What's in a Name: Samuel Clemens Defines Mark Twain

c. September, 1902

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What's in a Name: Samuel Clemens Defines Mark Twain
Autograph Note Signed
2 pages | SMC 2117

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      Background

      The most famous alias in world literature was born on February 3, 1863, in the modest frontier pages of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Territory of Nevada. Under the heading “Letter from Carson City”, and beginning, “I feel very much as if I had just awakened from a long sleep,” this fictitious story related, in the most amusing (indeed, mordant) fashion, a party hosted by a former California governor at which “The Unreliable” – a drunken, gluttonous, criminally-minded dissolute - behaved as might be expected. Signed “Yours, dreamily, Mark Twain”, it weighed in at 1,729 words – the proud doppelganger of its father, the Enterprise’s own newsbeat reporter, 27 year-old Sam Clemens. Who, or what, might have been the mother of this nom de plume, "Mark Twain", however, is a question that has attracted, excited and rebuffed scholars unto the generations. Twain’s own explanation, as befit a man with an alias, was none too surprisingly, contradictory…
       
      He said he lifted the name off a dead friend, the river pilot Isaiah Sellers, who employed it as a pseudonym when writing for New Orleans papers. Sellers, though, was still alive when Clemens first used “Mark Twain” – an inconvenient truth only eclipsed by the absolute lack of evidence that Sellers ever signed anything with that name. But Sam, it seemed, had been trying for a nom de plume for years. His first had come eleven years before, attached to a piece of silliness signed “A Dog-be-Devilled Citizen.” Then, in the way of young men, came W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins, W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab, Rambler, Grumbler, Peter Pencilcase’s Son, John Snooks, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom and Josh. None stayed, however, until “Mark Twain” – clean, crisp and as legions of biographers would come to attest, rife with meaning. 
       
      “Mark twain” was a navigational term on the Mississippi River, called out by the leadsman to indicate a depth sounding of two fathoms - a phrase Clemens, once a riverboat pilot, would have heard day and night. Yet whether it indicated safe waters, or warned of danger, depended solely on intent. To a steamboat leaving the shoals, “mark twain” signaled safety; to one leaving deep water, the opposite. Given Clemens’ fascination with twin and divided selves, such duality alone was enough to make “Mark Twain” a compelling alias – and that it literally meant “two”, was surely a fillip. Bret Harte, a friend of young Clemens’, tellingly made this point in his review of Innocents Abroad: one “fairly cannot hold Mr. Clemens responsible,” he opined, “for ‘Mark Twain’s’ irreverence.”
       
      The name “Mark Twain”, then, was remarked upon almost from the day it appeared – and yet, aside from Clemens’ misleading remark about “confiscating” Captain Sellers’ pen name, Clemens stayed out of the discussion - until, it seems, he signed this “Mr. S.L. Clemens” Calling Card sometime, apparently, during the last decade of his life. A small thing, this card, literally and figuratively: but the message it delivers, in six scant words written on the back, is enormous.
       
      It means 2 fathoms (12 feet)

      Then he signed, as he had thousands of times before, “Yours Truly, Mark Twain.” Clemens, as always, knew how to end a story.

      Of course, when it comes to Twain, the story is never quite over: new books about him, after all, are published by the carload every year. How he chose his name is still, over a century and a half since it first appeared in print, a hotly-contested subject. One thing, however, is clear: the message on the this card may very well be the first and only time he explained, in his own hand, what "Mark Twain" meant.


      Autograph Note Signed (“Mark Twain”), on his personal Calling Card - black-bordered, still, for the death of his daughter Susy a half dozen years before - 2 pages, recto and verso, sextodecimo, Riverdale, no date but identified in an unknown hand as September 1902.
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