The Original Mark Twain


A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’.

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact the Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book. I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story, that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my 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; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs’”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain's own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

'My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner's plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

'I. Sellers.']}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in
print.

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my 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; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

Leave a comment