Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mark Twain, Printer

This November 30th marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. Why is Mark Twain so beloved by letterpress printers? First of all, because he was a printer. He learned the trade working for his brother Orion at the Hannibal Journal in Missouri, then wandered around the east coast as a itinerant typesetter. He became a steamboat pilot for awhile, but when the Civil War forced him off the river he took off for Nevada Territory. There he ended up working for a newspaper called The Territorial Enterprise. Serving as a typesetter, printer, reporter, and sometimes author, he honed his talent for comedic writing.

Newspaper printers in those days were of necessity writers. With every column, advertisement, and article in the newspaper set by hand, one letter and space at a time, there was often a need to fill empty space with articles written at the last minute. A fascinating book I read recently, “Lighting Out For the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain” (by Roy Morris, Jr., Simon & Schuster, 2010) tells how young Sam Clemens used the Enterprise’s need for newspaper copy to get his early stories published. By the time “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” had made him a well-known writer, Twain’s ability to write comedy was fine-tuned from his printing days.

Another reason letterpress printers love Mark Twain: he wrote some of the best quotes for printing that you can imagine! Here are just a few examples: “Do not put off till tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow just as well.” “Few of us can stand prosperity. Another man’s, I mean.” “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.” “ It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” “I haven’t a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices.” When in doubt what to print, you can always whip out a Twain quote and be assured of an appreciative audience.

Finally, many printers delight in Twain’s nonconformity, his distinctive sense of self. Twain loved to poke fun at the foibles of the human race. Using humor, he was able to get away with saying things he couldn’t have with a straight face. It’s instructive and fun to see how Twain was able to express himself and be a free thinker without antagonizing his audience. Most letterpress printers by nature are strong individuals and believers in freedom of the press, so Twain’s character resonates with them.

So... Happy 175th Birthday Mark Twain, wherever you are! As a would-be author, I admire and appreciate your work. And as I plug away setting type, I’ll think of you building your literary career in the print shop, one letter and space at a time.

Two miniature books featuring early writings of Mark Twain, printed and bound by the Scottfree Press.


  1. How fascinating. I just learned things about Mark Twain that I had never known. And I love the quotes. Thanks for this post!

  2. Thanks, Lynn! All printers love Mark Twain, and I'm no exception.