On Thursday, Jan. 29, 1863, a 27-year-old newspaper reporter named Samuel L. Clemens traveled by early morning stagecoach from the hilly mining town of Virginia City, Nev., to Carson City, the territorial capital on the flats. That evening he felt inclined to go to a party, and found one at the elegant home of a prominent politician.
The result was a breezy, conversational "letter" from Clemens back to his paper, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, printed on Feb. 3 and full of jibes at the guests, groans at the terrible songs sung, and tales of petty larceny and drunkenness. He finished by saying it took him a two-day session of sleep to recover, and signed the letter, "Dreamily, Mark Twain."
It was one of many such stories by Clemens that tickled the Enterprise's readers in that era. It was the fashion for newspaper funnymen to use aliases, and Clemens had called himself "Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass," "W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab," "Grumbler," and "Sergeant Fathom."
But this new pen name stuck. One 151 years ago this winter, Mark Twain was born.
Now Kevin Mac Donnell, an Austin, Texas, Mark Twain scholar, bookseller, and collector has stumbled upon what he believes is the inspiration for that famous pen name — discovered by chance during a long, tedious Google Books search for other things. And the world of those who love and study Mark Twain is sitting up and taking notice.
Mac Donnell is something of a legend in this world. Not an academic, he has a substantial antiquarian book business, and a private collection of more than 8,000 Twain-related artifacts and documents. He is generous to a fault in sharing his knowledge of them, not being the kind of collector who keeps his holdings hidden away. His numerous articles and his comments on the online Mark Twain Forum can be relied on for accuracy and thoroughness.
One day about seven years ago he was being characteristically thorough, searching Google Books, the online database that digitizes entire libraries. He was looking for instances of the name "Mark Twain," year by year, from Feb. 3, 1863, on.
Then, on a whim, he moved his search back before that date. And he found something.
The pen name "Mark Twain" is usually explained as a piece of Mississippi River lore — and as a licensed steamboat pilot in the 1850s, Clemens was steeped in that lore. When the depth of the river below a boat was to be determined, one of the crew dropped a weighted line over the side. The line was marked in fathoms — depths of 6 feet. The first mark on the line was Mark 1, the third was Mark 3. But the second mark was by tradition called out using an old-fashioned term for the number 2 – "Mark twain!"
Two fathoms was just barely a safe depth for the shallow-draft riverboats, and scholars like to say that the pen name was a sign of Twain's ability, in his humorous and serious writing, to stray just to the edge of safety.
But Mac Donnell found something no Mark Twain scholar has ever seems to have found before. In the Jan. 26, 1861, issue of a humor magazine called Vanity Fair (no relation to today's publication) he came upon an unsigned story called "The North Star." In the text was a character called "Mark Twain," apparently used as a proper name for the first time.
In the satirical tale, a group of Southern sailors complain that all their compasses point north — this was, after all, the eve of the Civil War. They all have names reflecting their maritime life: There is Lee Scupper, Pine Knott, Bob Stay — and Mark Twain.
Mac Donnell felt a thrill. And this is where he drew upon his almost inexhaustible expertise. He knew newspapers in the 1860s relied for copy on "exchanges" whereby they swapped copies and were free to use as much as they liked from each other's publications. Clemens' paper in Nevada would almost certainly have had a file of Vanity Fairs. Or another paper that had picked up Vanity Fair's stories.
But why would Clemens have waited two years to use the suggestion of this funny piece for a pen name? Because, Mac Donnell says, 1863 was a crucial year for his career — he was looking to get beyond local fame and develop a brand. In 1861 he had just been getting started.
"After all the ink spilled over the years on Clemens' pen name," Mac Donnell writes, "discovering the actual print source that inspired him to anoint himself Mark Twain must be, one would think, one of the Holy Grails of Mark Twain studies. Nonetheless, and against the odds, that printed source has been found, and the evidence strongly suggests that Clemens saw it in Carson City, prompting him to become Mark Twain, and further evidence provides ample reasons why he would have wanted to keep that source a secret."
Despite the authoritative tone, Mac Donnell is modest about his find. "What I did a cat could have done," he says, referring to the Google Books search. "A monkey could do it, but not with the intelligence and cleverness of a cat." (Like Clemens, he is a cat fancier, and he and his wife own a spoiled black animal named Felix.)
But even a spoiled cat might balk at going up against another explanation for the nickname — Samuel L. Clemens' own.
In 1874, living in Hartford, the author tried to settle the matter for good and all. He said he had taken the pen name of an old Mississippi steamboat captain named Isaiah Sellers, who published river reports in the New Orleans Picayune. Clemens wrote that when Sellers died in 1863, "I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner's discarded one."
The trouble is that scholars have long known that this story doesn't work. Captain Sellers, for one thing, was alive for a year after Clemens adopted the sobriquet.