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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XL. "Mark Twain"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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
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
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.