I was discussing with my friend Andy the banjo-playing masonic assassin how pop culture references and jokes were nothing new, and how difficult it can be to understand stories and dialogue that use a lot of it, when I mentioned that Samuel Clemens’s pseudonym itself was a gag. It’s not arcane knowledge. Mark Twain is a riverboat nautical term for depth. They’d lower a knotted rope with a weight to measure depth, and call out how many knots went under, so the riverboat captain wouldn’t scrape bottom. “Mark one, mark twain, mark three…”
It was a cute nod to his past as a riverboat captain that would elicit a chuckle from those familiar with steamboats, and to everyone else, it was just a nice, clean and respectable name. Much better than Samuel Clemens, which sounds like Delirium Tremens.
There’s been a rediscovery of Thomas Edison’s footage of Mark Twain at his Connecticut home in 1909, which made me go looking for any audio recordings of Mr. Twain. Recordings existed, once. He dictated four wax cylinders of a novel, to experiment and see if he could write that way. He didn’t like it. Perhaps they were destroyed. A few others are mentioned, but no recordings are known to exist. The closest we get is a friend of Twain’s, a gifted mimic and impersonator, who recorded his imitation of Twain reading “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”