Tuesday 22 January 2013

How Mark Twain Got His Pen Name

While the world knows Mark Twain for his book Tom Sawyer, it was another story that made him famous.  And while the world knows the author as Mark Twain, he was christened under another name.

Born in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, Samuel Clemens was one of seven children.  Growing up in the pre-Civil War era, his family owned a slave named Jenny who was an excellent story teller.  Soon the family moved to Hannibal where little Samuel's father taught him about rough Western justice.  Sadly, his father died when he was only 12 years old.  

After his father's death, Samuel left school and apprenticed as a typesetter at a printing shop to help support the family.  It was there that he had access to countless books which he read voraciously.  As a young adult, Samuel moved to Philadelphia where he worked as a journalist.  He saved money to fulfill his childhood dream of taking a boat down the Amazon River in South America.  

He bought a ticket to a steamboat and sailed down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.  On that trip, he fell in love with the river, declaring that he wanted to learn how to pilot a steamboat.  He promptly forgot about his plan to travel to South America.  Samuel was hired to work on a steamboat and it was there that he got his inspiration for his pen name.  If a boat's bottom was two fathoms (12 feet) from the riverbed, the leadsman would shout:  "By the maaark, twain!"  The river trade came to a virtual standstill during the Civil War and he was forced to find work elsewhere. 

Samuel travelled to Carson City, Nevada where he was hired as a reporter to cover the legislature.  Searching for an exciting pen name, he remembered his days on the Mississippi and chose Mark Twain.  It was also in Nevada that the journalist met humorist Artemus Ward, who encouraged him to write stories, not just newspaper articles.  

Months after the Civil War ended, Mark Twain sent a story to the New York Saturday Press and it was published as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County".  Well received by the public, Mr. Twain went on to use it as the anchor to an anthology of stories he published in 1867.  Two years later, he came out with another book called Innocents Abroad.  

In the meantime, the author married Olivia Langdon and they had four children.  Twain continued his writing, drawing heavily on his experiences as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  Tom Sawyer was published in 1876 and Huckleberry Finn in 1885.  In total he would publish 28 books.  His time in the printing shop was well spent:  an avid reader became an avid writer.  As he once explained:  "A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read."  

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