Mark Twain!

Two unrelated things which I’ll attempt to connect:

  1. Have you ever heard, read or repeated yourself that Samuel Clemens got his “Mark Twain” pen name via the Mississippi riverboat tradition of “marking twain” with a pole?
  2. Have you ever had a conversation with a relative (or in-law) about the underpinnings and behind-the-scenes process of Wikipedia?

Recently my in-laws returned from a trip to Reno, Nevada and my gift was an autographed copy of the book Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by George Williams III. My mother-in-law had read the book herself on the flight back to Atlanta and, when confronted with my off-the-cuff comment about the origins of Mark Twain’s name, offered the author’s take on the situation.

I was apprehensive at first, but I read the book and looked at his citations. Given the color and character of Samuel Clemens writings and persona, lying about how he got the name – or offering alternate theories to it’s genesis – seems the most likely case of all.

A few weeks prior to the gift-giving and Twain discussion, we had talked about Wikipedia as a reference source and my mother-in-law was aghast that no one “edited” the site. Jenn and I both pointed out that it was “moderated” – which isn’t really the same thing – but it served a much greater purpose.

Our contention – which I believe to be completely true – is that highly-trafficked/edited sites receive the most scrutiny and benefit from the most rigorous review. The real problem for/of Wikipedia are articles where one person is allowed to pontificate unchecked by other users.

It’s for this reason that I added the following to Wikipedia:

Clemens’ version of the story regarding his Nom de Plume is not without detractors and has been called into question by biographer George Williams III[23], the Territorial Enterprise newspaper[24] and Purdue University’s Paul Fatout[25]. These sources claim that “mark twain” refers to a running bar tab that Clemens would regularly incur while drinking at John Piper’s saloon in Virginia City, Nevada.

Since there was no previous mention of an alternate theory regarding Clemens’ use of “Mark Twain” and it’s origins, I brought that piece of information to light.

Whether or not this edit survives in this form – and it likely won’t because of the stilted language of the first sentence and my lackluster Wiki-editing skills regarding citations/references – I hope it inspires debate on the talk pages or further research/editing.

For my part, I firmly believe that the Virginia City/John Piper explanation is every bit as compelling and interesting as the Riverboat story. One tells of the real Clemens and his adventurous journey toward becoming a working writer and the other is his invention, his story, after the fact.

Shouldn’t both be considered as “fact” for the purposes of Wikipedia?

Plus, if Wikipedia takes a neutral stance on information/tone, why should Clemens’ version of the story be taken completely at face value?

Comment away!

My references:

Mark Twain’s Nom de Plume

2 thoughts on “Mark Twain!

  1. I’ve made some minor edits – adding notations, fixing grammar and punctuation and I even started a very minor article – but this is my most comprehensive update and certainly the most visible.

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