Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XL

“Mark Twain”

The early Nevada legislature was an interesting assembly. All State legislatures are that, and this was a mining frontier. No attempt can be made to describe it. It was chiefly distinguished for a large ignorance of procedure, a wide latitude of speech, a noble appreciation of humor, and plenty of brains. How fortunate Mask Twain was in his schooling, to be kept away from institutional training, to be placed in one after another of those universities of life where the sole curriculum is the study of the native inclinations and activities of mankind! Sometimes, in after-years, he used to regret the lack of systematic training. Well for him — and for us — that he escaped that blight.

For the study of human nature the Nevada assembly was a veritable lecture-room. In it his understanding, his wit, his phrasing, his self-assuredness grew like Jack’s bean-stalk, which in time was ready to break through into a land above the sky. He made some curious blunders in his reports, in the beginning; but he was so frank in his ignorance and in his confession of it that the very unsophistication of his early letters became their chief charm. Gillespie coached him on parliamentary matters, and in time the reports became technically as well as artistically good. Clemens in return christened Gillespie “Young, Jefferson’s Manual,” a title which he bore, rather proudly indeed, for many years.

Another “entitlement” growing out of those early reports, and possibly less satisfactory to its owner, was the one accorded to Clement T. Rice, of the Virginia City Union. Rice knew the legislative work perfectly and concluded to poke fun at the Enterprise letters.

But this was a mistake. Clemens in his next letter declared that Rice’s reports might be parliamentary enough, but that they covered with glittering technicalities the most festering mass of misstatement, and even crime. He avowed that they were wholly untrustworthy; dubbed the author of them “The Unreliable,” and in future letters never referred to him by any other term. Carson and the Comstock and the papers of the Coast delighted in this burlesque journalistic warfare, and Rice was “The Unreliable” for life.

Rice and Clemens, it should be said, though rivals, were the best of friends, and there was never any real animosity between them.

Clemens quickly became a favorite with the members; his sharp letters, with their amusing turn of phrase and their sincerity, won general friendship. Jack Simmons, speaker of the house, and Billy Clagget, the Humboldt delegation, were his special cronies and kept him on the inside of the political machine. Clagget had remained in Unionville after the mining venture, warned his Keokuk sweetheart, and settled down into politics and law. In due time he would become a leading light and go to Congress. He was already a notable figure of forceful eloquence and tousled, unkempt hair. Simmons, Clagget, and Clemens were easily the three conspicuous figures of the session.

It must have been gratifying to the former prospector and miner to come back to Carson City a person of consequence, where less than a year before he had been regarded as no more than an amusing indolent fellow, a figure to smile at, but unimportant. There is a photograph extant of Clemens and his friends Clagget and Simmons in a group, and we gather from it that he now arrayed himself in a long broadcloth cloak, a starched shirt, and polished boots. Once more he had become the glass of fashion that he had been on the river. He made his residence with Orion, whose wife and little daughter Jennie had by this time come out from the States. “Sister Mollie,” as wife of the acting governor, was presently social leader of the little capital; her brilliant brother-in-law its chief ornament. His merriment and songs and good nature made him a favorite guest. His lines had fallen in pleasant places; he could afford to smile at the hard Esmeralda days.

He was not altogether satisfied. His letters, copied and quoted all along the Coast, were unsigned. They were easily identified with one another, but not with a personality. He realized that to build a reputation it was necessary to fasten it to an individuality, a name.

He gave the matter a good deal of thought. He did not consider the use of his own name; the ‘nom de plume’ was the fashion of the time. He wanted something brief, crisp, definite, unforgettable. He tried over a good many combinations in his mind, but none seemed convincing. Just then — this was early in 1863 — news came to him that the old pilot he had wounded by his satire, Isaiah Sellers, was dead. At once the pen-name of Captain Sellers recurred to him. That was it; that was the sort of name he wanted. It was not trivial; it had all the qualities — Sellers would never need it again. Clemens decided he would give it a new meaning and new association in this far-away land. He went up to Virginia City.

“Joe,” he said, to Goodman, “I want to sign my articles. I want to be identified to a wider audience.”

“All right, Sam. What name do you want to use ‘Josh’?”

“No, I want to sign them ‘Mark Twain.’ It is an old river term, a leads-man’s call, signifying two fathoms — twelve feet. It has a richness about it; it was always a pleasant sound for a pilot to hear on a dark night; it meant safe water.”

He did not then mention that Captain Isaiah Sellers had used and dropped the name. He was ashamed of his part in that episode, and the offense was still too recent for confession. Goodman considered a moment:

“Very well, Sam,” he said, “that sounds like a good name.”

It was indeed a good name. In all the nomenclature of the world no more forceful combination of words could have been selected to express the man for whom they stood. The name Mark Twain is as infinite, as fundamental as that of John Smith, without the latter’s wasting distribution of strength. If all the prestige in the name of John Smith were combined in a single individual, its dynamic energy might give it the carrying power of Mark Twain. Let this be as it may, it has proven the greatest ‘nom de plume’ ever chosen — a name exactly in accord with the man, his work, and his career.

It is not surprising that Goodman did not recognize this at the moment. We should not guess the force that lies in a twelve-inch shell if we had never seen one before or heard of its seismic destruction. We should have to wait and see it fired, and take account of the result.

It was first signed to a Carson letter bearing date of February 2, 1863, and from that time was attached to all Samuel Clemens’s work. The work was neither better nor worse than before, but it had suddenly acquired identification and special interest. Members of the legislature and friends in Virginia and Carson immediately began to address him as “Mark.” The papers of the Coast took it up, and within a period to be measured by weeks he was no longer “Sam” or “Clemens” or “that bright chap on the Enterprise,” but “Mark”—“Mark Twain.” No ‘nom de plume’ was ever so quickly and generally accepted as that. De Quille, returning from the East after an absence of several months, found his room and deskmate with the distinction of a new name and fame.

It is curious that in the letters to the home folks preserved from that period there is no mention of his new title and its success. In fact, the writer rarely speaks of his work at all, and is more inclined to tell of the mining shares he has accumulated, their present and prospective values. However, many of the letters are undoubtedly missing. Such as have been preserved are rather airy epistles full of his abounding joy of life and good nature. Also they bear evidence of the renewal of his old river habit of sending money home — twenty dollars in each letter, with intervals of a week or so between.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05