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March 29, 2013


Mark TwainThis year marks the sesquicentennial of a birth. On February 3, 1863, Mark Twain was born. But he already was twenty-seven years old. Sort of.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri. He worked as a printers apprentice and a typesetter before getting his steamboat pilot license. When the Civil War began, he briefly joined a rebel unit and not a big surprise, since Missouri was deeply divided between the Union and Confederacy. But his older brother Orion stuck with the North. He had been a newspaperman, but he also studied law. He worked in the St. Louis law office of an old Whig politician, Edward Bates. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln named Bates his attorney general. When Lincoln was appointing officials to come to Nevada territory, he wanted loyal Republicans. For governor, he chose James Warren Nye, who had been close to Secretary of State William Henry Seward. Nye needed an assistant territorial secretary, as the title was known. Bates' old friend Orion Clemens got the job.

With his army career done, Samuel accompanied his brother west. After just about three weeks, they finally reached Nevada. Samuel had hopes of striking it rich. His luck wasnt that good. He filed claims on timber around Lake Tahoe, which should have provided opportunity. Among the supplies that mines needed to function, lumber was high on the list. He went to Aurora, a mining district in Esmeralda County, and tried to mine there. He invested in mining stocks. All in all, he didn't do too well.

But he found something to do. He began sending articles to the Nevada territory's finest newspaper, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. He often used the pen name of Josh. If anybody got mad at him, he could say he was just, well, joshing.

He kept sending articles. On February 3, 1863, the Enterprise published a Letter From Carson City that he had written a few days before. He described a trip with what he called an incessant talker, Joseph T. Goodman, who also happened to be his editor. He detailed a party at the home of a prominent attorney, former California Governor J. Neely Johnson. He explained that after being awake for 48 hours, he had slept for just as long, and signed the letter, Yours, dreamily, Mark Twain.

That marked the first time that pen name appeared in print. Where did it come from? When a steamboat pilot was in a river whose depth measured two fathoms, the pilot would call out, MARK TWAIN. That meant the water was about twelve feet deep and therefore safe for the ship.

As Mark Twain, he would go on to write for the Territorial Enterprise until he left for San Francisco in 1864. He would benefit from working with a group of talented newspapermen, including Goodman and William Wright, who adopted the pen name of Dan DeQuille. Twain would return to Virginia City after his departure, and write Roughing It, a wonderful book about his experiences and at least, the parts where he told the truth. Of course he went on to become a giant, some say THE giant, of American literature, with stories of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and so many other great works. And it all began with a newspaper report, 150 years ago.

See discussion rules.


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