Mark Twain Mistaken Identity Essay Examples

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The Christmas Fireside
(for Good Little Boys and Girls)

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Interesting Links
Cases of Mistaken Identity: Mark Twain and His Lookalikes (TwainQuotes)

Mark Twain and William Dean Howells: the friendship that transformed American literature (Reader’s Almanac)

Previously from
Story of the Week:

• “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,” Mark Twain
• “An Interview with Mark Twain,” Rudyard Kipling
• “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee,” Mark Twain

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Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890
Nearly 200 stories, sketches, burlesques, hoaxes, tall tales, speeches, and satires • 1,076 pages
List price: $40.00
Web Store price: $32.00
The year 2010 has become, somewhat unexpectedly, the Year of Mark Twain. And so, for this holiday season, we present a Christmas story that only he could write, about the wicked boy who got everything.

When Twain arrived in San Francisco in 1864, he quickly landed a job writing for a newly launched literary weekly called The Californian, which was co-edited by Bret Harte (future author of “The Outcast of Poker Flat”) and Charles Henry Webb. With their encouragement and guidance, he honed his skills as a satirist and within a few months he was paid $50 a month to write one piece per issue—a respectable amount at the time, although never enough for the young Samuel Clemens, whose financial woes were a recurrent theme in his journals and letters. The newspaper was a success, but turnover among owners and editors led to its eventual demise. Before the periodical ceased publication in 1868, it had also introduced Ambrose Bierce to its readers.

Published two days before Christmas in the newspaper’s first year, “The Christmas Fireside” features a character familiar to readers of Mark Twain: the naughty boy. Compared with the affably mischievous Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, however, “Jim” is a downright monster. But Twain’s satire isn’t really about boyhood. If anything, Twain has written what might be called an “anti-story”—less about what does happen to Jim and more about what does not. He has two targets: the laughably implausible Sunday school catechisms of the era and (particularly in the closing paragraphs) the American propensity for rewarding corruption and vice among members of its political and entrepreneurial class. “Bah, humbug!” one might think, but what keeps the young Mark Twain from being the Californian Scrooge is a sense of impishness to mitigate the cynicism.

*   *   *

Once there was a bad little boy, whose name was Jim—though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was very strange, but still it was true, that this one was called Jim. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Sometimes authors willingly choose to direct readers away from their true identities. It might be a bid for intrigue, or a means to hide from unwanted scrutiny and prejudice such as in the case of the Brontë sisters. Occasionally, however, issues of authorship and identity are more complex or decidedly less purposeful.

1. The Anti-Stratfordians

There are at least 50 different contenders whose names have been put into the ring by anti-Stratfordians over the years as the “real” Shakespeare. The Marlovian Theory is perhaps one of the more colorful and best known, but there's also the Francis Bacon camp established by eccentric nineteenth century scholar, Delia Bacon. Many of the qualms about Shakespeare's literary abilities basically boil down to his perceived lack of education and experience. This 2010 analysis by Robert McCrum is a good primer on the topic that thoroughly rips into most of the popular theories questioning Shakespeare's identity.

2. Mark Twain's Many Identities

Mark Twain must have set some sort of record for the number of times he was confused with other authors. Unlike the other cases on this list, it wasn't his works that suffered from identity mishaps—it was his face. He was taken for the director of the botanical gardens in Palermo, Italy, historian Theodor Mommsen, and socialist lawyer Gaspar Clemens (the last even claimed to be Twain's cousin, although the link was never verified). He was also likened to Ambrose Bierce, who wrote in a 1913 letter, “O yes, I suppose I look like the late Mark Twain—I've been mistaken for him all my life, sometimes most amusingly.” A dentist from New York named Joseph Jay Villers even used his resemblance to become a professional imitator of the writer.   

3. An Army of Ghostwriters

Ghostwriters are hired professionals, of course, so it's already established behind closed doors that the name on the cover won't be that of the actual author. It's not exactly a case of mistaken identity, but many readers still see the use of ghostwriters as a violation of trust, of having the wool pulled over their eyes. That hasn't stopped enterprising individuals like James Patterson from building a small army of ghostwriters. His first book was published 40 years ago, and well over a hundred more have since followed. At this point in Patterson's career, the bestselling author openly admits that most of his books aren't written solely by him—he just oversees their creation. 

4. That's Not My Face

Caroline Leavitt wrote a Salonpiece back in 2011 about a strange mix-up that occurred when her novel, Girls in Trouble, was issued in a Chinese edition. When a box of the books arrived for her inspection, Leavitt was shocked to find that the author photo on the back flap depicted a complete stranger. After conducting some research, Leavitt eventually discovered that the woman in the image was author Summer Pierre, whom she'd once interviewed for a blog post. Similar mistakes have occurred since the time of John Milton, who called his author image an inaccurate “caricature” of himself. His age was also off by 16 years in the accompanying caption.     

5. The Last Wilde Play

Back in 2011, the King's Head Theatre of London made a surprising announcement. They claimed to be in the midst of producing a completely new script by Oscar Wilde. Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, was having absolutely none of it. He spoke out against the play as “complete tosh,” telling the press that his grandfather was only responsible for a brief synopsis of the script. Titled Constance, Wilde's family insists the play was penned by Guillot de Saix and further adapted by Charles Osbourne. Rubbing salt in the wound, Holland added that he read the play and thought it “a pretty appalling piece of work.”


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