What’s in a Name?

People call me Alex. I am fine with this, for the most part, because my parents chose it and the government approved, but what can you do. They tell me it was between Alex and Christian. A name, like any corporate brand, must be appropriate in definition as well as cultural implication and phonetic melisma. I didn’t look quite like a Christian at birth, and the conduct of my life proves the infallibility of their judgment.

I may not be a Christian, but sometimes I question being an Alex. In any baby book you’ll find Alexander means “Defender of men,” but I am an Alex. Just Alex. So I can defend anything—men, women, the full-court press, wearing black with navy, gross objectionable behavior—the choices are endless. Given the option I’ll avoid providing for the common defense to drink at the well of humor. A lowball of social commentary mixing satire with a jigger of wry, served in a dirty glass, that’s my poison. And like many around here my bartender’s named Mark Twain.

Mark Twain was named in an age of published alias. Before young Samuel Clemens became two fathoms, he tried out Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass and “Josh” as the author of newspaper articles. All these characters were distinct, not pseudonyms expressing the author’s perspective, but alter egos drawing parody in broad strokes, with the public sometimes aware of the distinction, thereby creating the humor. Petroleum V. Nasby (real name: David Ross Locke), Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), and Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne) were predecessors and contemporaries with similar public relationships. Think Andy Kaufman and Latka Gravas—a separate identity exaggerating unfamiliar regional idiosyncracies wherein the joke is the process, not the punchline. Thirty years into his duality, Mark Twain could claim to know how a story ought to be told, summing up the American art of humor thus:

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.” (“How to Tell a Story,” Youth’s Companion, 3 October 1895)

Samuel Clemens gave a lot of thought to nomenclature, his public identity, and its role in American humor in the 1890s. In fact he had hoped to have left the field altogether for the greener pasture of investment after A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), but the very least he desired was credibility. Tired of being known only as a humorist, Clemens set his sight on establishing a legitimate literary reputation with a historical novel on Joan of Arc. Confiding in his friend William Dean Howells, Clemens relayed to his wife Howell’s idea to publish the work “anonymously in Harper’s. He says let it make its big Ben Hur reputation before revealing the authorship. I agreed” (4 April 1893, MS: CU-MARK, #04362). Clemens believed Mark Twain had become fixed in the popular imagination as a Western humorist, an embarrassment to his affluent, New York-born, New England-raised, European-traveled daughters. Sam Clemens could write the life story of the Maid of Orléans but Mark Twain could not advertise it.

That same year Clemens spoke publicly about another name, that of friend and professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University, Brander Matthews. Perhaps Clemens was trying to figure out the secret to his nominal success when he gave the final speech at a dinner celebrating Matthews:

“You have spoken of him well, & lovingly & heartily, & given him the praises which he has earned & which are his right. But you have overlooked what I think is the most notable achievement of his career—namely, that he has reconciled us to the sound of his sombre & awful name—Bran-der Math-thews! his blighting and scathing name—Bran-der Math-thews! his lurid & desolating name—BRAN-der MATH-thews! B-r-r-rander Math-thews! …You can curse a man’s head off with that name if you know how & where to put the emphases.

“To have overcome by the persuasive graces, sincerities & felicities of his literature the disaster of a name like that & reconciled men to the sound of it, is a fine & high achievement; & this the owner of it has done. To have gone further & made it a dear & welcome sound, & changed its discords to music, is a still finer & higher achievement; & this he has also done. And so, let him have full credit. When he got his name it was only good to curse with; now it is good to conjure with” (20-21 December 1893, MS: CU-MARK, #04533).

Soon after the entrepreneurial dream could not survive the down-turned economy and twin money-pits created by a floundering publishing company and a failed automated typesetter: “When the anchor is down, then I shall say: ‘Farewell—a long farewell—to business! I will never touch it again!’ I will live in literature, I will wallow in it, revel in it, I will swim in ink! Joan of Arc—but all this is premature; the anchor is not down yet.” (27 January 1894, MS: CU-MARK, #04679).

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was serialized in Harper’s Magazine beginning in April 1895 for the next thirteen months, the same time that Youth’s Companion published Twain’s brief discourse on American humor. Declaring bankruptcy one year before, and with his pen name his only asset, Samuel Langhorne Clemens still published Joan of Arc without the name Mark Twain, attributing the work to Sieur Louis de Conte. Clemens’s desire to be taken seriously trumped his desperate financial situation. The Clemens name was inextricably tied to Twain, in the design of the humorist tradition to which he belonged, so the most he could use to identify his authorship were the same initials as Joan’s fictional page (SLC). He would use these initials one more time in publication: at the end of “In Memoriam,” a poem dedicated one year after the passing of his oldest daughter, Olivia Susan Clemens (Susy), to meningitis in 1896.

What do we make out of all of this? Mark Twain began life on the page and the stage as a character, and Twain’s books and correspondence exhibited the dichotomy often by printing both his names. Like Andy Kaufman he felt trapped by the identity of his most famous creation, but thought business was his escape. When that failed, Sam Clemens embraced his audience as Mark Twain, a Mark Twain invested with identifiable attributes (wild white hair, white suit) and personality (cantankerous misanthrope)—no longer a creation but the adopted personality of the creator (not Kaufman as Latka but Kaufman as Tony Clifton). And somewhere in between, when Sam Clemens tried to be taken seriously, he chose his initials to provide the right balance of identity and anonymity for social acceptance without prejudice. So I have taken his advice and publish here under my own initials: ABE. It’s far better than the name Brander Matthews.


ABE lives in Massachusetts with one wife, two kids, three dogs, and four regrets. Three kids, two wives, one dog, and a life in California would’ve been his preference. He fills the rest of his life tracing the evolution of comedy, looking for descent with the same passion as Mary Leakey in Olduvai Gorge. He also shares Mrs. Leakey’s love of freedom and dislike for rules, which he learned about on Wikipedia. ABE suffers to work for a living while finishing his doctoral degree in editorial studies, a less interesting term for the impenetrable Editionswissenschaft. You might call it “textual scholarship,” or “Henshu-Bunkengaku,” depending on your continent. Feel free to follow any one of his aliases on Twitter if you can find it.


One response

  1. […] by Brander Matthews on “Mark Twain and the Art of Writing” (pp. 635–643) reminiscent of my first piece on this website. Quoting Twain’s estimation for former Harper’s editor William Dean Howells as “concerns his […]

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