Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Who In The World Is Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass?

Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass?
He doesn't look at all familiar--does he? But I'd be willing to bet you know him. Not only was he a Freemason, but he was a very famous writer and humorist. Not only do you probably know him, you probably had to read one of his books in school and write a book report about it. I'd have to admit, I wasn't a huge Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass fan back when I was forced to read one of his books in sixth grade. But as I got older, I gave him another look, and I've read all of his books since. He was a brilliant writer, and the title he has been given is well deserved--the "Father of American Literature."

What a minute, Todd? Have you been drinking? Samuel Clemens is the "Father of American Literature."

That's right--we're talking about the same guy. Prior to 1863, Samuel Clemens used a number of pen names, including Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. After 1863, he used only one pen name--the one we all know. Mark Twain.

Samuel Clemens had one early goal in life, and it wasn't writing. He wanted to be a river boat pilot. He worked on a river boat, and trained to become a river boat pilot. It may sound as if he'd set his goal a bit low, but being a river boat pilot at that time was the third highest paying job in America--they could earn $250 a month. He loved the river, and encouraged his brother Henry to join him. But it was a dangerous job navigating a river--especially at night when lanterns weren't allowed. Henry was killed in 1858 in a river boat explosion, and Samuel felt responsible, but he continued to work on the river until the Civil War broke out. He did a lot of things after that, eventually becoming a great writer.

I don't know how he came up with Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, but without question, I can tell you where the name "Mark Twain" came from. It came from Samuel Clemens' time on the river. River depth was marked by a sounding line--each six feet (or fathom) was marked by a knot in the line. River boats needed twelve feet of water (two fathoms) to safely operate. The sounder would drop the weighted line over the side of the river boat, and count the knots as they passed through his hand. When the second knot was reached, the sounder would call out "by the mark twain" to indicate the water was a safe depth. Twain is an old word meaning two. That's where Mark Twain got his name.

Mark Twain's great gift was storytelling. He shattered the old convention that novels should solely be works of art, and not platforms to teach and preach from--he did both. He always claimed the story was primary, and the humor secondary, but unnecessary. He once said:

"I have always preached. That is the reason that I have lasted thirty years. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not."

Fortunately for us--more often than not, humor did apply for admission, and Mark Twain graciously accommodated it. And I think Samuel Clemens would be pleased to know that not only is he remembered for that humor, but we heard the sermons as well.



  1. Samuel Clemens denied writing the Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass articals in his autobiography. For reference: check his entry of Sept 9th, 1906.

  2. He said a lot of interesting things in his autobiography--he was kind of known for that. What I do know is that almost every reliable source including Mark Twain House and Museum attributes the writings of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass to Samuel Clemens, and recognizes T.J. Snodgrass as one of his early pen names.


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