Mark Twain Shirtless in 1883 Photo

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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