SWAMPSCOTT — How did celebrated American author Mark Twain get his name?
He took it from the term used when he was piloting Mississippi riverboats. It designates the proper depth for them to be in the water — two fathoms (12 feet). The term “by the mark twain” means the second mark on a pier, and it designates the depth where riverboats could safely proceed.
You’ll learn this and much more if you go to the Swampscott Public Library Thursday, March 21 at 7 p.m. The lecturer will be Izzi Abrams, who has been the librarian in the children’s room at the library for the past 25 years.
Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, is of course known for books such as “Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “The Prince and Pauper.” But, as Abrams said Thursday, “he was all about laughing at the human condition.”
Abrams said Twain learned to read and understand grammar from his days as a printer’s apprentice, and parlayed his skills into getting sponsorships from various newspapers to travel and write stories. One of those excursions led him to San Francisco, where he fell in with a crowd of writers and artists Abrams compares to the hippies from the 1960s. It was there, she said, where he first heard the story that ended up being “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” one of his earliest short stories.
Twain also traveled to Hawaii back when the territory was still called the Sandwich Islands, and not only to Europe but the Middle East, where he wrote his first book, “The Innocents Abroad.”
“He had chutzpah,” she said, “and you have to have it if you’re going to succeed.”
The lecture, which is free to the public, will focus on Twain’s extensive travels, his wry observations on life, and his writing.
Twain contributed so much to our culture, she said. For one thing, he coined the term “the Gilded Age,” which describes the post-Civil War period until the turn of the century.
“It was an age when all the money was being made,” she said, “and it really changed the country.”
In fact, she said, you can draw connections from “the Gilded Age” all the way up to the 1929 stock market crash, which emcompasses the period during which “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and “Babbitt,” by Sinclair Lewis — both of them books that dealt with American materialism.
She’ll tackle the back stories to “Huckleberry Finn” and Tom Sawyer,” both of which dealt with Twain’s yearning to return to his roots, “where his young life was a lot easier than it became.”
But, she said, it was as if he had to reconcile himself to the haunting memories of his childhood too.
“He remembered seeing black people being marched, in chains, through his hometown (Hannibal, Mo.) on their way to being sold as slaves,” she said. “He had to tell the world his feelings on the subject.”
Hence, he made “Jim,” an escaped slave, central to the plot of “Huckleberry Finn” and Huck has a crisis of conscience over whether to help him flee.
“Isn’t that powerful?” she asked.
Abrams said that if Twain were alive today, he’d have conditions for the people he befriended. After all, when he was in Vienna, one of his friends was Sigmund Freud; and when he was traveling west from Missouri, he hung out with humorist Artemus Ward.
“First, the person would have to be intelligent and well-read and well-spoken,” she said, “and the person would have to have a good sense of humor.”
The person who comes to mind most easily, she said, was comic George Carlin, who shared Twain’s love of lampooning the human condition.
“That’s the type of person he’d like,” she said.