“You could train a cat to do what I did. You could train a garden slug to do what I did, but the cat would be quicker.” Mark Twain fans stumble across this sort of self-deprecating humor nearly every time we pick up one of his works. Afterwards, we may wonder if the slam was meant as irony. Sometimes Twain’s quips serve to make us pay attention to our own notions of self-importance. Because today is Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ birthday, I decided to share a few of my opinions about the man.
Despite his cultivated aura of countrified simplicity, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was a complicated, sophisticated person. How else could a person have the skill to become a popular contemporary icon in his own time and retain the fascination of a large segment of people in our own time?
The United States and the World were quite different around the time of Clemens’ life. Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on this day in 1835 in the small town of Florida, Missouri. His birth coincided with the closest approach of Halley’s Comet to Earth. At the age of four, Clemens’ family relocated to Hannibal, Missouri, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Hannibal became the inspiration for some of Clemens’ most popular writings.
When Samuel was twelve, his father died of pneumonia. That meant the youngster had to find work to help support the family. While still a schoolboy, Sam cut his teeth on journalism. He was first a “printers devil” (printing office apprentice) for the Missouri Courier. In 1851, Samuel was hired as an assistant and typesetter at his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union. From there he worked a string of jobs on the East Coast, before returning to the Midwest. At Keokuk, Iowa, he worked at Orion’s new newspaper The Keokuk Journal.
In 1857, a twist of fate realigned the life of Samuel Clemens. He boarded a steamboat to New Orleans to further depart for South America. However, the boat’s pilot, Horace Bixby, agreed to train him in a new profession if Clemens would pay him $500. Two years later, Clemens obtained his piloting permit and worked as a pilot until April 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War.
We remember that Orion was appointed by President Lincoln as Secretary of Nevada Territory and that Samuel followed his older brother there. He tried his hand at gold and silver prospecting but failed. Clemens found work as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. There, he wrote serious news stories and penned humorous commentary. It was in Virginia City that Clemens adopted his pseudonym, Mark Twain.
Clemens moved to San Francisco in 1864 and was employed by various papers. The young “City by the Bay” was the jumping-off point for Mark Twain’s real work and his fame. The short story that catapulted Twain to fame was published in 1865 by the Saturday Press of New York. “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was widely circulated and very popular. The story was later renamed “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.
In my view, the pen name, Mark Twain, represents the alter -ego of Samuel Clemens. By adopting the Twain moniker, Clemens was able to soften the nature of his controversial, personal points of view and opinions. In the persona of Mark Twain, Clemens, the deep thinking philosopher, was able to shift into the role of humorist.
Clemens’ considered his own personal views and opinions as too controversial for public consumption. Proof of this fact was demonstrated by Clemens’ request to not have his autobiography published until 100 years after his death. When we wade through even a portion of this two volume collection, we discover the complex, highly intelligent man who was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The autobiography is the manifestation of one of Clemens’ most famous quotes, “None but the dead have free speech.”
In my opinion, his autobiography is not the light reading that one reads cover to cover like a novel. The memoir is more like an encyclopedic scrapbook that requires close scrutiny and study. Unlike Twain’s books, essays, and anthologies, the autobiography required several weeks of my time to peruse and ponder. Yet, I don’t think I got the entire jist of what Clemens dictated to posterity.
A hint to the clever, hidden personality of Samuel Clemens is found in one of his explanations as to why he chose the pen-name “Mark Twain”. Clemens quipped that his intention was to “shorten the work” of the Nevada lawmakers. That way, they’d no longer need to call him “that disreputable, lying, characterless, character smashing, unscrupulous fiend who reports for the Territorial Enterprise.”
The contemporary meaning of the term “Mark Twain” meant “shallow waters”. When we look at the contrast between Clemens’ true nature and the nautical term, we see not only irony, but a diversionary tactic.
It was because of his alter-ego, that Clemens was able to translate his deeply held feelings about nationalism, imperialism, organized religion, elitism, lawlessness, decadence of the South, slavery, and inequality. By the use of a “shallow” name, Twain was able to soften the cynical, aloof, sharp tongued opinions of Samuel Clemens.
The general public probably would not have “taken to” the raw persona of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. It was through the filter of Mark Twain, that the public was exposed to Clemens’ humanistic point of view. It is this dichotomy that continues to attract those of us who are fascinated by Mark Twain. It is the combination of Mark Twain and Samuel Langhorne Clemens that makes the man a timeless icon.
It’s almost impossible for the Blue Jay of Happiness to have a favorite Samuel Langhorne Clemens quote. For the moment, this one will suffice: “I have no race prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.”