator, the writer offered to eat his shoe if it turned out that the beggar knew English.

He, in turn, asked what in Twain’s shoes seemed to him the most delicious? The writer was confused. «When you eat your shoe, you’ll find the holes the most delicious!» And finished in plain English: understand?

However, the «scam» for dollars did not end there. In one of the shops, Twain was offered a camera and 10 plates to it, of which only 3 fit the camera. Another offered 2 antique violins, in the load to which were 3 fur coats.


Сэмюэл и Оливия Клеменс, 1903 год, за год до смерти Оливии. Дом и музей Марка Твена, Хартфорд, Коннектикут
Samuel and Olivia Clemens, 1903, the year before Olivia’s death. Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, Connecticut /




The impressions of the cruise were incredibly numerous. From every port, including Odesa, Twain sent notes to editors. He would later compile them into a book, «The Innocents Abroad». And it is this book that will sell better than any other during the writer’s lifetime. However, the main acquisition of the «happy voyage» was an acquaintance with Charles Langdon — the brother of his future wife Olivia.

Walking around Odesa, they «enjoyed idleness», hanging around the bazaars to the brim full of ice cream and joking about the ridiculous outfits of passers-by. Young people so befriended that Charles introduced the writer to his family. Love for Olivia erupted at first sight. But the girl repeatedly rejected offers of marriage.

She was 10 years younger than Twain, well-educated, and from a very wealthy family. However, not having capital and perfect manners, Twain had a sense of humor and patience, which was rewarded with 35 years of happy and simultaneously tragic marriage.

They experienced a lot together: the deaths of children, ups and downs, wealth and bankruptcy. But their sense of humor never wavered. Twain lived six years longer. To make the seriously ill Olivia laugh, he pasted funny notes around the house. Mark Twain wrote all his best stuff after he got married. Olivia was his editor, to whom the writer obeyed unconditionally. She can be considered Twain’s co-author.

«When my wife and I disagree, we usually do what she wants. My wife calls it a compromise», Twain joked.


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