Last year, Edwin Turner, the mastermind behind the Biblioklept blog, assembled a fine photo gallery that captured Ernest Hemingway posing shirtless. Big, burly and barrel-chested, Papa projects the masculine image that he carefully cultivated for himself and for the world to see.
Hemingway’s photos seem right in keeping with his public persona (we’ll have more on him later today). But this 1883 portrait of Mark Twain will perhaps give you pause. To be sure, Twain cared deeply about his public image. The writer carefully crafted his public identity, giving more than 300 interviews to journalists where he reinforced the traits he wanted to be known for — his wit, irreverent sense of humor, and thoughtfulness. Twain also loved having his picture taken, posing for photographers whenever he had a chance. The camera offered yet another way to fashion his own personal myth.
Of course, the author is best remembered for one set of iconic images — the one where he dons a white suit in 1906, upon traveling to Washington D.C. to lobby for the protection of authors’ copyrights. But, as The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain explains, the novelist also let his image be used in countless advertisements — in ads for restaurants, pharmacies, dry goods and cigars too. The encyclopedia gives the impression that the shirtless photo was perhaps taken within this commercial context. It’s not clear what product the portrait helped market (care to take a guess?), or precisely how Twain saw it contributing to his public image. The details are murky. But one thing is for certain: The 1880s image is authentic. It’s the real shirtless Mark Twain.
Update: One of our readers suggests that the shirtless photo was a byproduct of a bust that was sculpted by Karl Gerhardt for the frontispiece of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Seems quite plausible. See it here.
This vintage pic comes to us via Wired writer Steve Silberman. Follow him on Twitter at @stevesilberman.