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The Suburbanite
  • Bruce's History Lessons: Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain

  • It may not be a stretch to say that, thanks to the Civil War, American literature boasts the works of Mark Twain.

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  • Other than the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — which ended slavery, granted equal protection under the law, and gave African-Americans the right to vote — few positives resulted from the Civil War. But if you appreciate great literature, it may not be a stretch to say that, thanks to that war, American literature boasts the works of Mark Twain, including what many believe is the “Great American Novel,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
    You can make that case because Samuel Clemens, as Mark Twain was christened at birth, got his license to be a steamboat pilot this week (April 9) in 1859. He had wanted to be a writer, but while riding the Mississippi River on his way to a writing assignment he fell in love with river life and decided being a steamboat pilot would be more fun than writing.
    So he piloted a steamboat for two years — 1859 to 1861 — where he soaked up the river lore and learned the tricks of the boatman’s trade, including the term boatmen used to announce that a stretch of river was two fathoms deep, the minimum depth for safe navigation. That term was “by the mark twain!”
    Alas for Clemens, the Civil War, which began in 1861, ended all commercial steamboat traffic on the Mississippi, meaning he was out of a job. Not knowing what else to do (he served briefly in a Confederate cavalry unit), he returned to writing. His first assignment was to write a humorous travel letter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in Nevada, and as a lark he signed the letter “Mark Twain.”
    It would be his pen name for the next 50 years, especially after moving to California and writing a story based on a tale he had heard about the California gold mines. That story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” made Mark Twain famous and made it virtually impossible for Twain to go back to Clemens.
    But since the Mississippi River was the setting for his best works, Mark Twain was the more appropriate name. Those works include “Tom Sawyer,” which chronicled small town life on the Mississippi; Life on the Mississippi, an autobiographical account of his years as a steamboat pilot; and, of course, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the story of a young boy who flees his abusive father by rafting down the Mississippi with a runaway slave named Jim.
    Would Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain — have produced such great literature had he remained a steamboat pilot? My guess is, yes — he was born to write. But given the horror that was the Civil War, it is nice to imagine that one of its legacies was America’s greatest novelist.
    Bruce G. Kauffmann’s e-mail address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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