The Six: Six Things You Didn’t Know About Mark Twain


Once a controversial figure banned from student libraries, Mark Twain has been called the greatest American author ever to have lived. His novels can be found in literature classrooms around the world…if they’re not banned that is.

1. His other penname was Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. [1]

Most people are gleefully aware that Mark Twain was the penname of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but don’t realize that he used other pseudonyms, particularly when he was younger. In a series of three humorous letters published in a small Iowa newspaper, Twain adopted the persona of Snodgrass, a country bumpkin who criticizes city life. For each mock letter, he was paid approximately five dollars.

His other pennames included both W. Epaminandos Adrastus Blab and Josh.

2. He declared bankruptcy. [2]

Authors of all ages imagine hitting it big with that special novel, and Mark Twain was no different. However, he was a terrifically successful author who was extremely terrible at investing. There’s a reason English majors don’t go into finance.

Twain was so smitten with a new typing machine known as the Paige Compositor that he invested $300,000 into its development (several million dollars in today’s money). The machine flopped, prone to mechanical errors and he was forced to declare for bankruptcy before starting a new business venture. Interestingly, Twain later paid off all his creditors even after he had declared bankruptcy, which he was not legally required to do.


3. He may be the most misquoted person to have ever lived. [3]

A mix of nearly universal name recognition and American nostalgia have led many a lazy writer to end profound quotations with the name “Mark Twain”. Due to the advent of the Internet, many quotations are sloppily attributed to him that he never actually uttered. Was Twain the first to come up with this nugget?: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Nope, that honor goes to Benjamin Disraeli (who?), which doesn’t seem to give it that same punch as if Twain had first written it. Another reason why these quotations are so often attributed to him is that he was REALLY good at making them up. He did write this: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” Who doesn’t love a good procrastination joke?


4. He believed his greatest book was about Joan of Arc.

For a great number of people, when we hear the words “great American author” an image of Mark Twain dressed in his signature white suit pops into our heads. But forget all your Huckleberry Finns and your Tom Sawyers and even that damned jumping frog, for his most prized novel, and the one he wanted everybody to read, was about a long-dead Frenchwoman.

Columnist Daniel Crown has a theory of why he thinks Twain undertook such an effort: “Published in 1896, when its author was 61, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc has long been viewed as something of an aberration, a curio—the type of genre-bending work that a bored, established writer often undertakes in order to buck audience expectations.”

Twain’s fascination with Joan of Arc was so curious that a group of illustrators whom Twain was addressing with a speech dressed up a young girl in fifteenth-century French armor to “award” the American author with a laurel wreath. Twain was said to have the look of seeing a ghost.


5. He was a Confederate soldier.[4]

Since Twain’s novels often combat the racism and slavery of nineteenth-century America, it seems odd that Twain would have fought for the Confederate forces, whom wanted to keep those institutions in place. Yet from early in his life Twain was exposed to this lifestyle: his father had owned slaves on their estate in Missouri, a border state which allowed slavery and had many Confederate sympathizers.

Twain joined a Confederate militia in 1861 and was said to have participated in the war effort for the short period of two weeks. After that, he deserted the Confederate forces, most likely because the Union government threatened militia members with confiscation of family property and hanging.


6. He has a shirtless photo.

You know the world is coming to an unholy end when a shirtless picture of the President of the United States on vacation becomes the top story of the day. Even so, it’s fascinating to know that shirtless photographs of any famous person before 1950 exist, let alone one snapped of this American icon.

The photograph, taken in 1883, conjures images of nineteenth-century pugilists playing at fisticuffs, but is said to have been snapped to market a product that Twain wished to endorse, but never officially did.


Whatever he was promoting, I doubt it was razorblades.



  • [1] The Mark Twain House and Museum, “A note on Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.”
  • [2] The Mark Twain House and Museum, “A Life Lived in a Rapidly Changing World: Samuel L. Clemens‚ 1835-1910.”
  • [3] NPR, “Misquoting Mark Twain.”
  • [4] Newswise, “Mark Twain: Staunch Confederate? Once Upon a Time, 150 Years Ago, Professor Says.”

You may also like...

14 Responses

  1. Nathan says:

    I had no idea about any of this. Pretty neat stuff.

  2. looney_tunes says:

    I am somewhat saddened to learn that Twain may not actually be responsible for all the quotes I have so often seen attributed to him. Next thing you’ll be telling me that Oscar Wilde never told the customs officers that he had nothing to declare except his genius.

    His fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War also seems to be out of place with what I have always understood of his politics – obviously, personal interests can sometimes override philosophical principles.

  3. Heather says:

    In future articles, I challenge you to find a shirtless photo of all the males.

    Cool stuff!

  4. Tabby Tom Quartz says:

    Fascinating stuff! Thank you, Trident. I’m always glad to learn more about a great cat-lover (and writer too, of course).

  5. skunkee says:

    Twain has always been a favourite humorist of mine. I had no idea that he had such a fascination with Joan of Arc.

  6. Lauren says:

    Mark Twain is one of my all-time favorite authors, and I even didn’t know some of this! Always love reading up on old Twain’s antics.

  7. Solan Goose says:

    Thank you very much for posting this. I had never read the “Snodgrass letters” and am just brightening up my morning no end by looking at them now.

    As a Brit, I also have no problem with one of the most prominent Victorian era Prime Ministers having authored the statistics quote instead of Twain; he had more than enough genuine ones of his own, after all! Disraeli was a pretty good author too in his own right, although not in the same league as Twain. “Sybil,” his novel-cum-critique of poverty in 19th century England, is as good a start as any and has its Twain-esque moments.

  8. LeoDaVinci says:

    Some of these facts caught me by surprise, as well as the topless photo… scandalous! It’s always refreshing to hear actual facts about a person that has been turned into an icon.

  9. Stella says:

    I agree with Heather’s statement.

    These were brilliant!

  10. Blues says:

    I don’t know if I found fact 2 or fact 1 the most scandalous… This was definitely a very interesting read though! 😀

  11. 100xstupid says:

    Who’s Benjamin Disraeli??

    Great article, but I just thought I’d remind the world that Benjamin Disraeli was a great and important man. As prime minister of Britain in the late 1800s, he introduced the idea of ‘One-Nation’ Conservatism, which essentially means preserving national unity by looking after the poor. This rationalisation of welfare under the name of social cohesion and order was what was able to reconcile traditional conservatives in the UK with the idea of a welfare state.

    Without Disraeli’s influence, there could have been no welfare state and national health service in the 1940s under Clement Attlee. In fact, even today the Labour opposition (of the opposite political disposition to Disraeli’s party) has adopted the idea of ‘One-nationism’ to fight growing class divides in the UK. In literature, Disraeli is a failed novelist and uninspiring figure, but he did great things for the UK that inspired similar acts in Europe and Canada, affecting millions for the better.

    • Trident says:

      Many thanks for the comment! Of course you are right! And certainly it was more of a humorous statement. As a blog for young writers (think teenagers) I only hope that they get to know his importance.

      I hope a joke at his expense isn’t too inappropriate!

      • 100xstupid says:

        Just thought people should know, though you’re definitely right to put Twain above Disraeli in a writing blog. Good blog by the way, I shall have to start following properly. I really must read some Mark Twain, do you have any idea where the best place to start would be?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *