Hartford, Conn., Nov. 1893: Twenty-five years is a long gestation period for an idea, but that is exactly how long Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) has thought about his new idea for launching an unusual national magazine to be published monthly and due to start as soon as possible.
His new magazine would be called “The Back Number.” Twain did not explain how he came up with that name. He has sought the assistance of numerous publishers, including John Walker of Cosmopolitan magazine. Twain has not revealed exactly who would publish it, yet.
The new magazine will be filled with news stories – not from current events but from past history. He will find his stories from news clippings and books from the past to be published in his new magazine in the present.
Twain contends that “news is news,” and the date a news story occurs has “little or nothing to do” with reader interest in that story.
A news story, according to Twain, could be “10 centuries old,” and the fact that it is a part of our “yesterday (history) seems to whisk us back and set us face to face with the occurrence and make it a personal affair to us.” Many stories, regardless of age, he thinks, are still interesting to modern readers.
Who will be the audience for Twain’s news from the past? He feels this new magazine will “interest every class and every kind of reader, and which no reader should be able to put down unread after once taking it up.”
“For,” he projects, “I will fill it full of news; news of irresistible interest and vitality; news not drawn from our own restricted and often colorless yesterday but culled from the great yesterdays, the sublime yesterdays, the immemorial yesterdays of all time.”
Twain explains that he first got the idea for this historical approach to news in 1868 when he was a newspaper correspondent in Washington, D.C.
Twain recalls that he had gone to the Library of Congress to do research on a current news story he was writing. When he had secured some worn news files, he remembers, “I tried to do what I came to do, but I never even got a chance to begin; for the first thing that caught my eye upon the yellow page was some such display as this: Latest News From The Front!”
“I never drew another conscious breath for two enchanted hours; for all that time, I was buried, absorbed, lost to this world in vivid and stirring war news that was 65 years old!”
Twain feels that all readers will share his fascination with news from the past that is published to be read in the present. He hopes his new creative approach to “news” periodicals will be available to read before this year is out.
Dr. Doug Bain, who suggested this story, saw the similarities between this column, Southern Memories, and what Mark Twain thought about doing about 140 years ago. It just goes to show you there is not much new under the sun, no matter how original you think your idea is. In my defense, I had never heard of “The Back Number” magazine, nor had the University of California Berkeley paid much attention to it. UC Berkeley houses the extensive Mark Twain Project and published Twain’s latest autobiography. They had to look it up when I requested information about this little known magazine publishing attempt.
Twain went bankrupt within a year of announcing he was going to publish The Back Number, so the idea was forever placed “on hold.” In the years before his death, he reminisced about his idea when he was dictating thoughts about his life:
“With considerable frequency, I have tried to get publishers to make the experiment of such a magazine, but I was never successful. I was never able to convince a publisher that The Back Number would interest the public. Not one of them was able to conceive of the idea of a sane human being finding an interest in stale things. But, I myself am not convinced.” Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74, never publishing the magazine.
Even though there are certainly some differences in the overall format of the history-related articles I write and the historical articles he wanted published, it is ironic that Twain’s desire to publish news of the past is a part of my Southern Memories some 14 decades after he originally conceived his similar idea.