Mark Twain Drew This Mouthless Self-Portrait

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Jan. 23 2013 11:30 AM

Mark Twain Draws His Self-Portrait

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This etched copper plate, secured inside a leather cover, was a party favor given to artist John W. Alexander at Mark Twain’s 67th birthday celebration.

The self-portrait is annotated, with an etched note appearing underneath Twain’s face.

Done by truly yours, Mark Twain; N.B. I cannot make a good mouth, therefore leave it out; There is enough without it anyway; Done with the best ink, M.T.
Advertisement

Underneath the portrait, Twain personalized his message to Alexander: “John W. Alexander; I remember you well, sir! Mark Twain.”

The note that reads “M. Twain’s 70th Birthday Dinner” is somewhat mysterious. Archivists can verify that this favor was distributed at the party for his 67th and that Alexander was in attendance. It appears that Alexander may have added the note later, having misremembered the date of the occasion.

Other distinguished guests at Twain’s soirée, commemorated in Harper’s that month, included Secretary of State John Hay; New York Sen. Chauncey Depew; and writers William Dean Howells, Booth Tarkington, and Hamlin Garland.

Twain published a few articles in Metropolitan Magazine in April and May 1903 about drawing. He illustrated his “Instructions in Art” with wry sketches of Depew, a portrait that he captioned “Either Mr. Howells or Mr. [William MacKay] Laffan. I cannot tell which because the label is lost,” and the hindquarters of an animal, captioned: “The front end of it went around a corner before I could get to it.”

Thanks to Mary Savig and Kelly Quinn at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 11:57 AM Iowa Radical The GOP’s Senate candidate doesn’t want voters to know just how conservative she really is.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 AM Thomas Jefferson's 1769 Newspaper Ad Seeking a Fugitive Slave 
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 11:38 AM Tim & Eric Brought Their Twisted Minds—and Jeff Goldblum—to This Bizarre Light Bulb Ad
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.