Halley's Comet - The fascinating connection between Mark Twain and Davy Crockett

In August of 1835, Halley's comet appeared in the night sky. Showing up every 74 years or so, the comet's fantastic flame had a reputation for causing sensations. This time was no exception. Halley was blamed for a New York City fire which raged for several nights. The Seminole Indians in Florida looked up at the comet's long tail and associated it with the day they would lose their sovereignty. Meanwhile, revolutions erupted all throughout Latin America.

Halley's Comet in 1835

But for Davy Crockett, the flame must have represented an exciting new chapter in his life. He had just lost a narrow election for congress in Tennessee. He was said to have announced to his constituency, "You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas. Little did he know that his light was about to burn out with Halley's comet at the Alamo, during the Texas Revolution, only a few months later.

Davy Crockett rides Halley's Comet

Strangely enough as Crockett was on his way out, another luminary figure was being brought into the world. This individual would become a prolific writer who would owe a great deal of his craft to the folklore and legends that were developed around Davy Crockett. And this individual just so happens to be the most influential author in American history.

Mark Twain was born in 1835 as Halley’s Comet made its regular 74 year appearance. He died in 1910 when it made its next run.

On November 30, 1835, Samuel Clemens was born. 1835 was one of the years Halley’s Comet came through our night sky. In fact, what astronomers call the “perihelion” of Halley's Comet, or the moment when the comet was closest to the sun, happened just two weeks before his birth.* 

*Leigh Cooper, Hero and Me Podcast Producer and Co-creator of the Do Stuff YouTube channel, wrote a pretty concise newsletter about Halley's comet's various appearances throughout history if you would like to learn more about that.

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835-1910), is that prolific writer most of us know for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite the novel's unforgettable scenes and social commentary, it is most notable for its use of over two dozen dialogues. In an age where literature was still considered a highbrow art form, it is impressive how Twain was able to fully embrace his humble beginnings to create his own vernacular style of writing.

Mark Twain

Twain's greatest achievement was that he was able to popularize the use of vernacular in fictional books. However, he was not the first person to write in the folksy style that we identify with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Just a year before Mark Twain was born, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee had become a smash hit. Before his death at the Alamo, David Crockett, the politician, drafted his autobiography with the intention of clearing up many misconceptions and myths about the Davy Crockett, the famous frontiersman. He was well aware that he had become a mythological figure even in his own lifetime. Perhaps he wanted to make sure you would become a Hercules as opposed to an Oedipus.

Anyway, the result of his PR conscious autobiography a very frank description of life on the other side of the mountains during the early 19th century. Since Crockett had no literary pretentions, it was written quickly and therefore feels very raw. It reads like a conversation you would have with a friend at a bar. Crockett covers his hunting adventures, his failed romances, as well as his awkward interactions with aloof politicians from out east.

Later on words like "Sockdolager" which were attributed to Crockett showed up in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain undoubtedly was influenced by Crockett's legacy. And it is remarkably surreal that Crockett left the world while Twain was entering it -- just as Halley's Comet was passing over the earth. During that summer of 1835, little did the world know that a communications revolution was taking place. It had nothing to do with the printing press or even higher literacy rates though. The work of individuals who were not afraid to challenge conventions with their unpretentious words would give social currency to classes of people who were previously disenfranchised. 

For more fascinating stories about Mark Twain and Davy Crockett, you can check out the Hero and Me Podcast that explores the lives of both of these American legends.