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  • A Note on Samuel Clemens’ Nom de Guerre
  • Gary Scharnhorst

In late January 1863, Samuel Clemens first signed the pseudonym “Mark Twain” to his weekly satirical pieces in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise to distinguish them from his unsigned straight reporting. All of his writings to date had appeared anonymously, or over his initials, or under a nom de plume such as W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab, Sergeant Fathom, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, or Josh. He asked Joseph Goodman, co-owner and editor of the Enterprise, “if he might sign a name to some stories apart from the regular reports” he contributed to the paper and Goodman “told him he might.”1 Clemens first signed a piece sent from Carson City to the Enterprise with the name (or as he called it, the nom de guerre) “Mark Twain” on January 31, 1863, and it appeared in the paper on February 3. The source of the penname has been critically debated for over a century and a half. Most obviously, “mark twain” was a steersman’s call on the river to signal a depth of at least two fathoms or twelve feet, safe water for a steamboat in a channel but dangerous water in shallows. As Clemens once explained, “mark two … cannot be heard in stormy weather, but ‘mark twain’ has a different sound and catches the ear at once.”2 He was attracted to the name, he said, “because to nine hundred and ninety-nine persons out of a thousand it had no meaning, and also because it was short.”3

But he also offered a more elaborate explanation for his pseudonym. In November 1868, the same week Olivia Langdon finally accepted his proposal of marriage, a report circulated in newspapers across the country—originating no doubt with Clemens—that he had appropriated the name from “an old boatman on the Mississippi river.”4 Or as he argued most forcefully a few years later in chapter 50 of Life on the Mississippi, he [End Page 277] stole the penname from his old nemesis Isaiah Sellers, who signed it to his river reports in New Orleans papers in the 1850s, in order to pay tribute to him. Sellers “died in 1863,” he asserted, “and as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains.”5 He “confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded [pseudonym]” or “robbed his corpse” and did his “best to make it remain what it was in his hands—a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth.”6 Trouble is, there is no record that Sellers ever signed any his river columns “Mark Twain,” and Sellers was still alive in January 1863, when Clemens appropriated the name. Sellers did not die until March 1864. That is, this account of the source of his pseudonym seems in retrospect a clever attempt to manage his public image, especially during his courtship of Livy.

He apparently wanted to suppress a more plausible explanation. In August 1864, only about a year and a half after Clemens began to use the pseudonym, his bête noire Albert S. Evans asserted that his “soubriquet was given him by his friends as indicative of his capacity for doing the drink for two.”7 Similarly, an early published account of his adoption of the pen-name appeared in the San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle for February 14, 1866. It was soon widely copied in such papers as the San Francisco Examiner, the Sacramento Bee, the Nevada, Cal., Transcript, and the Mariposa Gazette; and there is no evidence Clemens challenged its veracity.8 In this version of events, he routinely bought drinks on credit at various saloons in and around Virginia City, especially John Piper’s Old Corner Saloon at B street and Union; Tom Peasley’s Sazerac Saloon on south C street near Union, the largest bar in the city; Winn and Center’s New Saloon on C street; and Mike McCluskey’s establishment on Main street in Gold Hill.9 He asked the bartenders to “mark twain, whereupon the barkeep would score two...


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pp. 277-279
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