It’s a well-known tale.
The young Samuel Clemens, embarking on his literary career, and in search of a pen-name, adopts the cry of the Mississippi rivermen, “mark twain!”, which has something or other to do with gauging the depth of the river.
Thus was born one of America’s greatest and most celebrated authors, Mark Twain.
But is the story true? Did the crew of the steamboats plying the river really cry out, — as the story is told — “by the mark twain”?
Turns out, they did. When Sam Clemens/Mark Twain was a mere lad (just about Huckleberry Finn’s age), other authors were using the phrase to draw a picture of life on a steamboat (though not necessarily on the Mississippi).
The FirstMention of the phrase mark twain dates back to this 1843 passage in a story called Life in Mexico by the rather mysterious author, Madame C____ de la B______
Mark Twain’s first use of his nom de plume is generally regarded to date back to a February 1863 newspaper column, although the earliest FirstMention use I could actually find an image for was a month later, in the March 14, 1863 Morning Oregonian.
Twain, then a reporter in Oregon, engaged in a no-holds-barred sparring match with a fellow journalist he dubbed the Unreliable. The voice is unmistakable Twain, and in this snippet, Unreliable springs back to life at his own funeral in a manner that foreshadows Huck and Tom Sawyer’s return from the dead in a later story.
Clemens himself tells the tale of adopting the nickname Mark Twain, in honor of a legendary steamboater, Capt. Isaiah Sellers. In “Life on the Mississippi” Clemens writes:
Samuel Clemens was publishing under the name Mark Twain at least as early as February 1863. So it certainly doesn’t appear that Seller’s passing was the event that prompted Clemens to adopt the name Mark Twain.
Still, it’s a very cool name.
Our FirstMention research is carried out in many sources, including historical newspaper archives, online family history records, state archives, and old books.
If you’re intereted in finding out a bit more about Mr. Clemens, there are some excellent resources available:
Mark Twain’s estate has set up The Official Web Site of Mark Twain…be sure to check out the excellent collection of photos.
Wikipedia’s entry on Mark Twain with, again, an excellent photo of an unexpectedly dashing Samuel Clemens.
A good collection of Mark Twain quotes, articles, and links
Know of an earlier FirstMention? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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