An American Classic, Or A Classic American?

It was on 6 July 1862 that Samuel Clemens published his first writing in Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise. He soon followed the custom of journalists of that era and subsequently published under the pen-name “Mark Twain.” “Mark Twain” is a term taken from Clemens’ four years on Mississippi river steamboats: the channels in the ever-shifting, muddy waters of the Mississippi, required navigators to frequently gauge the river’s depth by sounding, the dropping of a weighted line with fathom markings into the water; one fathom was “mark an,” two fathoms – safely navigable – was “mark twain,” and so on.

Clemens had left his job on the Mississippi to join his brother, Orion Clemens, to travel to Nevada Territory where Samuel hoped to strike it rich prospecting for silver in the Comstock Lode. That hope failing to bear fruit, Samuel took a job at the Virginia City paper to earn enough money to travel home. In one of those fortunate unplanned circumstances that seem so frequent in history, Clemens proved to have a natural aptitude for writing: he had a keen eye for the vivid details of life on the frontier, and he had a knack for spinning the humorous twist in his narrative. By 1865 he had moved on to San Francisco where he published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County,” which became a national sensation and made Clemens a celebrity.

Writing as Mark Twain, Clemens continued to write and publish until his death in 1910. His contribution to American literature is almost impossible to over-estimate. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemmingway both acknowledged their personal debt to Twain’s influence, and both described him as the founder of a truly American literature. Though he is most noted for “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” his works range from light, humorous pieces to serious political polemics. Some of his most controversial work, especially regarding religion, was not published until long after his death. Letters From The Earth was finally published in 1962, and just last November, the University of California published the first volume of a comprehensive three-volume edition of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain.

So well-known is Twain as the author of hundreds of oft-quoted epigrams and one-liners that many quotations that did not originate with him are frequently attributed to him (Ben Franklin enjoys the same reputation.) A small sampling shows the range of his interest and the keen edge of his wit: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” “Truth is our most valuable commodity, so let us economize.” “Few things are harder to put up with than a good example.” “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” “Respect your superiors, if you have any.” “Suppose you were a congressman, and suppose you were an idiot. But I repeat myself.” “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

And though it may be by a rather indirect route, we can thank President Abraham Lincoln for giving the world Mark Twain. Lincoln appointed James Warren Nye governor of the Nevada Territory, and Orion Clemens as Territorial Secretary. With Mississippi River traffic being much reduced by the outbreak of the Civil War, Orion invited his younger brother Samuel to accompany him out West. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

 

Never learn to do anything. If you don’t learn, you’ll always find someone else to do it.

— Twain

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