Orion & the Comet

On a midsummer morning in 1861, Sam and Orion Clemens lit out for the Nevada Territory together. Sam was twenty-five, and giving up steamboats for prospecting; Orion was ten years older and, having struggled as a lawyer and a newspaperman, eager to take up his appointment as the Territory’s first Secretary. Each brother made a record of the three-week, 1700-mile trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada, the two texts as different as the two men:

Left St. Joseph. Started on the plains about ten miles out. The plains here are simply prairie. [Orion’s journal entry for July 26]

By eight o’clock everything was ready, and we were on the other side of the river. We jumped into the stage, the driver cracked his whip, and we bowled away and left “the States” behind us. It was a superb summer morning, and all the landscape was brilliant with sunshine. There was a freshness and breeziness, too, and an exhilarating sense of emancipation…. [from Chapter 2 of Twain’s Roughing It]

Twain found his brother’s journal “ever so much use” as a factual framework for the adventures and inflations he wrote into Roughing It, published in 1872 to wide popularity. As the book enlarged Twain’s fame and fortunes, so Orion’s life went in the other direction. The more he struggled in his jobs, schemes, and unchecked passions—for Orion too had inherited the family’s inventing gene, his never-off-the-ground creations including a flying machine, an ocean-going paddle boat, and an “Anti-Sun-Stroke Hat”—the more Twain had to rescue him. For Orion’s last quarter-century, his kid brother was his only reliable means of financial support.

There is some evidence that Twain “disliked, sabotaged and systematically humiliated” his brother (Twain scholar Alan Gribben), and “did his best to make sure that if posterity took note of Orion at all it would be as a ludicrous figure” (Philip Fanning, author of the controversial 2003 biography, Mark Twain and Orion Clemens). Orion was “a sterling man,” says Twain in his Autobiography, but “Whenever he had a chance to get into a ridiculous position he was generally competent for that occasion.” In The Gilded Age, Twain transforms Orion into Washington Hawkins, the oldest and dreamiest son in a family of dreamers—the sort who, having listened to Colonel Sellers pitch his plans for the international distribution of his “Infallible Imperial Oriental Optic Liniment and Salvation for Sore Eyes,” writes his mother that her financial troubles are over.

Orion also wrote an autobiography late in life, which Twain read, dismissed as unreliable, and then burned or lost. The glimpses of Orion which survive offer an interesting frontier tale of two brothers, and perhaps a cracked-mirror image of Twain himself. At the least, Orion offers a vantage point for viewing Twain’s talent and temperament—the background sky against which one can make out the arc of the comet.

Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.