When Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a Missouri-born ex-steamboat pilot, signed “Mark Twain” to a letter published in the Feb. 3, 1863 edition of the Virginia City (Nev.) Territorial Enterprise, he made an intentional commitment to a career as a writer, lecturer and celebrity that would bring him regional, national and international fame.
Adoption of the nom de plume, an important landmark in Twain lore, has, nonetheless, raised unresolved questions regarding its origin. There is, of course, general acceptance of the notion that the phrase, “mark twain” refers to a depth of two fathoms, about 12 feet, a riverboat pilot’s demarcation of the minimal level required for safety.
Until now, however, the source of Clemens’ choice has been a mystery, compounded by his own impossible explanation. Twain asserted that he had appropriated the name after the death of another Mississippi River pilot, Isaiah Sellers, who, he contended, had used it for pieces written for the New Orleans Picayune. A plausibility, except for the fact that no writings of any kind have ever been found with the Mark Twain signature prior to Clemens’ use, and Isaiah Sellers’ death, in 1864, occurs a full yearafter
Twain began using it in the Territorial Enterprise.
During the last 150 years other explanations have been proposed, including the notion that a Virginia City saloon keeper kept track of Clemens’ bar tab by using two chalk marks to record two drinks, but, until now, all attempted explanations have been lacking the element of credible evidence.
This situation changed earlier this month, at the International Conference on Mark Twain Studies, held in Elmira, N.Y., where Kevin Mac Donnell, a well-known Twain scholar, presented the results of an academic sleuthing expedition that would make Sherlock Holmes proud.
Mac Donnell made use of the Google Print Library Project, a search tool not available to earlier scholars. He was searching through 19th-century humor magazines when he came across a character in a burlesque sketch by the name of Mark Twain. It was in the Jan. 26, 1861 issue of Vanity Fair, a short-lived but widely read humor magazine of the era Twain is known to have read.
The anonymously published sketch in which the character appears, titled “The North Star,” is a send-up of Southerners at a nautical convention attempting to address the nagging problem of compasses always pointing north.
Successive speakers in the sketch, including Mr. Pine Knott, Mr. Lee Scupper, Mr. Mark Twain, Mr. Robert Stay and Mr. Rattlin, whose names are derivatives of sailing terms, gripe about the problem. The Civil War is about to erupt and will close the Mississippi River, ending Sam Clemens’ piloting career. As used in the sketch, the name Mark Twain is an indication of shallow water for anocean-going
ship, and, by inference, a person lacking depth.
Mac Donnell’s exposition, which appears in a detailed version in the current edition of the Mark Twain Journal, includes the observation that Charles Farrar Browne, aka Artemus Ward, a print and standup humorist Twain admired, was then a staff writer for Vanity Fair.
Mac Donnell’s research fills an important gap in the story by suggesting Clemens’ likely familiarity with the Vanity Fair
piece two years following its publication. In that era, as Sam Clemens, a former typesetter, was aware, news, stories and humorous sketches were disseminated in the U.S. through the newspaper exchange system, a legal arrangement by which papers traded copies of their papers with those in other cities and participants freely appropriated items to fill their own columns.
Western papers were particularly active in the system, “borrowing” extensively from their Eastern counterparts for news of the world, and stocks of humor magazines like Vanity Fair were valuable commodities, given that their contents were generally less time sensitive than the newspapers.
Mac Donnell found California papers that reprinted pieces from Vanity Fair
and evidence of Nevada papers, including Twain’s, that exchanged with New York journals and newspapers.
It is easily plausible to envision the next step: Clemens searching material in old issues of Vanity Fair just at the time when he was forced to accept the fact that the war had ended his riverboat career and writing would be a full-time occupation, so he needed a suitable pen name.
Prior to February 1863, his choice of monikers, appropriate to a vocation, not a profession, included, among others, Rambler, Grumbler, A Son of Adam, Josh, and, my favorite, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab. A good nom de plume would spread a writer’s fame in the exchange system, making him more valuable to his own employer, allowing him to charge more for lectures, and maybe even landing him a book deal. All of that, of course, came true for Twain.
Having decided that he could make a living through “literature of a low order,” as he wrote his mother, Clemens needed a more respectable nom de plume, and Mark Twain not only fit the bill, it made explicit a link to the source of his literary inspirations, the Mississippi.
This is not, however, the end of the story of Clemens’ adoption of his public alter-ego. As Mac Donnell observes, the question remains, why, assuming the above, was Twain evasive, even disingenuous, when later asked to relate the origin story of Mark Twain? Why did he repeatedly provide the tall tale response involving Isaiah Sellers instead of merely noting his debt to the Vanity Fair
The answer requires a thorough knowledge of Twain’s career trajectory and his own predilections regarding his image, and MacDonnell, who has been studying Twain for years, is more than up to the task.
At the time during which Clemens was achieving local notoriety for his newspaper efforts, the dominant form of standup and written humor was practiced by performers with stage names like Petroleum V. Nasby, Orpheus C. Kerr, Josh Billings, and Artemus Ward, the star of the bunch. Common to these “Phunny Phellows” was a reliance on crude puns, malapropisms, non sequiturs, deliberate misspellings, and the assumed role as uneducated bumpkin.
Although Twain, in some early pieces, reflects these qualities, his humor, as he developed the Mark Twain persona, became notable for its sardonic wit, mock seriousness and his timing, in his writing and live performances. Early on, Twain came to reject the comedic style of his contemporaries, all of whom he regarded as friends, especially Ward.
Twain wrote in 1872, regarding what was then a dying form, “They seem to have been satisfied with pretty poor stuff in those days.” Twain was famously irked by any implication that he was a “mere humorist,” and actively dissociated himself from the “Phunny Phellows,” thereby protecting his distinct, and marketable brand, Mark Twain.
That he succeeded is underscored by the observation that none of the above-named contemporaries has survived as part of our cultural heritage. Twain’s conscious efforts to cultivate and protect his style, argues Mac Donnell, would necessarily have led him to suppress the Vanity Fair
origins of his name, for the simple reason that the “North Star” sketch and its Mark Twain character are exemplars of the crude bumpkin humor Clemens disdained, not to mention Artemus Ward’s association with the magazine.
Twain’s self-protective fabrication was not actively challenged by an adoring public in his lifetime and, it can be argued that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter, but Mac Donnell’s research is a strong challenge to such a conclusion.
As Mac Donnell said, “It (Mac Donnell’s account) makes clear that Twain’s choice and marketing of his new pen name was a carefully considered, deliberate, ambitious, conscious and calculated effort.”
He notes that this account is the only one that “begins with an observed fact, provides simple, logical answers to dangling questions, is contradicted by no known facts,” and that, when all is said and done “everything fits like a glove.”
Mac Donnell has done a masterful job of detection and exposition in service of what has to be regarded, if not the final word on the matter, the explanation that must now be regarded as the default position to be addressed by anyone promoting alternatives.
If the matter is not finally settled by his work, 150 years after Mark Twain was born, we have a narrative anchored in fact, one that satisfies the critical standards of historians and readers alike.