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.
Mac Donnell sees this as further proof of his theory. He believes the author was trying to distance himself from the early humorists with whom he was associated out West, and who populated Vanity Fair — a group known as the Phunny Phellows, who reveled in illiterate spellings and corny jokes. By the 1870s, in the heart of the New England literary establishment and neighbor to the highly serious Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clemens had loftier, if still humorous, aspirations.
Mac Donnell moved his find to the back burner, planning to publish something about it one day, but a casual mention to another Twainian let his catlike discovery out of the bag. He published his work in the scholarly Mark Twain Journal this past spring, with characteristic detail and exposition.
"We are proud and grateful to be the venue Mac Donnell chose to announce his notable finding," the editors wrote, and Twain scholar Martin Zehr wrote in the Kansas City Star that "Mac Donnell's research fills an important gap in the story by suggesting Clemens' likely familiarity with the Vanity Fair piece two years following its publication."
Not all readers can make the leap from 1861 phunny story to 1863 pen name, however. R. Kent Rasmussen, a California scholar who has edited important Twainian reference works, says that there are simple evidentiary reasons to doubt Mac Donnell's theory.
"One, we don't know for sure that he saw the Vanity Fair article," Rasmussen says. "Two, if he did see it, there is no proof he became Mark Twain because of it." But most significantly, he asked, "Why would one of the world's most creative writers have to get his name from somebody else?"
Mac Donnell acknowledges that a direct link between the article and the pen name cannot be proven definitively, and is willing to joke about it. When he lectures on his find, he'll show a slide of the Vanity Fair article with a scrawled comment in felt-tip pen in the margin: "Note to self: Use this one! S.L.C." No such evidence actually exists. The story and the debate has made its way into the Los Angeles Review of Books and the online journal Salon.com.
"I can't prove that he saw the [Vanity Fair] article, but it seems fairly obvious that he did," Mac Donnell says. "His background as a typesetter made him thoroughly familiar with the newspaper exchange system. And why did he feel that he had to make up the Captain Sellers story?"
Kerry Driscoll, a noted Twain scholar and Chair of English at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, says she's in the skeptics' camp, but takes a nuanced view.
"Like any great writer, [Clemens'] mind was a smelter: random tidbits of information were constantly being tossed in, melted down to some irreducible essence, and then recombined through the great heat of his creativity," she wrote in an e-mail. "…I think it quite plausible —likely, in fact, — that Twain read the 1861 Vanity Fair sketch Kevin Mac Donnell uncovered, and that the humorous names assigned to its disreputable protagonists registered —- perhaps subliminally — in his mind, resurfacing in February 1863 when he signed his letter to the Territorial Enterprise."
Steve Courtney is a journalist and biographer. His most recent book is "'We Shall Have Them With Us Always': The Ghosts of the Mark Twain House."Copyright © 2015, CT Now