The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain

by Paine

Presented by
Public Domain Books

XXII. “Mark Twain”

It was once when Goodman and Clemens were dining together that the latter asked to be allowed to report the proceedings of the coming legislature at Carson City. He knew nothing of such work, and Goodman hesitated. Then, remembering that Clemens would, at least, make his reports readable, whether they were parliamentary or not, he consented.

So, at the beginning of the year (1863), Samuel Clemens undertook a new and interesting course in the study of human nature–the political human nature of the frontier. There could have been no better school for him. His wit, his satire, his phrasing had full swing–his letters, almost from the beginning, were copied as choice reading up and down the Coast. He made curious blunders, at first, as to the proceedings, but his open confession of ignorance in the early letters made these blunders their chief charm. A young man named Gillespie, clerk of the House, coached him, and in return was christened “Young Jefferson’s Manual,” a title which he bore for many years.

A reporter named Rice, on a rival Virginia City paper, the “Union,” also earned for himself a title through those early letters.

Rice concluded to poke fun at the “Enterprise” reports, pointing out their mistakes. But this was not wise. Clemens, in his next contribution, admitted that Rice’s reports might be parliamentary enough, but declared his glittering technicalities were only to cover misstatements of fact. He vowed they were wholly untrustworthy, dubbed the author of them “The Unreliable,” and never thereafter referred to him by any other term. Carson and the Comstock papers delighted in this foolery, and Rice became “The Unreliable” for life. There was no real feeling between Rice and Clemens. They were always the best of friends.

But now we arrive at the story of still another name, one of vastly greater importance than either of those mentioned, for it is the name chosen by Samuel Clemens for himself. In those days it was the fashion for a writer to have a pen-name, especially for his journalistic and humorous work. Clemens felt that his “Enterprise” letters, copied up and down the Coast, needed a mark of identity.

He gave the matter a good deal of thought. He wanted something brief and strong–something that would stick in the mind. It was just at this time that news came of the death of Capt. Isaiah Sellers, the old pilot who had signed himself “Mark Twain.” Mark Twain! That was the name he wanted. It was not trivial. It had all the desired qualities. Captain Sellers would never need it again. It would do no harm to keep it alive- -to give it a new meaning in a new land. Clemens took a trip from Carson 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 leadsman’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 waters.”

He did not mention that Captain Sellers had used and dropped the name. He was not proud of his part in that episode, and it was too recent for confession.

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

A good name, indeed! Probably, if he had considered every combination of words in the language, he could not have found a better one. To-day we recognize it as the greatest nom de plume ever chosen, and, somehow, we cannot believe that the writer of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn” and “Roughing It” could have selected any other had he tried.


The name Mark Twain was first signed to a Carson letter, February 2, 1863, and after that to all of Samuel Clemens’s work. The letters that had amused so many readers had taken on a new interest–the interest that goes with a name. It became immediately more than a pen-name. Clemens found he had attached a name to himself as well as to his letters. Everybody began to address him as Mark. Within a few weeks he was no longer “Sam” or “Clemens,” but Mark–Mark Twain. The Coast papers liked the sound of it. It began to mean something to their readers. By the end of that legislative session Samuel Clemens, as Mark Twain, had acquired out there on that breezy Western slope something resembling fame.

Curiously, he fails to mention any of this success in his letters home of that period. Indeed, he seldom refers to his work, but more often speaks of mining shares which he has accumulated, and their possible values. His letters are airy, full of the joy of life and of the wild doings of the frontier. Closing one of them, he says: “I have just heard five pistolshots down the street. As such things are in my line, I will go and see about it.”

And in a postscript, later, he adds:

“5 A.M.–The pistol-shots did their work well. One man, a Jackson County Missourian, shot two of my friends (police officers) through the heart–both died within three minutes. The murderer’s name is John Campbell.”

The Comstock was a great school for Mark Twain, and in “Roughing It” he has left us a faithful picture of its long-vanished glory.

More than one national character came out of the Comstock school. Senator James G. Fair was one of them, and John Mackay, both miners with pick and shovel at first, though Mackay presently became a superintendent. Mark Twain one day laughingly offered to trade jobs with Mackay.

“No,” Mackay said, “I can’t trade. My business is not worth as much as yours. I have never swindled anybody, and I don’t intend to begin now.”

For both these men the future held splendid gifts: for Mackay vast wealth, for Mark Twain the world’s applause, and neither would have long to wait.