The iconic author best known as Mark Twain was born as Samuel Clemens in Florida, Missouri in 1835. Famous for his works such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this renowned author used his pen name to pay homage to one of his favorite riverboat pilots – one who would call out when the river was twelve feet for passage, and referred to it as “mark twain”. What is a pen name, or nom de plume, and why did a young Clemens select it for himself?
A pen name, or nom de plume, is the pseudonym chosen by a writer to use on the published works they create. It allows them to distance the works from their everyday names and protect their personal identity when publishing. It’s important to note that many authors, such as J.K. Rowling, actually use a pseudonym in the author credits to mask their identity – but the actual pieces remain under their own name.
By selecting the name Mark Twain, it’s clear that Samuel Clemens was looking to pay tribute and honor the beloved pilot who taught him much about life. In his own autobiography, Twain wrote, “I testified my gratitude to the pilot by stealing his name…I was not able to glorify him, but I could and did glorify his title.”
“Mark twain” is a shorthand term for a phrase used by the navigators and pilots of the 19th century Mississippi River boats who, with the use of a lead line, took soundings of the river to assess the depth of the water to determine if a boat was safe to pass through. Mark Twain literally meant two fathoms – or, twelve feet. To mark the phrase, they would “mark” the specific spot with a “twain”.
With his own experience of the Mississippi’s dangers, Samuel recognized the wisdom of riverboat pilots and saw them as symbols of what he considered one of the best human qualities – courage.
Furthermore, although the term ‘mark twain’ is believed to have originated organically as a phrase, it is possible that the novel Tom Sawyer was an influence on the new name that Twain – or Clemens – adopted. In the opening pages of the novel, Tom Sawyer claims that “The old remarkable had new paint, new carvings, new ornaments”, the “old remarkable” being a steamboat, and “mark twain” being a phrase commonly used to describe the level of two fathoms of water.
Overall, one could say that in selecting the pen name Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens was paying tribute to the life-saving wisdom of the Mississippi Riverboat pilots, as well as drawing on the atmosphere of his own literature work – and perhaps that of the characters within it.
Exploring the Artist’s Career
Unlike many authors, Mark Twain was more renowned for his ability to capture speech and thought patterns, his humor and witticisms, and his cultural and political references. His career saw him write several of his most famous works, as well as lecturing, acting, exploring, and continuing his witty word choices to capture his audience – all of which saw him become one of America’s first national celebrities.
His first works, published under his real name of Samuel Clemens, were humble works such as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which was published in 1865 and is now viewed as one of his most characteristic stories. The success of his works, along with the wit and humor used in language, saw a literary star born.
Furthermore, as his fame grew, so did his repertoire – his 1876 book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, considered to be one of his classics, saw him create an American classic that still stands today. Similarly, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his masterpiece written between 1876 and 1883, saw Twain capture the details of childhood on the Mississippi River superbly, and is now viewed as one of the masterpieces of American literature.
Through his works, Twain was able to capture and portray the complexities of both the landscape and life within the region with a depth and perspective not seen before. Furthermore, he was also able to impart an emotional experience and response from his works, as well as urging readers to think deeper and question accepted ideas – and all of this made possible with the pen name first selected, Mark Twain.
Exploring Twain’s Influence
The influence that Twain had can still be seen and felt throughout the world today. Not only did Twain’s stories help shaped the literature of America, but his influence can also be seen in other art forms – films and plays have been created to honor his work, as well as inspiring television series, comic books, and children’s books.
Furthermore, in time it has been found that Twain was one of the first to campaign for civil rights – a clause in his will forbade the performance of his works in a segregated environment – and his works were also used to inform audiences of personal and public attitudes that can still be seen to this day.
Another great influence of Twain’s works was in the language that he used to tell his stories. His use of vernacular, combined with his potent observations of human nature, have allowed his works to passionately capture his aging; this has ultimately influenced future authors to take up his unique and distinctive style.
With few authors managing to capture audiences in the way that Mark Twain did with stories of adventure, humor and emotion, it is clear that with his pen name of Mark Twain Samuel Clemens created an important character and storyteller that further shaped the literature of America – and the wider world.
Exploring Cultural Significance
With great stories come great recognition, and Twain’s recognition can be felt throughout the world. Local communities, such as Twain City and Virginia City, have paid homage to their iconic author, with Twain Hibbard and Twain Street being some of them; as well as national recognition such as being awarded honorary degrees from Yale and Oxford.
Furthermore, cities such as Hannibal and St. Louis, as well as Las Vegas and New York, have paid tribute to Twain by creating museums in his honor and by holding festivals to commemorate him.
Despite his death in 1910, Twain’s legacy lives on and has been kept alive through classic film adaptations such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1973) and The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993) that further honored his works; as well as interactive video games that bring his stories to life with modern technologies.
Additionally, many communities across the United States take part in what is known as “Mark Twain Day”. This commemorative day dedicated in the memory of the great author usually encourages children and adults alike to read the works of Twain and reflect on the experiences and messages within his works – as well as providing fun activities for its participators.
Exploring life before Mark Twain
Before Samuel Clemens adopted the pen-name Mark Twain, the young writer dabbled in a wide range of professions. During his itinerant years, he was a printer, a western trader, a newspaper reporter, and a war correspondent.
It was as a printer that he published his first stories for a small newspaper, as a western trader that he had his first experience with the riverboats of the Mississippi, and as a newspaper reporter that he pursued the stories from which he would later write his most celebrated novels. His travels to countries such as England and the Middle East provided him with vast experiences and stories, which he wove into his works.
And it was these experiences, along with the influence of his mentors and well-wishers, that ultimately enabled him to become the iconic author and teller of stories that left an indelible mark on American culture and history.
Exploring his Impact
It is clear that Mark Twain’s works have been influential in American culture and history and have withstood the test of time.
Not only did Twain’s works help shaped the literature of America, but they have also produced a lasting impression on films, plays, comics, and more recently, video games.
What started out as a youthful writer getting his first piece of writing published from his hometown of Florida, Missouri has now become one of America’s most prolific authors, and his influence is sure to live on for many years to come.
While it may be uncertain as to why, exactly, Samuel Clemens chose the name Mark Twain for his pen name, the impact it has had, and the works and experiences it created, can still be felt today – and in honor of the great riverboat pilot from whom he had stolen the name.