Mark Twain's Name was Samuel Clemens


Patricia Truslow, Contributor

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mark twain nameSamuel Langhorn Clemens is the real name of Mark Twain, the literary icon who adopted the navigational term as his pen name. More than once, he has been referred to as Mark Twain Clemens or Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Regardless, Samuel Clemens was lost in the life of Mark Twain, for it was this pen name that followed him from the day he adopted it until he died in 1910.

The origin of the name "Mark Twain" lies in the navigational term "mark twain" meaning two fathoms, a measurement of water depth that indicates a boat may move safely forward. Samuel Clemens first used the Mark Twain name in 1863 when he contributed an article to the Virginia City newspaper, Territorial Enterprise.

Although the exact manner in which Clemens obtained the name Mark Twain has never been verified, Twain claims in his book Life on the Mississippi that he took (stole) it from Captain Isaiah Sellers. Twain touted his captain as "a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and on the river," but he criticized the way Sellers often wrote about life on the great river. His quotation reads:

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.

and this:

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.

Clemens says that he parodied one such account of the old captain "Broadly, very broadly, stringing my fantastic out to the extent of eight hundred or a thousand words," which he allegedly published in another newspapers. Clemens says the published article had an impact: "Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day forth," and "Sellers gave up his newspaper contributions. While the authenticity of Clemens' article was verified as having been published in the Daily Crescent in New Orleans on May 17, 1859, it has never been confirmed that Captain Isaiah Sellers ever contributed any article to any publication under the pen name of MARK TWAIN.

Upon hearing of Seller's death, Samuel Clemens officially took Mark Twain as his pen name, writing:

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 non 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 of me to say.

Another, unverified and possibly false, origin of the name Mark Twain for Samuel Clemens refers to a time in the Nevada Territory sometime in the 1860s. This theory holds that Clemens would often come into a saloon and order two drinks at once and put in on a credit tab. His order would be said as, "Mark me down for two."