Did Mark Twain Get His Famous Pen Name by Calling for Whiskey Shots in a Bar?

Time magazine finds an alternate origin story for Samuel Clemens' nom de plume.

mark twain
Author Mark Twain poses for a portrait in 1900. (Library of Congress/Getty Images)
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Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain, routinely claimed that he had acquired his pen name from a riverboat captain. But Time has found an alternate theory: that he may have gotten his iconic nom de plume because of his robust drinking habit.

Right after the Civil War broke out, Clemens followed his older brother, Orion, out west in the summer of 1861 and became a miner, hoping to strike it rich. But none of Clemens’s mines generated much wealth, and he passed the time telling stories and writing burlesque sketches, a few of which found their way into the pages of Virginia City’s leading newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. By July 1862, Clemens was trying to sell his writing to newspapers around the West. The publisher of the Enterprise recognized Clemens’ talent and offered him steady employment. He soon became widely known in Virginia City by the pseudonym Mark Twain, which first appeared in the Enterprise on February 3, 1863. But, according to Time, Clemens’ new byline didn’t originate from a Mississippi river captain, instead he reportedly got this name because of his habit of striding into the town’s Old Corner Saloon and calling out to the barkeep “Mark Twain!” a phrase that meant bring him two blasts of whiskey and make two chalk marks against his account on the back wall of the saloon.

Later in his life, Clemens would claim he didn’t drink much, but men in Virginia City remember otherwise.

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