THE MAKING OF MARK TWAIN, THE BRAND

A shock of white hair. The shaggy mustache. The pipe. An immaculate white suit. This is no informal portrait of the artist as an old man, but the iconic image of Mark Twain, the brand.

A distinguished novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and literary critic, Mark Twain was the creator of  some of the great characters of American literature. His literary achievement was best estimated by Ernest Hemingway when he said: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’.”

His greatest creation, however, was Mark Twain. Himself.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, he died one hundred years ago this year as Mark Twain, celebrity. As every schoolchild used to know, the most famous pen name in the world has its origins as a Mississippi riverboat cry, “by the mark, twain”.

As a former riverboat pilot Clemens was more than familiar with the cry, which indicated a two-fathom clearance beneath the boat.  But he did not invent the name so much as acquire it.

It was one Captain Isaiah Sellers who first used Mark Twain as a name. He wrote river news for the New Orleans Picayune under that sobriquet. When Captain Sellers died in 1869 Clemens saw his chance. “I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains,” as he explained later in a letter.

Clearly Clemens had an ear and an instinct for a fitting name, the first essential of a brand. As the expression ‘mark twain’ had strong associations with the setting of his most famous books, so as a name it was highly relevant and memorable. It also had the virtue of being easy to pronounce and, given Captain Sellers’ demise, it was available.

For Clemens, Mark Twain became much more than a ‘nom de plume’. He manufactured the character Mark Twain around it just as surely as he created Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

His success as an author enabled Clemens to recreate himself entirely. During the course of his life he worked hard at cultivating the image and building the brand until, ultimately, Samuel Clemens morphed into Mark Twain. Like Huckleberry Finn, he became a figment of his own imagination.

As early as 1873 he had tried to trademark “Mark Twain” and in 1908, two years before his death, he formally established the Mark Twain Company to promote his work and image. Starting in 1909 the company, rather than Twain himself, retained copyright to new works. Mark Twain cigars and Mark Twain Whiskey were already on the market.

We may struggle to call to mind what Emerson or Hawthorne or Melville looked like, but not Twain. From early on, he made sure his image remained distinctive and unforgettable, from the mustache, the carefully tousled white hair, the pipe and the white suit worn year-round. This was his brand identity, carefully nurtured and assiduously protected.

He left an extensive photographic trail, he refused to talk to unauthorized biographers and recognized the power of new media, even licensing Thomas Edison’s company to film ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, complete with out-takes of him padding around his estate.

He was ahead of his time. If he were alive today the Mark Twain brand would be as ubiquitous as Disney. He would, no doubt, have a Facebook page, a website, a line of clothing, a cologne for men, all on sale at the Huckleberry Finn Mississippi Adventure Playground gift shop.

Perhaps with an eye to a then imagined future in which the full potential of his brand could be realized, his dying wish on April 21st 1910 was that his unpublished autobiography would not see the light of day until 100 years after his death. For the last century a 5,000 page unedited manuscript of Twain’s autobiography has been gathering dust in a vault at the University of California, Berkeley.

This November his wish will be fulfilled when the first volume of the autobiography will be published. It is, as publishers love to say, eagerly awaited.

The question is: whose autobiography will it be?

Coming up: Westinghouse, the brand name that would not die

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4 thoughts on “THE MAKING OF MARK TWAIN, THE BRAND

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