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Sue Harris <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 10 Mar 1998 09:26:38 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (70 lines)
I, personally, never heard the "barkeep" story.  As a young girl I read a
biography of Mark Twain and in that biography, the riverboat story was
credited with why he took that name.  Therefore, that has always been my

Sue J. Harris
Secretary for Career Development and Fine Arts
Elmira City School District

"Live Life To the Fullest Everyday"

On Mon, 9 Mar 1998, Peter Salwen wrote:

> Ellen Oster wrote,
> "[Justin] Kaplan contradicts the [usual] story for the origin of the name
> "Mark Twain" Kaplan, suggesting the name originated in Nevada when barkeeps
> would mark up two drinks on credit.
> Opinions?"
> - - - - - - - - - - - - -
> Ellen --
> Twain's story was that another riverman, Captain Sellers, had adopted the
> leadsman's call of "mark twain!" (i.e., two fathoms of water, safe for a
> riverboat) and used it to sign his  occasional journalistic scribblings,
> and that Clemens appropriated it after Sellers died.
> There are supposedly several problems with this story.  One is that Sellers
> may still have been alive when Clemens started using it.  Another is that
> no researcher has turned up any specimens of Sellers' "Mark Twain" pieces.
> The competing story has Sam Clemens, then in his late 20s, out in Virginia
> City, where he and the other Territorial Enterprise staffers would finish
> the night's work and head out to their favorite bar, where Sam would call
> out, "Mark twain!" which meant, "Two drinks, barkeep, and put them on my
> tab!"  In some tellings, this story has a nice additional touch: the
> bartender had the custom of scratching a mark on the bottle for each drink
> owed.  Two drinks, two ("twain") marks.  Very cute.
> Later, according to this theory, Twain found himself moving among the
> respectable gentry of Elmira, Hartford, and New York.  The true derivation
> of his name now embarrassed him, so he concocted a plausible (but colorful)
> cover story, and stuck to it the rest of his life.
> In my lectures and tours, I generally offer both explanations, and let the
> listeners pick the one they like.  In my heart, I think I still buy the
> "official" leadsman's-call version, in some form or other.  The lack of
> documentation doesn't seem to be a fatal objection, since there's no reason
> to expect Sellers' pieces to have survived.  And if there was anything to
> the other story, you'd think Twain might have at least mentioned it
> somewhere in his autobiographical dictations, which are pretty unfettered
> in other respects.
> And then, maybe there's some truth in both versions; things often happen
> for more than one reason.
> Anybody else have thoughts on this?
> Peter Salwen