Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Sam Clemens's Misunderstood Hoax

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Sam Clemens's Misunderstood Hoax

Article excerpt

By the time nineteen-year-old Sam Clemens reported for work at his brother's printing business in Keokuk, Iowa in the summer of 1855, he was an experienced typesetter who had worked in Hannibal, St. Louis, New York and Philadelphia, an avid reader who'd spent hours taking full advantage of the 3,000-volume printers' association library while working in New York (Letters 1:12n 10), and a seasoned traveler. He was also a budding author who had seen his small body of writings appear in several newspapers, some as far away as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.1 Some of those early writings were carefully structured (most notably the frame narrative of "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" that appeared in The Carpet Bag) and others reflected writing styles that hint at his own reading habits, like the Cooperesque phrasings that adorn his sketch about Hannibal that appeared in The American Courier. The older Mark Twain might have been able to indict Cooper for eighteen aggravating and unpardonable violations of the "nineteen rules that govern the literary arts"2 but the young Sam Clemens was an admirer and imitator (Gribben 1:159). Most of his output displayed his satirical skills and his debt to the tail-tale tradition, but other than a brief exchange of fake letters he wrote in mock outrage over a poem he had published himself in his brother's Hannibal newspaper ("To Mary in H-L"), he had not launched any hoaxes of the kind for which he would later gain attention.

Sam, his brothers Orion and Henry, and an assistant, were soon at work setting type for Orion Clemens's new city directory of Keokuk, which was published in June, 1856, priced one dollar (Letters I:65n2). Keokuk City Directory for 1856-7, the first directory to appear in the fast-growing boom town of Keokuk, Iowa, was a fairly typical example of a mid-nineteenth-century American city directory. It had the usual introductory matter with the obligatory town history and boosterism, followed by advertisements for local merchants, followed by an alphabetical list of the town's businesses and residents, listing the occupation and address for each citizen, followed by still more advertising.3 Most of the entries for individuals follow a simple format of name, occupation, and address, with Henry Clemens's listing being a typical example at page 61 :

Clemens Henry, printer, 52 Main, bds with O Clemens

The abbreviation "bds" indicated citizens who boarded at a boarding house or home, while those who owned a home or resided with their families in a private residence, were designated as "res." But Sam's listing was sure to draw surprise from those who knew him and mislead those who did not. His listing, departing from the alphabetical format, appears just after his brother Orion, and before his brother Henry, and uses "all caps" for his name like Orion's listing and those of only three other business owners among the hundreds of listings. It reads:

CLEMENS SAMUEL L., Antiquarian, 52 Main st, bds at Ivins House

Those who knew Sam knew that he worked as a printer for his brother Orion and lived at the print shop on the third floor at 52 Main Street, like his brother Henry. They knew he was nothing like an antiquarian and may have regarded him as a "callow fool, a self-sufficient ass" who had an "almost pathetic unconsciousness" of his "ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception [and] dense & pitiful chuckle-headedness"-an assessment made in 1876 by Mark Twain of this young Sam Clemens (MTPO UCCL 01384). His friends also knew that unlike the three successful business owners in the directory whose names were the only others to appear in capital letters, neither Sam nor his brother Orion could afford to live or dine at Ivins House, recognized as the finest boarding house in a town with many competing boarding houses.4 But most who saw his directory listing would not get the joke. That Keokuk city directory was exchanged with directories from other Mississippi river towns, carried off to other towns in Lee County and southeastern Iowa, provided gratis on steamboats that landed at Keokuk, and was sold to many Keokuk residents who would never even hear of Sam Clemens until he gained fame as Mark Twain a decade later. …

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