Two Fathoms Deep

Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, CT, constructed in the 1870’s, provides a glimpse into the family life of one of the U.S.’s most celebrated writers.

On a recent visit to the museum, I was amazed at the abundance of articles, books and opinions Mark Twain had written in his lifetime.  Like many others, I know of him for just a few of his works: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

His real name was Samuel Clemens, and he claimed his nom-de-plume was taken from an old Mississippi River Captain who wasn’t using it anymore.  Mark Twain is the call made to assure a captain that his steamboat was floating in water that was two fathoms deep.

An alternative theory is that the name was derived from Clemens’ habit of walking into a bar and shouting, “Mark Twain” meaning, “Give me 2 whiskeys and make 2 chalk marks on the board.”  I like the riverboat myth better.

His life story is fascinating. I learned about his ability to work hard and to write about everything he experienced.  I read more of his satiric wit and grew to appreciate his courage to speak his mind and to change his opinion over the course of his life.  I also learned that he was a dedicated husband and father and spent time spinning tales with his children whenever he could.

As a writer and an orator, he was funny, but not always kind.  When he saw actions that he thought were deplorable, he spoke up, frequently and loudly, to condemn those actions (such as imperialism).   He even changed his mind publicly – which is something we don’t see often enough today.

I learned that he had invested heavily (the equivalent of $6,000,000) in an invention that was a mechanical typesetter that was meant to speed up the printing process.  It was called the Paige Compositor, and fewer than 6 machines were ever made.  It was unsuccessful and too complicated to work consistently. Cornell  University relinquished one of the few machines in existence to be made into scrap metal during World War II.  Mark Twain lost most of his money on this investment.  He was known for his wisdom, but that didn’t translate into venture success.

After declaring bankruptcy, Mark Twain started travelling the world again, giving lectures to recuperate some of his lost income.  Over the course of several years he made all the money back and cleared every debt.  I marvel at the resilience and the integrity, even when faced with a financial defeat.  After declaring bankruptcy, he did not have a legal obligation to return payments to his debtors, yet he did.

He was once considered the most popular man in the United States.

He loved his family very much and lost all but one of his children in his lifetime. 

He wrote an autobiography and asked that it be published 100 years after his death.

Even as I write these words, I saw him quoted on social media twice today – he is ubiquitous and yet we’ve gotten comfortable in our perception of him: he’s the man in the white suit with wild white hair.  I am intrigued to go deeper, read more of his work, walk alongside him in a different way.

It brings home the idea that what we say and how we say it can leave lasting impressions.  You don’t have to know a person well to be moved by them, or inspired by them.  They just have to be authentic for you to connect with them in a deep way. 

 This is why it is not important to be glib, but more so, to speak your opinion, loudly and bravely.  Originality can cause you to be intriguing, to be listened to, and to be remembered.

Whose words have remained with you?

“Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” Mark Twain

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