Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title
"Mark Twain endures. Readers sense his humanity, enjoy his humor, and appreciate his insights into human nature, even into such painful experiences as embarrassment and humiliation. No matter how remarkable the life of Samuel Clemens was, what matters most is the relationship of Mark Twain the writer and his writings. That is the subject of this book."—from the Preface
In Mark Twain, A Literary Life, Everett Emerson revisits one of America's greatest and most popular writers to explore the relationship between the life of the writer and his writings. The assumption throughout is that to see Mark Twain's writings in focus, one must give proper attention to their biographical context.
Mark Twain's literary career is fascinating in its strangeness. How could this genius have had so little sense of what he should next do? As a young man, Samuel Clemens's first vocation, that of journeyman printer, took him far from home to the sights of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, while his next vocation would give him the identity by which we most frequently know him. His choice of "Mark Twain" as a pen name cemented his bond with the river, as did such books as Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn. Then following an unsuccessful try at silver mining, Clemens worked as a newspaperman, humorist, lecturer, but also cultivated an interest in playwriting, politics, and philosophizing.
In reporting the author's life, Emerson has endeavored to permit Mark Twain to tell his own story as much as possible, through the use of letters and autobiographical writings, some unpublished. These fascinating glimpses into the life of the writer will be of interest to all who have an abiding affection for Samuel Clemens and his extraordinary legacy.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Mark Twain Assembled
Between the birth of Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his trimphant success as a writer, the path was long and crooked. A seven-months child, Sam was born in the tiny hamlet of Florida, Missouri population one hundred on November 30, 1835. His family had arrived there from Tennessee only six months before. Two years later the Clemenses moved thirty-five miles northeast to Hannibal, the Mississippi River town now celebrated for its famous son. The connections between the town and the writer are especially close because the author was to draw on his childhood experiences again and again in his most enduring works, in both fiction, especially Tom Sawyer, and in some of the best passages of his mostly factual autobiography. He especially celebrated summers at his Uncle Quarles's farm.
He was just sixteen when he first described Hannibal in the Philadelphia American Courier. "This town is situated on the Mississippi river, about one hundred and thirty miles above St. Louis, and contains a population of about three thousand.... Among the curiosities of this place we may mention the Cave, which is about three miles below the city. It is of unknown length; it has innumerable passages, which are not unlike the streets of a large city." This cave, Hannibal's steep hill, the steamboats (over a thousand arrived each year), the islands in the river, his uncle's farm not far from Florida Mark Twain would utilize all of these in memorable scenes within the American literary landscape.
Of his boyhood summershe was to recall in "Early Days" (1897-98):
I spent some part of every year at the farm until I was twelve or thirteen years old. The life which I led there with my cousins was full of charm, and so is the memory of it yet. I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the deep woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wild flowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees, the far-off hammering of woodpeckers and the muffled drumming of wood pheasants in the remoteness of the forest, the snapshot glimpses of disturbed wild creatures scurrying through the grass I can call it all back and make it as real as it ever was, and as blessed.
For several pages he conjured up the sights, tastes, touches, sounds, and smells of his past. Sentence after sentence begins hypnotically "I know how" and "I know" and "I can remember."
Sam's father, John M. Clemens, justice of the peace, carried the title of Judge Clemens. He was described in the St. Louis Republican as
a stern, unbending man of splendid common sense ... the autocrat of the little dingy room on Bird Street where he held his court.... Its furniture consisted of a dry-good box which served the double purpose of a desk for the Judge and table for the lawyers, three or four rude stools and a puncheon for the jury. And here on court days when the Judge climbed upon his three-legged stool, rapped on the box with his knuckles and demanded, "Silence in the court" it was fully expected that silence would reign supreme.
Like Judge Driscoll in Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, he was "very proud of his Virginian ancestry, and in his hospitalities and his rather formal and stately manners he kept up its traditions"; he was "a free-thinker" (chap. 1). Judge Clemens was a man of dignity with a good standing in the community, but at his death in 1847 he left his family very little. He had supposed that riches might be found in the thousands of acres in Tennessee he had purchased in the 1820s and 1830s, and for years members of his family imagined that this land speculation was to make them rich. They were, however, mistaken.
Sam's mother was no doubt a stronger influence on the writer-to-be. (Much later he assumed considerable responsibility for his mother's financial well-being until her death in 1890.) Jane Lampton Clemens saw to it that young Sam went to Sunday school, first at the Methodist church and later at the Presbyterian church that she had joined. Subsequently, the writer was to recall his Sunday school experiences when he wrote Tom Sawyer.
The author's affectionate description of his mother is much lengthier and more emotional than that of his father. Among the characteristics he described, two may be mentioned.
She had a slender small body, but a large heart; a heart so large that everybody's griefs and everybody's joys found welcome in its hospitable accommodation. The greatest difference which I find between her and the rest of the people I have known, is this, and it is a remarkable one: those others felt a strong interest in a few things, whereas to the very day of her death [at age eighty-seven] she felt a strong interest in the whole world and everything and everybody in it.... When her pity or her indignation was stirred by hurt or shame inflicted upon some defenceless person or creature, she was the most eloquent person I have heard speak. It was seldom eloquence of a fiery or violent sort, but gentle, pitying, persuasive, appealing; and so genuine and so nobly and simply worded and so touchingly uttered, that many times I have seen it win the reluctant and splendid applause of tears.
Clearly, Sam's lifelong humanitarianism owed a debt to his mother.
Sam was a troublesome child, plagued by illnesses. In 1882 he wrote, "During the first seven years of my life I had no health I may almost say that I lived on allopathic medicines." His behavior was often eccentric, and he had a tendency to wander away from home. His formal education (soon to be interrupted) was such as a small town could offer. He himself referred to it dismissively in the early 1870s: "Attended the ordinary western common school in Hannibal, Mo., from the age of 5 till near the age of 13. That's all the schooling if playing hookey & getting licked for it may be called by that name." Of necessity his later education was picked up elsewhere than in schools. As a boy he read adventure stories of pirates and knights in the heroic fiction and poetry of such authors as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and James Fenimore Cooper. Had he not chosen initially to think of these writers as exemplary, he would not have become the highly original writer that in time he became. He was always a reader, though he usually chose to present himself as far from being bookish.
Sam was only eleven years old when his father died in 1847. Already poor, the Clemens family now became almost destitute. Before 1849, when his schooling came to a close, Sam undertook part-time work that would lead to a career. After serving as delivery and office boy, he became a printer's apprentice for the hometown newspaper, the Hannibal Courier. He was following in the footsteps of his brother Orion, nearly six years his elder, who had become an apprentice in 1839. Twenty years later Sam Clemens wrote, "Education continued in the offices of the Hannibal 'Courier' & the 'Journal,' as an apprenticed printer." Sam served in all capacities, including staff work. The Courier's makeshift library introduced him to humorous publications such as The Spirit of the Times, regularly drawn on for "fillers" In early 1851, having completed his apprenticeship, Sam went to work for Orion as a journeyman printer on the Hannibal Western Union.
Even before this time, Sam had published "A Gallant Fireman" in the Western Union for January 16. Soon he was showing incipient signs of genuine literary ambition. On May 1, 1852, a Boston comic weekly, The Carpet-Bag, published his short sketch entitled "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" Although the piece is not in itself striking (it resembles a sketch that its author may well have read in the Hannibal Courier of 1850, "Doin' a Dandy"), it is notable that this short sketch appeared in remote Boston. It was signed "S.L.C." Sixty years later, the writer would say of this sketch and of his description of Hannibal published the same year, "Seeing them in print was a joy which rather exceeded anything in that line I have ever experienced since."
His Boston publisher was B. P. Shillaber, creator of Mrs. Partington, a character who was later to influence the creation of Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly. Shillaber's publication was only one of many comic periodicals flourishing in America at this time, and these had a strong influence on young Clemens. The first comic weekly was created as early as 1831 by William T. Porter, a Vermonter: The Spirit of the Times described itself as a "Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature, and the Stage." Addressing a masculine audience, it is remembered chiefly for its publication of tales based on the oral humor of the frontier, especially the Southern frontier. Many other magazines soon followed its example. Although not far removed from the real life of the people they portrayed, the stories they published were frequently tall tales. To increase his credibility and enhance the sense of contrast, the narrator was likely to maintain a poker face while he provided a "report." The theme of many of these tales is the distinction between the false and the real and between the pretentious and the unsophisticated. Sometimes the teller is himself the unconscious victim in his story; often it is an Easterner who is outsmarted, even humiliated, for he is likely to be innocent, ignorant, naive. (Sometimes it is the reader who is taken in as well.)
Clemens found this concern with victimization and humiliation particularly congenial to his talents and attitudes. Huckleberry Finn and "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" deal with these themes, to mention two examples. For a short time, Clemens adopted from the southern frontier stories the use of slang and elaborate misspellings. Also, like many of the writers of this school, he adopted a pen name. Among the writers familiar to Clemens in one way or another were George Horatio Derby, who became John Phoenix and told of his adventures in the California of the 1850s; H. W. Shaw, who, as Josh Billings, wrote about farming, exploration, and riverboating; and David Ross Locke, who adopted the name "Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, late pastor uv the Church uv the New Dispensation, Chaplain to his excellency the President, and p. m. at Confederate roads, Kentucky." Most successful of all was Charles Farrar Browne, later to become Artemus Ward, a comic lecturer and crusader against insincerity and sentimentality. Clemens met Ward in 1863 and later made his humor the subject of a much-repeated lecture.
Young Clemens's "Dandy" anecdote only faintly reflects the coarse and violent humor of these writers. Set in Hannibal when "the now flourishing young city ... was but a 'woodyard,'" it tells of a would-be gentleman, obviously from the East, who seeks to demonstrate his manliness to some young women by frightening a woodsman. But the Easterner, who ends up in the river, is "astonished" and humiliated. Clemens gives no characterization to his narrator, and the story is not told in dialect.
A sometimes overlooked fact about Clemens's youth is that he smoked "immoderately," one hundred cigars a month, according to his own account, when he was eight years old! Many years later, at the party given to celebrate his seventieth birthday, he noted, "I do not know just when I began to smoke, I only know that it was in my father's lifetime, and that I was discreet. He passed from this life early in 1847, when I was a shade past eleven: ever since then I have smoked publicly.... Today it is all of sixty years since I began to smoke the limit." The limit? Not specified, but apparently Clemens meant as often as he possibly could.
After demonstrating that his work could be published in the East, Clemens turned his attention to local publication. While Orion was absent from home in September 1852, Sam was able to publish several items, some as a consequence of his getting into an argument with the editor of the Hannibal Tri-Weekly Messenger, whom he tried to embarrass. Nearly forty pieces in all have been located in Hannibal newspapers: verses, burlesques, local items. They show much energy but little control. Several are signed "W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins," later simply "Blab" or the initials, W.E.A.B. Other brief pieces used famous pen names of the period such as the Rambler and the Grumbler. Somewhat more personal is "Oh, She Has a Red Head!" by a redhead who signs himself "A Son of Adam" and who argues that "red is the natural color of beauty." In this piece the future public personality acknowledges his love of open display, which was to be lifelong. A satire of the Democratic governor and legislature, "Blabbing Government Secrets," anticipates another of his future interests, public affairs.
In May 1853, Orion Clemens awarded young Sam "Our Assistant's Column." Not only did the column criticize newspapers that borrowed without credit: it attacked one "Mr. Jacques," whose drunken mistreatment of his children he believed should be punished with tarring and feathering and being ridden out of town on a rail. (Huck considered this form of punishment cruel when applied to the Duke and the King.) While Orion was away, Sam published a headline in the paper:
Terrible Accident! 500 Men Killed and Missing!!! We had set the above head up, expecting (of course) to use it, but as the accident hasn't yet happened, we'll say (To be Continued)
Hannibal was a small world, remote from East Coast literature, but as a journeyman printer Sam Clemens could find work elsewhere. In June 1853, at the age of seventeen, he went to St. Louis, where he seems to have stayed with his sister Pamela (by then married to William Moffett), and for two months he worked as a typesetter on St. Louis newspapers. In mid-August, having been unable to find work there, he made his way to New York without telling his mother in advance. He was able to work there as a typesetter and remained for about two months. Two letters he wrote appeared in Orion's newspaper. Sam explains how he traveled to New York in five days, by steamboat and train, with a little sightseeing in Chicago, Rochester, and Syracuse. In New York he saw two "wild men" from Borneo, a magnificent "fruit salon," and the ships of New York harbor. He expressed pride in his type-setting ability. Young Clemens had already developed a literary technique he was to make good use of throughout his career, for instance, as when Huck Finn would relate his story, emphasizing the narrator's response to what he sees. Of the wild men Clemens wrote, "Their faces and eyes are those of the beast, and when they fix their glittering orbs on you with a steady, unflinching gaze, you instinctively draw back a step, and a very unpleasant sensation steals through your veins." In these early letters home, Sam identified himself not as a fledgling writer but as a printer, proud of his ability to set clean proof. He found satisfaction in his discovery that the New York printers had two libraries where he could "spend my evenings most pleasantly." He soon became a lover of books and a lifelong advocate of libraries.
Other letters to his sister Pamela, written in September and October, describe New York sights, including the theater. They were not published until after his death. Soon Sam moved on to Philadelphia, and from there he wrote a series of letters that were published in the Muscatine (Iowa) Journal, partly owned by Orion, who had moved 120 miles up the river in September. After printing a portion of a letter dated October 26, 1853, apparently without permission, Orion had invited his brother to write letters for publication, and Sam accepted. The first four letters are somewhat impersonal accounts of Philadelphia and a February 1854 visit to Washington, D.C. With deep respect, the young Clemens described the monuments of American history, the grave of Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell, and objects associated with George Washington. He saw Philadelphia as continuing the European cultural tradition. Some of his reverence was borrowed, for the two Philadelphia letters apparently were written with R. A. Smith's Philadelphia as It Is in 1852 open in front of him. He had already stumbled upon the borrowing device of innumerable travel writers before him. In writing from Washington, his tone is similar to Smith's as he describes the Capitol, the senators, and the members of the House of Representatives. He saw a printing press used by Benjamin Franklin and was intrigued by the patent office. One letter from Philadelphia reveals Sam's amusement with obituary poetry, a lachrymose subject he would return to in his contributions to the Galaxy magazine and in Huckleberry Finn.
In the spring of 1854, Clemens was obliged to leave the East because of what he later called "financial stress." He then took his printing skills back "to the Mississippi Valley, sitting upright in the smoking-car for two or three days and nights. When I reached St. Louis I was exhausted. I went to bed on board a steamer that was bound for Muscatine. I fell asleep at once, and didn't wake for thirty-six hours." In Muscatine he worked for his brother, who could pay him no wages, and then to St. Louis, where his mother and sister now lived. Almost a year later, in February and March 1855, four more of Sam's letters appeared in the Muscatine Journal. Signed S.L.C., these letters reflect his maturing tastes less apologetically and are perhaps the first strong indication of the writer that was to be. Young Sam reports, for instance, on The Merchant of Venice: "I had always thought that this was a comedy, until they made a farce of it. The prompters found it hard matter to get the actors on the stage, and when they did get them on, it was harder still to get them off again. 'Jessica' was always 'thar' when she wasn't wanted, and never would turn up when her services were required." There is a freshness of diction even in his comments about the weather: "Yesterday and to-day were as bright and pleasant as anyone could wish, and fires were abolished, I hope for the season."
During the following year and a half, when neither Sam nor Orion was connected with a newspaper, he wrote little for publication. By then the brothers both lived in Keokuk, Iowa between Hannibal and Muscatine. Sam spoke at a printers' banquet celebrating the 150th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth Franklin the patron saint of American printers and according to a piece Orion wrote for the Keokuk Gate City for January 19, 1856, his speech was "replete with wit and humor" and interrupted by much applause.
Samuel Clemens's interest in humor and in writing arose directly from his pleasure in books. In printers' libraries and later in his own substantial collection, Clemens was an insatiable reader. His early work was influenced by his familiarity with the writings of both English and American literary comedians like Laurence Sterne, Thomas Hood, and George W. Curtis, whose Potiphar Papers (1853) satirizes religious hypocrisy and snobbery. In a March 1860 letter to Orion, Clemens identified Oliver Goldsmith's Citizen of the World and Cervantes's Don Quixote as his "beau ideals" of fine writing. Cervantes provided him with a model for expressing both realistic and romantic viewpoints within the same work. Later a different kind of influence upon Clemens, as a young cub pilot, was his reading of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason "with fear and hesitation, but marveling at its fearlessness and wonderful power." Paine and Voltaire reinforced his penchant for skepticism.
In the late summer or early fall of 1856, following some eight years of association with printing, Clemens left Keokuk. Once again one can follow his travels from the letters he wrote for publication in the Keokuk Post, where he was initially paid $5.00, later increased to $7.50 a letter. He now adopted a pen name and a pen personality. As Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, he was an innocent ready to be amazed and victimized by his city adventures. The three letters in this series show the strong influence of another of the frontier comic writers, William Tappan Thompson, author of Major Jones's Sketches of Travel (1847). Thompson cultivated bad grammar and an outrageous Southern dialect. Clemens's first letter, dated October 18 from St. Louis, is a report from Snodgrass of his visit to a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. This bumpkin's visit is largely predictable, although Snodgrass's quotation from Dickens's Little Dorrit comes as rather a surprise. A month later Snodgrass reports again. Just as he had been ejected from the theater in St. Louis because of his ignorance of proper behavior, here his innocence leads to misadventures. He had traveled eastward through Chicago, of which he reports: "When you feel like tellin a feller to go to the devil, tell him to go to Chicago it'll anser every purpose, and is perhaps, a leetle more expensive."
The third and most ambitious letter, dated Cincinnati, March 14, 1847, explains that the writer had "pooty much quit scribblin" until now when he has at last a "little adventer" to report. The innocent has been taken advantage of again, this time by a young woman who asks him to hold her basket while she goes around the corner. Snodgrass obliges and uses the waiting time to daydream of marrying the woman, whom he supposes is a rich heiress. An hour and a half later, he starts after her, whereupon he hears from the basket the howls of "the ugliest, nastiest, orneriest he-baby I ever seed in all my life." Snodgrass does not know what to do. He keeps the baby for a day, then tries to "poke the dang thing through a hole in the ice" on the river. He is arrested and fined, then released. Such is his tawdry adventure. This sketch was directly inspired by William T. Thompson, who told a similar story in Major Jones's Sketches of Travel.
The Snodgrass letters, the last of which was written when Clemens was twenty-one, do not yet show the author-to-be discovering his métier; they simply indicate that Clemens wished to be a humorous writer. He now left journalism for an extended period, and also not surprisingly for one who had lived in the river towns of Hannibal, St. Louis, Keokuk, Muscatine, and Cincinnati he was attracted to an occupation on the river. Some fifteen years later, he was to explain his decision in an unpublished autobiographical sketch:
About 1855 [actually April 15, 1857], aged 20, started to New Orleans, with about ten or twelve dollars, after paying steamboat passage, intending in good earnest to take shipping there for the port of Para [Brazil], & explore the river Amazon & open up a commerce in the marvelous herb called coca, which is the concentrated bread & meat of the tribes (when on long, tedious journeys) that inhabit the country lying about the headwaters of the Amazon. Broken-hearted to find that a vessel would not be likely to leave N[ew] O[rleans] for Para during the next generation. Got some little comfort out of the fact that I had at least not arrived too late, if I had arrived too soon, for no ship had ever yet left N. O. for Para in preceding generations.
Had made friends with the pilots & learned to steer, on the way down; so they had good-will enough to engage to make a St. Louis & N. O. pilot of me for $500, payable upon graduation. They kept their word, & for 18 months I went up & down, steering & studying the 1275 miles of river day & night, supporting myself meantime by helping the freight clerks on board & the freight watchmen on shore. Then I got my U. S. license to pilot, & a steady berth at $250 a month which was a princely salary for a youth in those days of low wages for mechanics.
Later he brilliantly described his experiences as apprentice pilot to Horace Bixby, though with some exaggeration, in "Old Times on the Mississippi" (1875).
This piloting phase of his career lasted four years, until Clemens was twenty-five. He learned the river from St. Louis to New Orleans, then served as a steamboat pilot. Very little that he wrote during that time has survived: seventeen letters, one sketch, several pieces of journalism, all slight, and two pieces of fiction that he did not publish. A few letters do give the impression, however, that the pilot was still interested in writing. A letter to Annie Taylor in 1857 describes the French Market of New Orleans and a cemetery of vaults and tombs in the city. Clemens was to have a continuing interest in cemeteries, morgues, and death, as The Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn, and many of his other writings show. To his sister Pamela he wrote a rather literary letter on March 11, 1859, providing a description of the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans: "The procession was led by a Mounted Knight Crusader in blazing gilt armor from head to foot, and I think one might never tire of looking at the splendid picture."
In "Old Times," Mark Twain described the destruction of the steamer Pennsylvania on June 13, 1858. Clemens had made several trips on that boat as an apprentice pilot, including one when it was damaged as a result of a collision with the Vicksburg, with which it was racing. Although he was not on the Pennsylvania at the time of the "catastrophe," his beloved brother Henry was. After much suffering, he died from inhaled steam. Since Sam had obtained a position for Henry as clerk, the tragedy caused him to feel terrible guilt for many years. Throughout his lifetime Clemens repeatedly experienced guilt; perhaps as a result of this and ensuing disasters, in time he developed a deterministic philosophy that was a means of denying a painful sense of responsibility he felt then and for other events thereafter.
Sam continued to read and enhance his education. His ongoing interest in Charles Dickens is suggested by a quotation in a November 1860 letter to his brother Orion from Martin Chuzzlewit concerning Mrs. Gamp's interest in alcohol. Indeed, Clemens regarded Dickens as one of his favorite writers for many years, though eventually he was to claim he found Dickens's sentimentalism unattractive.
These years on the river seem to have been so deeply gratifying to Clemens that he was not tempted to try another career. He obtained his pilot's license on April 9, 1859, and was extremely proud to be working on the City of Memphis, "the largest boat in the trade and the hardest to pilot." He was proud, too, of his reputation as a pilot and his acceptance by fellow pilots. He told Orion, "I derive a living pleasure from these things." Throughout his life he referred to his experiences as a pilot, frequently with pleasure but occasionally with gratitude that he had escaped from its demands. In August 1862, he wrote to his sister, "I never have once thought of returning home to go on the river again, and I never expect to do any more piloting at any price." But, in January 1866, he wrote to his mother, "I wish I was back there piloting up & down the river again. Verily, all is vanity and little worth save piloting."
Toward the end of his piloting years, in February 1861, Clemens made a visit to a fortune-teller that piqued his imagination. According to a detailed letter he sent to Orion, she told him, "You have written a great deal; you write well but you are out of practice; no matter you will be in practice some day." She observed that he enjoyed excellent health but told him, "you use entirely too much tobacco; and you must stop it; mind, not moderate, but stop the use of it totally." This was only one of many antismoking warnings that Clemens chose to ignore, even though he noted that Madam Caprell's ability to tell the truth about him was remarkable.
"River Intelligence," one of the few known publications of these years, which ended with Clemens's last piloting on the river in 1861, relates to the obscure and muddled history of his pen name. The simplest explanation of the name is the one included in an autobiographical sketch he wrote for his nephew Samuel Moffett in the early part of the twentieth century. It has been unduly neglected. Here he explains, using a third-person voice, that he became the "legislative correspondent" of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.
He wrote a weekly letter to the paper; it appeared Sundays, & on Mondays the legislative process was obstructed by the complaints of members as a result. They rose to questions of privilege & answered the criticisms of the correspondent with bitterness, customarily describing him with elaborate & uncomplimentary phrases, for lack of a briefer way. To save their time he presently began to sign the letters, using the Mississippi leadsman's call, "Mark Twain" (2 fathoms = 12 feet) for this purpose.
A few years later, in his autobiography, he explained that while a pilot he composed a "rude and crude satire" of a steamboat man who wrote under the pen name of Mark Twain. In 1874 he was more specific: "Mark Twain was the nom de plume of one Capt. Isaiah Sellers, who used to write river news over it for the New Orleans Picayune. He died in 1863, & as he would no longer need that signature I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the prophet's remains." But Sellers did not die until a year after Clemens began to call himself "Mark Twain," and no evidence has yet been found that Sellers actually used that pen name. Why Clemens repeatedly asserted that "borrowing" from Sellers is not known.
On the other hand, Clemens did indeed satirize Sellers, whom he called "Sergeant Fathom" in "River Intelligence," a piece he published in the New Orleans Crescent in May 1859. He depicted Sellers as reminiscing ludicrously while offering predictions of phenomenally high water. "In the summer of 1763 [ninety-six years before the date of the report] I came down the river on the old first 'Jubilee.' She was new, then, however; a singular sort of a single-engine boat, with a Chinese captain and a Choctaw crew." According to the account in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (chap. 50), this satire deeply affected Sellers, to the regret of the young Clemens. Another satire that Clemens wrote was a brief "Pilot's Memorandum," which burlesqued the standard reports on river traffic appearing in newspapers. Its humor assumed a good deal of familiarity with the steamboating of that day.
Four other pieces by Clemens the steamboatman were discovered and reprinted in 1982. Three are mere journalism, first published in 1858. More ambitious was "Soleleather Cultivates His Taste for Music," which appeared in the New Orleans Crescent in 1859. In it the brash narrator told of his experiences at a St. Louis boardinghouse, where he soothed a sick fellow boarder with his attempts to play first a violin, then a trombone. Soleleather is another version of Snodgrass, but better educated.
Of the two attempts at fiction Clemens made during his years on the river, one is a gothic tale of murder and revenge set in Germany, but with a plot borrowed from Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837). The other tells of a pilot who returns from the dead to perform an unusually difficult task of piloting. Aside from attesting to Clemens's continuing serious interest in writing, the stories are unmemorable.
With the coming of the Civil War, Clemens left the river, since the war effectively disrupted commercial traffic. In 1899 he described the situation, using the third person: "He was in New Orleans when Louisiana went out of the Union, Jan. 26, 1861, & started North the next day. Every day on the trip a blockade was closed by the boat, & the batteries of Jefferson Barracks (below St Louis) fired two shots through her chimney the last night of her voyage." He returned home and soon joined a group of volunteers who were taking the Confederate side in the conflict, but within two weeks he left them. "'Incapacitated by fatigue' through persistent retreating" is the way he described the volunteers in a statement from the source just quoted. This service was too informal and irregular for it to be said with any truthfulness that he was a deserter, as is sometimes reported. Nearly twenty-five years after the event, he rendered a somewhat fictionalized account of his "war" experiences in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed."
Sam's next adventure was more crucial than his gesture at combat. In July 1861, he accompanied his brother to the West, where Orion, who had identified himself strongly with the Union side as the great conflict shaped itself, was rewarded with the office of the secretaryship of the territory of Nevada. Sam was eventually hired to be a government clerk at eight dollars a day, but not as Orion's official secretary, as Sam reported in the entertaining account in Roughing It (1872).
The trip westward to the territory was long and slow. Leaving on July 18, 1861, they went up the Missouri River to St. Joseph, then travelled by overland stagecoach by way of Salt Lake City. They reached Carson City on August 14. Having finally arrived, Sam found himself in a world that strangely combined ugliness and beauty. He soon undertook some exploring and examined Lake Tahoe, only twenty miles or so from his headquarters in Carson City. He greatly admired the lake, but his negligence there resulted in his starting a forest fire in its tinder-dry terrain. He wrote a vivid account of the lake and the fire to his mother and sister in the early fall. A letter sent a little later, in October 1861, is one of his best early pieces. Testifying to Sam's succumbing to the get-rich-quick fever of the silver miners, it also provides a description of the landscape:
It never rains here, and the dew never falls. No flowers grow here, and no green thing gladdens the eye. The birds that fly over the land carry their provisions with them. Only the crow and the raven tarry with us. Our city lies in the midst of a desert of the purest, most unadulterated and uncompromising sand in which infernal soil nothing but that fag-end of vegetable creation, "sage brush" is mean enough to grow. If you will take a liliputian cedar tree for a model, and build a dozen imitations of it with the stiffest article of telegraph wire set them one foot apart and then try to walk through them you will understand (provided the floor is covered twelve inches deep with sand) what it is to travel through a sage-brush desert. When crushed, sage-brush emits an odor which isn't exactly magnolia and equally isn't exactly polecat but a sort of compromise between the two. It looks a good deal like greasewood, and is the ugliest plant that was ever conceived of.
A version of this letter was published in the Keokuk Gate City in November.
Two subsequent letters, written in January and March 1862 and also addressed to Clemens's mother, seem to have been intended for publication; they also appeared in the Gate City. In them Clemens assigns Jane Clemens the role of a worshiping disciple of Fenimore Cooper and admirer of the romantic Noble Savage and portrays himself as a disenchanted old-timer. Later, when he used these same materials in Roughing It, he played both roles: he had arrived in the West, he explains, as an innocent tenderfoot, full of book learning, but now years later he was writing as a hardened veteran. While the 1872 book version is deservedly better known, these previous letters are a valuable indication of Clemens's development as a writer: he was beginning to assign himself more interesting roles.
The second of these early Nevada letters describes a trip Clemens and three others made to Unionville, Humboldt County, where silver was being discovered and mined. In this letter Clemens mixes information and anecdote just as he was to do in his travel books. In a March letter, he responds to an imagined plea from his mother to "tell me all about the lordly sons of the forest." Clemens's response reveals a scornful attitude toward American Indians that would not mellow for decades, unlike his racist views of African Americans, which dissipated in later years. The description of a representative Indian, whose name is given as Hoop-dedoodle-do, is thoroughly repulsive. In 1897, Mark Twain wrote that in his youth, "Any young person would have been proud of a 'strain' of Indian blood"; Cooper's great popularity was responsible. But on the basis of his experience in Nevada, Clemens's advice is, "Now, if you are acquainted with any romantic young ladies or gentlemen who dote on these loves of Indians, send them out here before the disease strikes in."
These long descriptive letters home indicate how thoroughly Clemens was beginning to enjoy playing the skeptic. Chiefly, however, he wanted to get rich quick, and the means was obviously silver. In a letter written to Orion on May 11 and 12, 1862, he reported that he owned a one-eighth interest in a ledge, and "I know it to contain our fortune" in gold and silver. The same letter refers to Sam's contributions to the local newspaper; he assumed that Orion was seeing his letters in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. By June he was thinking seriously of his work as a writer, for he instructs Orion, "Put all of my Josh's letters in my scrap book. I may have use for them some day." (The "Josh" letters written for the Enterprise have not survived.) But in the same letter he reports, "I have quit writing for the [Keokuk] 'Gate' [City]. I haven't got time to write." Perhaps it was at this juncture that he was obliged to take on a job that was nothing but manual labor. Ten years later he wrote, "I shoveled quartz in a silver mill at ten dollars a week, for one entire week, & then resigned, with the consent & even the gratitude of the entire mill company." A month later he told Orion to write to the Sacramento Union or to members of its staff to announce that "I'll write as many letters a week as they want, for $10 a week my board must be paid. Tell them I have corresponded with the N. Orleans Crescent, and other papers and the Enterprise. California is full of people who have interests here, and its d d seldom they hear from this country." The explanation for his job hunting is that he was in debt: "The fact is, I must have something to do, and that shortly, too."
What happened next is not quite clear, though it turned out to have great consequences. According to his autobiography, Clemens now became so desperate that he "stood on the verge of the ministry or the penitentiary." Fortunately, he recounted, he found occasion to submit to the Enterprise for publication a clever burlesque of a speech by the chief justice of Nevada just when his services became necessary: the city editor of the Enterprise, Dan De Quille (William E. Wright) was planning a trip home to Iowa. Sam's piece was considered witty, and he was hired. A more probable scenario is that Sam was taken on because of the "Josh" series and because employing Sam might mean that the Enterprise printing house would get patronage from Sam's brother, the territorial secretary. In any event, within a short time Clemens was a full-time writer for the Enterprise, and the Enterprise did obtain the printing contract. Clemens soon adopted the pen name "Mark Twain" for his humorous writings, but probably used his real name for serious news stories. Seemingly he identified in important ways with the adopted name, for now he signed a letter to his mother and sister "Mark." According to one letter he sent to them, "I take great pains to let the public know that 'Mark Twain' hails from there [i.e., Missouri]." For his newspaper work, "They pay me," he wrote home, "six dollars a day, and I make 50 per cent profit by doing only three dollars' worth of work."
The development of Samuel Clemens as a writer cannot be fully documented, since a large portion of what he wrote for publication in Nevada was lost. It has been estimated that he published fifteen hundred to three thousand local items, but there is no file of the Enterprise, and one can consult only such sources as the slim collection of clippings in a surviving Clemens notebook and the pieces reprinted in other newspapers. These provide a total of fewer than fifty items, although many of them are notable pieces. The earliest extant pieces signed "Mark Twain" are three letters from Carson City dated January 31 and February 3 and 6, 1863. Written while he was on a week's vacation, they are notable chiefly for their tone: good-natured, confidential, nonchalant. For instance, discussing a wedding he had attended, Mark Twain writes that it was "mighty pleasant, and jolly, and sociable, and I wish to thunder I was married myself. I took a large slab of the bridal cake home with me to dream on, and dreamt that I was still a single man, and likely to remain so, if I live and nothing happens which has given me a greater confidence in dreams than I ever felt before." The name "Mark Twain" was to be identified with the voice heard here: unpretentious, self-assured, good-natured, accessible.
Another development was taking place within Samuel Clemens. He had gone west after having identified himself, if only briefly, with the Confederate cause. At the same time that he was creating "Mark Twain," Clemens was gradually becoming a Union man, though in Nevada he was largely able to avoid the issue of slavery. He was to confront that issue only after the Civil War.
For the Enterprise, Mark Twain wrote local items, unsigned editorials, and reports from San Francisco, Carson City, and the territorial legislature and constitutional convention. (For the convention, he and another reporter provided full and in part verbatim accounts. These are of no literary value, and it is impossible to distinguish Clemens's writing from that of his coworker.) Even routine items frequently have a humorous touch. He suggests in "The Spanish Mine," for instance, that "stout-legged persons with an affinity to darkness" might enjoy an hour-long visit to the mine on which he was reporting. Such unsigned items as the following appeared soon after Clemens joined the Enterprise staff. "A beautiful and ably conducted free fight came off in C street yesterday, but as nobody was killed or mortally wounded in manner sufficiently fatal to cause death, no particular interest attaches to the matter, and we shall not publicize the details. We pine for murder these fist fights are of no consequence to anybody." In this piece written before the earliest appearance of Clemens's nom de plume one hears for the first time the voice that was to become famous. Excitement made life tolerable in the dull towns of the West, and Clemens was to celebrate his boyish appreciation of it. As diverting as frontier violence was, if necessary one could always resort to theatrics.
In Nevada, Mark Twain was a successful journalist. Some of his stories were picked up by other papers, especially in California, even though few of the surviving ones give an indication of his later abilities. In the boom-or-bust atmosphere of Nevada, he became especially identified with hoaxes; among other things, these were preparations for Huck Finn's admired imaginative deceptions. One of the earliest hoaxes dates from October 15, 1862. It reports the startling discovery of a "petrified man," found "in a sitting posture" with "the right thumb resting against the side of the nose; the left thumb partially supporting the chin, the fore-finger pressing the inner corner of the left eye and drawing it partly open; the right eye was closed, and the fingers of the right hand spread apart. This strange freak of nature" was examined by a local judge, "Justice Sewell or Sowell, of Humboldt City," who convened a jury to hold an inquest, according to this account. The jury concluded that "deceased came to his death from protracted exposure." Published in the Enterprise, the story was picked up by twelve credulous newspapers in Nevada and California. Only the San Francisco publication, headed "A Washoe Joke" (Washoe was a native American name given to Nevada), was appropriately captioned by someone who recognized that the petrified man was winking and thumbing his nose.
At the Enterprise, Mark Twain was associated with other stimulating young writers, such as the twenty-four-year-old editor, Joseph Goodman, and Dan De Quille, with whom he roomed. (De Quille had already written up his own effective hoax about a personal portable air-conditioning system.) The new journalist soon discovered that his work was not arduous. Reporters from other journals were ready to swap "regulars," reports from continuing sources of news such as the courts and the registry of bullion. If news was short, it could promptly be invented. For a time Clemens lost his ambition, drank a good deal, and gained a reputation for flippancy, bohemianism, and irreverence. He was proud enough of his direct language to defend it in print: "If I choose to use the language of the vulgar, the low-flung and the sinful, and such as will shock the ears of the highly civilized, I don't want him [a compositor] to appoint himself an editorial critic and proceed to tone me down and save me from the consequences of my conduct; that is, unless I pay him for it, which I won't."
The Enterprise phase enabled the writer to discover himself or, more accurately, allowed Sam Clemens to create "Mark Twain." He learned here about the close connection between the comic and the forbidden the permissible and those aspects of life not to be mentioned in polite society. He intuited, too, that humor is gratifying because it relaxes a repressive atmosphere. Obviously the raw, blustering frontier environment encouraged his explorations. He was, however, never quite able to determine precisely how far he could go without being offensive, although he sensed that he could amusingly violate inhibiting strictures by satirizing the fastidiousness of the genteel and their attitudes toward romantic love, childhood, grand opera, admiration for the "sublime" in nature, even benevolent humanitarianism. He could offend the pretentiousness of the proper by referring to the unmentionable: sows, nose-picking, vomit, spit, warts, singed cats, body odor. (He was never to outgrow the conviction that bad smells are funny.) A mild specimen of this brand of humor is in a "Letter from Mark Twain" published in August 1863 in which he provides an account of his adventures after taking a tonic called "Wake-up Jake." It affected him for forty-eight hours. "And during all that time, I could not have enjoyed a viler taste in my mouth if I had swallowed a slaughter-house." He almost died, he says, of vomiting and another form of elimination.
This sketch is one of the few in which Mark Twain is a buffoon. More often he asserts in exaggerated form his own superiority. The roles he assigns himself are, in one critic's words, those of the "Social Lion, the Nabob, the Entertainer, and the Ladies' Man." He had determined that his assignment was to be insulting and humiliating to others. It would be some time before he learned how much funnier he could be if he himself were humiliated, especially by becoming, in James Cox's phrase, the fool of his own illusions.
San Francisco was a long 150 miles west from Washoe, through the daunting Sierra Nevada range. The trip took thirty hours. But California was the source of supplies for Nevada, and all the bullion was shipped to San Francisco in bars, with three stages a day in each direction. Clemens visited San Francisco several times during his years in Nevada, and at least three times in 1863. His first trip, which lasted two months, occasioned this parting shot from the May 3 Enterprise: "As he assigned no adequate reason for this sudden step, we thought him the pitiable victim of self-conceit and the stock mania.... Yes, the poor fellow actually thought he possessed some breeding that Virginia [City] was too narrow a field for his grace and accomplishments, and in this delusion he has gone to display his ugly person and disgusting manners and wildcat on Montgomery street." In a letter published in September 1863, he describes the trip "Over the Mountains" and in it introduces perhaps the first of his antigenteel narrators. Much of the letter is devoted to Mark Twain's account of the stagecoach driver's conversation. For instance: "I see a poor cuss tumble off along here one night he was monstrous drowsy, and went to sleep when I'd took my eye off of him for a moment and he fetched up again a boulder, and in a second there wasn't anything left of him but a promiscuous pile of hash!" The use of such an accomplished yarn-spinning figure became an important part of Mark Twain's literary repertoire.
His narrators, usually veterans of long service in their occupations (including miners, ship captains, and stage drivers), are utterly lacking in self-consciousness. As the man behind the writer became more interested in moving upward in the social scale, he found that when he wished to avoid presenting Mark Twain as too "low" and vulgar a personage, he could introduce a vernacular narrator such as the coach driver to tell his tale. He especially enjoyed relying on characters who were both colorfully profane and profoundly innocent.
Another letter on his adventures in California went to New York, where it was published in the Sunday Mercury for February 21, 1864. Artemus Ward, whom Clemens had met when the experienced writer visited Virginia City in late 1863, had suggested that he write occasionally for that Eastern paper. In "Those Blasted Children," Mark Twain describes his suffering at the Lick House in San Francisco, where noisy "young savages" pestered him. "It is a living wonder to me that I haven't scalped some of those children before now," he comments unsentimentally. "I expect I would have done it, but then I hardly felt well enough acquainted with them." The recommended remedies for illnesses in children indicate his studied ignorance: for worms, "Administer a catfish three times a week. Keep the room very quiet; the fish won't bite if there is the least noise."
While visiting San Francisco, Clemens obtained a commission to write a series of letters from Nevada to the Daily Morning Call. In the summer of 1863, ten letters as well as half a dozen dispatches from Mark Twain in Nevada appeared in that paper. The Call announced that these letters "set forth in his easy, readable style the condition of matters and things in Silverland." Showing journalistic competence and good humor, these pieces helped spread his reputation and prepared the way for a later position on the San Francisco newspaper. In order to emphasize wittily the vast difference between the mild San Francisco climate and that of torrid Virginia City, he reported that "last week the weather was passably cool, but it has moderated a good deal since then. The thermometer stands at a thousand, in the shade, today. It will probably go to a million before night." In another letter he writes that Mr. G. T. Sewall was among those bruised recently in a travel accident; he reminds his readers that Sewall is the man who allegedly held the inquest on the death of the petrified man. An amusing piece published in July 1863 explains that crime is much more common in Nevada than in California. "Nothing that can be stolen is neglected. Watches that would never go in California, generally go fast enough before they have been in the Territory twenty-four hours."
One passage, "A Rich Decision," published in the Call in August 1863, is particularly notable because it tells a story that Mark Twain was to return to twice. It appears in "The Facts in the Great Landslide Case" in the Buffalo Express for April 12, 1870, and (in only slightly revised form) in chapter 34 of Roughing It. The 1863 version informs the reader at the beginning that "some of the boys in Carson" were playing a hoax on old Mr. Bunker, an attorney, who was employed to bring suit for the recovery of Dick Sides's ranch after Tom Rust's ranch slid down the mountain and covered it. In the later versions, the hoax is played on the unwary reader as well, and the story, three times as long, is elaborated and dramatized.
In addition, Mark Twain wrote a few sketches from Nevada for the San Francisco Golden Era, a weekly founded to encourage the development of literature in the area. The eminent landscape painter Albert Bierstadt had designed the masthead, and numbered among the local writers were Joaquin Miller, Charles W. Stoddard, and Bret Harte, whose "M'liss" had proven to be the first memorable tale of the California frontier. Mark Twain had the good judgment to learn from his fellows. The editors of the Enterprise had been apprentices on the Golden Era, and its founder, Rollin M. Daggett, had also founded the Enterprise. Many items by Mark Twain appeared in the Golden Era, but probably only a few were written especially for it. They include "How to Cure a Cold," published September 20, and "The Lick House Ball," published September 27, both in 1863. The former would be one of the earliest to find a place, in revised form, in Sketches, New and Old (1875). It also appeared in 1867 in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, Mark Twain's first book. It tells of the author's efforts to get rid of that most common of ailments by adopting various cures offered by well-meaning people: cold showers, drinking a quart of salt water (which caused him, he reports, to throw up everything, including, he believes, his "immortal soul"); then a mixture of molasses, aquafortis, turpentine, and drugs; then gin, then gin and molasses, and gin and onions; then travel; next a mustard plaster, and eventually steam baths. He survives, with difficulty.
During his Nevada years, Mark Twain created his first fully developed character equipped to flout gentility. When a rival reporter, actually a friend named Clement T. Rice, criticized Mark Twain's reports of a session of the Nevada legislature, he replied that Rice's accounts were a "festering mass of misstatements the author of whom should be properly termed the 'Unreliable.'" Thereafter, "the Unreliable" was to make frequent appearances in Mark Twain's writings of the period, both as the butt of his humor and as Clemens's alter ego his coarser side. The Unreliable borrows, without permission, Mark Twain's most elegant clothes, his boots, his hat, his "white kid gloves" and his "heavy gold repeater." Mark Twain finds him in this garb attending an evening party, where he devours huge quantities of food and drink, including a roast pig, and sings a drunken song. Mark Twain offers to duel with him, "boot-jacks at a hundred yards." The Unreliable swindles a San Francisco hotel when the two visit it. He is constantly obnoxious and boorish. When Mark Twain plans to send back to Nevada "something glowing and poetical" on the San Francisco weather, the Unreliable tells him, "Say it's bully, you tallow-brained idiot! that's enough; anybody can understand that; don't write any of those infernal, sick platitudes about sweet flowers, and joyous butterflies, and worms and things, for people to read before breakfast. You make a fool of yourself that way; everybody gets disgusted with you; stuff! be a man or a mouse." The Unreliable is as Mark Twain frequently chose to be the sworn enemy of bombast and sentimentality.
In one letter Mark Twain renders an account of the Unreliable's drunken remarks on his visit to San Jose, "Sarrozay." Rice retaliated when Clemens was ill with a cold and had arranged for Rice to attend to Enterprise chores. Over Mark Twain's name, Rice published an apology to all those whom he had ridiculed, especially "the Unreliable," and promised to go "in sackcloth and ashes for the next forty days." The next day, Clemens recovered enough to publish a retraction of "his" apology and a denunciation of Rice as "a reptile" and "jackass-rabbit." Later Mark Twain created a similar fictional character of much fuller dimensions, the outspoken "Mr. Brown." The still-developing author was seeking a means of expressing himself frankly but without sullying himself.
Few of the surviving pieces from the Enterprise could justifiably be called sketches. One of these, "Ye Sentimental Law Student," quotes a letter, identified as probably by the Unreliable, effusively expressing the devotion of the writer, "the party of the second part," to "Mary, the peerless party of the first part." "The view from the lonely and segregated mountain peak of this portion of what is called and known as Creation," he avers, "with all and singular the hereditaments and appurtenances thereunto appertaining and belonging, is expressively grand and inspiring." For Mary's benefit he extends his comically legalistic description. Another piece, published in May 1864, provides a learned essay on Washoe in response to an innocent inquiry from a Missourian. He replies, for instance, that it may rain for four to seven days in a row, after which "you may loan out your umbrella for twelve months, with the serene confidence which a Christian feels in four aces."
On July 26, 1863, Clemens lost everything he owned, including mining stocks, when the Virginia City hotel where he lived burned down. He may have felt this was a signal that he should leave Nevada. But he continued to identify himself with the place, though he was unwell for a time. He took advantage of the hot mineral springs at Steamboat Springs, then went to San Francisco, but only for a month.
One of the most famous, even notorious, of Mark Twain's writings of his western years is "A Bloody Massacre near Carson" (October 1863). His purpose, he explained later, was to compose a "reformatory satire" on the "dividend-cooking system" of misleading investors, but he admitted that nobody ever saw the point of the satire. This hoax reported that one Hopkins, who lived in the old log house between Empire City and Dutch Nick's at the edge of a forest, had been driven to despair by the loss of his savings through financial manipulations in San Francisco. He died after having ridden into town, his throat cut ear to ear, with his wife's bloody scalp in his hand. The husband was discovered to have brutally murdered six of his children. The report included many gruesome details. But Hopkins was, in fact, a bachelor; there was no forest for many miles and Dutch Nick's and Empire City were one and the same. If the reader did not know this geography, he might have detected the hoax nonetheless: Hopkins's riding four to five miles with his throat cut ear to ear ought to have alerted the wary. But the nearby Gold Hill Daily News picked up the story as fact, as did other papers. When Mark Twain wrote in the next issue of the Enterprise, "I take it all back," he was widely attacked. California newspapers such as the Sacramento Daily Union demanded that he be discharged. Eventually the putative "massacre" became part of the local lore, frequently alluded to in newspapers.
In the spring of 1864, Mark Twain's often obnoxious ways finally crossed the line and brought about his departure from Nevada. He had been feuding fiercely, in print, with the publisher of the Virginia City Union when, by chance, a piece he had written but then held back on advice from Dan De Quille nevertheless appeared in the Enterprise. The story had to do with local efforts to raise money for the Sanitary Fund, a Civil War organization resembling the later Red Cross. It had been stated, Mark Twain wrote, that funds raised for the organization had been misdirected to "a Miscegenation Society somewhere in the East." He then asserted that the charge was "a hoax, but not all a hoax, for an effort is being made to divert these funds from their proper course." The Union responded by referring to the writer as having "no gentlemanly sense of professional propriety" and being "a vulgar liar." Clemens demanded "a public retraction" or "satisfaction" from James Laird, the editor of the Union, "the satisfaction due to a gentleman," although privately he apologized to the women of the Sanitary Fund. "Satisfaction" meant that Clemens was challenging Laird to a duel. As he explained in 1899, "Dueling was in that day a custom there a temporary one. The weapons were always Colt's navy revolvers, distance 15 paces; fire, & advance; six shots allowed." Although the duel did not take place, it was illegal to "send a challenge, carry a challenge, or receive one." To escape the law, Clemens wrote his brother, "Steve & I are going to the States." On May 29, accompanied by his friends Steve Gillis, a printer and journalist, and Joe Goodman, Clemens went to California. Partly through his love of mischief, partly as the result of others' malice, partly through mischance, Sam Clemens had become persona non grata in the territory.
The Gold Hill Daily News bid good riddance: "Shifting the locale of his tales of fiction from the Forest of Dutch Nick's to Carson City; the dramatis personae thereof from the Hopkins family to the Ladies of the Sanitary Fair; and the plot thereof from murder to miscegenation he slopped. The indignation aroused by his enormities has been too crushing to be borne by living man, though sheathed with the brass and triple cheek of Mark Twain." But the Virginia City Old Piute was kinder: "We shall miss Mark.... To know him was to love him.... God bless you, Mark!"
The original and authentic Mark Twain sprang from this Nevada stint. There Samuel Clemens found that he could become a writer by dramatizing a portion of himself and then assuming this identity when he wrote. Who was "Mark Twain"? He was, first of all, a writer who had imbibed deeply in what he would describe in chapter 4 of Roughing It as "the vigorous new vernacular of the occidental plains and mountains." His natural style derived from the ways of the old-timers, who had found, before him, that genteel Eastern ways fit badly in the West. Rejecting artificiality, superficiality, and the hypocritical cult of polite conformity, Mark Twain emerged as an irreverent skeptic in religion. In San Francisco, he would soon give proof of his anti-establishment views. But he was by no means an alienated loner, for he had enjoyed and valued his membership in the Territorial Enterprise group. More humorous than funny, he grew increasingly fond of burlesquing genteel attitudes. He was not able now or later to create a fully consistent literary personality, but he made his hallmark a self-assured, confidential, unhurried tone. This Mark Twain developed from an appreciation of "characters" honest, natural, straightforward, manly people whom he esteemed as "simple-hearted" or characterized by their "simplicity." Although their conversational style and manners are by implication anti-genteel, any words such as low, common, vulgar, or even folk connote condescension that Mark Twain did not express. Samuel Clemens's signal contribution to the achievement of American literature in the twentieth century lies in his respectful discovery of these vernacular values.