Mark Twain Shirtless in 1883 Photo

in Literature, Photography | February 19th, 2013

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.

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Comments (10)

  1. KJHargan says . . .
    February 19, 2013 / 9:28 am

    Do you SUFFER from the PAINS & ACHES of a feminine physique?
    Do you Toss & Turn at night with UN-masculine Worries & Thoughts?? … SUFFER NO MORE!!!
    Guaranteed to put Hair on your Chest! Inches on your BICEPS! & a SCATHING WIT in your Cerebellum!
    Guaranteed to increase the Sarcasm Levels in the Bloodstream!
    …at most Remedy & Ice Cream Parlours…

  2. Jusco says . . .
    February 19, 2013 / 11:24 am

    Well he wasn’t marketing razor blades, that’s for sure.

  3. Lisa says . . .
    February 19, 2013 / 3:21 pm

    Rowr! :-€

  4. Tracy Wuster says . . .
    February 19, 2013 / 5:29 pm

    My understanding is that the photo was for a bust that was sculpted by Karl Gerhardt for the frontispiece of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” That is the theory, at least.

    You can see the bust by scrolling down a bit:

  5. Jen says . . .
    February 19, 2013 / 6:42 pm

    Okay, the deltoids need work, but the pecs aren’t bad.

  6. Jethro Dull says . . .
    February 21, 2013 / 2:51 am

    HuffPost’s take on the topless issue:

  7. Jethro Dull says . . .
    February 21, 2013 / 8:23 am
  8. Bob Saget says . . .
    March 1, 2013 / 8:35 am

    10/10 would bang

  9. Tracy Wuster says . . .
    March 4, 2013 / 6:14 am
  10. james mcallister says . . .
    March 5, 2013 / 9:56 am

    Hey, maybe he was just chatting with some guys online?

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