November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.
You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, 1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough. And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…
That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.
Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.
Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.
But what does it matter?
Seeing “Mark Twain” as a character created by Samuel Clemens encourages us to view Mark Twain as something more fascinating than merely one of the most important authors of American history. And while his role as an author of key works of American literature is surely important, that role was not his only—or even his primary—role during his lifetime.
In fact, it was not until almost a decade into his career as Mark Twain that Samuel Clemens wrote a novel—and that novel turned out to be one of the least remembered and least satisfying of his career. Co-written with his fellow humorist and neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age, or A Tale of Today (1873) was a jumbled satire of American life in the post-Civil War period … kind of like The Daily Show in novel form but less funny. The book was topical enough to lend its name to the period of excess wealth and corruption that followed, but its strong focus on its cultural context makes it hard to read now, like much humor that hits its targets in the moment but fades when its targets are forgotten.
In the previous decade, Mark Twain had been attached to a variety of largely popular productions that hardly reached, or aspired to reach, the increasingly jealous realm of “American Literature.” He wrote newspaper “squibs” and periodical sketches that were widely reprinted across America and across the Atlantic. His travel letters and travel books on his trips to the Kingdom of Hawaii, to Europe, and across the United States established “Mark Twain” as a genial, irreverent, and extremely popular debunker of pretension. Samuel Clemens capitalized on his growing reputation to take “Mark Twain” on the road—performing from Red Dog, Nevada to London, England—as his reputation spread and his fame blossomed.
In so doing, Mark Twain followed the model of his fellow humorists, most of whom went by their own made-up names: Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, Orpheus C. Kerr, and the Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (and Mark Twain with Billings and Nasby). These men peddled their characters in periodicals, in books, and on stage in the mid-nineteenth century while developing the new professional category of the “Humorist.” Such humorists could make a living plying their trade, making them much different than the high-class authors who might be described as a humorist along with being a poet, essayist, critic, etc. These humorists were not James Russell Lowell or Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In his early career, Mark Twain and his ilk were much more like Louis CK, Jon Stewart, or David Sederis—professional “phunny phellows” (as they were sometimes called) who performed their comic personae in a variety of venues in order to be funny and to be paid for it. If Samuel Clemens were alive now, I have little doubt he would try his hand at stand-up and hope for the big break of “The Mark Twain Show” on television, and if he were successful, he might follow a career path much more like the comedians who have won “The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.”
In the words of one critic, Mark Twain became “the best of our second-rate humorists.” But Samuel Clemens, for a variety of reasons, moved into a more literary realm in the 1870s and 1880s, putting some of his more popular and less respectable humorous products behind him and experimenting with becoming a “littery man.” But Samuel Clemens did not, and maybe could not, leave Mark Twain’s role as a popular humorist behind. Some critics would not let the public forget. And Samuel Clemens never did move fully beyond the irreverence and freedom that his humorous character allowed him—nor is it clear he really wanted to.
Instead, Mark Twain became an author and established himself as a celebrated and lasting brand of American humor. He became the humorist to which the public and critics compared other American humor, in his day and ours.
So, on November 30th, I might note the birthday of Samuel Clemens, but the real party will be on February 3rd, when the humorist and author we know as “Mark Twain” came into being.
Tracy Wuster is the Director of the Humor in America Project at the University of Texas at Austin, where he lectures in the English and Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments. He is the current President of the American Humor Studies Association and the book review editor of Studies in American Humor. He is the founder and editor of this website you are reading. His book, Mark Twain, American Humorist, will be published by the University of Missouri Press as part of the “Mark Twain and His Circle Series” sometime around February 3rd, 2016.