Fun Mark Twain facts, including his inventions, unusual lecture topics, and numerous pen names
1. Mark Twain wrote a pornographic story set during Elizabethan times. Titled ‘1601’, this bawdy tale – known as a ‘squib’ – was written in 1876 and purports to be the excerpt from a diary written by Queen Elizabeth I’s cup-bearer. Elizabeth has conversations with numerous notable persons of the age, including William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh. When somebody breaks wind, Elizabeth tries to find out who did it. (Spoiler alert: Raleigh did it.) As John Bird notes, ‘one of Twain’s points’ was ‘that the figures we now hold in such high regard habitually used extremely coarse language’.
It is surprising to reflect that neither of the books which are now considered canonical and quintessential Twain – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – was Twain’s bestselling book during his lifetime: instead, that honour went to The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s first book. Perhaps its success was helped by a glowing review of the book – a glowing review written by Twain himself (and published anonymously). William Faulkner said that Twain ‘is all of our grandfather’; Eugene O’Neill remarked that Twain was ‘the true father of all American literature’; Ernest Hemingway asserted that ‘all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.’ Which makes it all the more surprising that Twain himself thought his best book was not Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, nor Pudd’nhead Wilson (his 1894 novel about a lawyer of mixed race), but his final novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).
2. Twain patented three inventions, including an improved design for trouser braces and an early version of the Post-it note. The elastic braces could also serve other purposes – indeed, Twain’s invention is regarded as one of the first designs for the modern bra-strap. The third invention is the one we find most interesting, though: ‘Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder Game’, designed to improve people’s memory of historical trivia. Twain is often named as the first writer to have written a book on a typewriter: Life on the Mississippi, in 1883. A tireless experimenter, Twain even extended such scientific experimentation to his own body. He once received treatment for severe constipation from inventor Nikola Tesla. The treatment worked: Twain soiled himself.
3. Twain was born two weeks after Halley’s Comet appeared in 1835, and died the day after it next made its return in 1910. What’s more, he correctly predicted that he would die when the comet returned to the skies. Perhaps the comet was an ill omen: by the time he turned 13 years of age, Samuel Clemens – later to become, of course, Mark Twain – had nearly drowned on nine separate occasions.
4. Mark Twain once delivered a lecture titled ‘The First Watermelon I Ever Stole’. The audience featured none other than the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. But it wasn’t the most surprising topic for one of Twain’s lectures: in 1879, Twain gave a whole lecture on the topic of masturbation, titled ‘Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism’.
5. Before settling on the pseudonym Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote under the pen names ‘Josh’ and ‘Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass’. Twain’s most famous pseudonym literally means ‘two fathoms deep’; it’s a nautical term (‘twain’ meaning ‘two’). It took a while to catch on in print: Twain’s first article published in Harper’s Weekly was mistakenly credited to ‘MacSwain’. Twain’s other noms de plume include ‘Rambler’, ‘Sergeant Fathom’, and (perhaps unbeatably) ‘W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab’. On the subject of names, Twain came up with some pretty zany names for his many pet cats, including Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Satan, Sour Mash, and Zoroaster.
Image: Mark Twain lying in bed, 1906 (author: Underwood & Underwood), Wikimedia Commons, public domain.