While many may not have actually read any of his work, there is hardly an American among us who has not heard the name “Mark Twain”; images of the southern sage from head to toe dressed in all white, capped by a head of hair second only in its notoriety to Albert Einstein’s, hair and mustache textured something like ancient desert sagebrush, immediately come to mind. Twain is a stand-out personality in the entire scope of American literature. Of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway once said that all modern American literature is predicated on Twain’s most famous (or perhaps more accurately put, infamous) novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One might even go so far as to say that what Walt Whitman did for American poetry, Mark Twain did for the American novel: similarly to what Whitman did, Twain was able to create lasting pieces of literature through his mastery of language. For Twain though, there was something special at play: the success of Twain’s work, especially with regard to Huck Finn, was primarily due to his use of American vernacular dialects. In other words, he wrote for common people using the tongue of common people. This much is clear just by reading his work. What isn’t as clear and what most people don’t know, however, is that Mark Twain was not born “Mark Twain,” and “Mark Twain,” was not actually born in Missouri. The man behind the behemoth personality is Samuel L. Clemens—that’s the southern gent who was born in Missouri in 1835. “Mark Twain,” the writer, didn’t come about until quite a few decades later; indeed, despite being most generally well known for Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain found his initial voice as a writer in the Wild West where he moved from a newspaper reporter and satirist to author of short stories and, eventually, the novels with which most Americans are familiar.
Twain was born a person of ambition—a dreamer of sorts, and in order to set the stage for his coming of second-age in the Wild West, it is necessary to set the foundation in his home of the late Antebellum South. He was from a family of five children and spent most of his boyhood without his father, he having died when Twain was only twelve (Baym 1270). It wasn’t long before Twain would hit the ground running, however, and as an appropriate prelude to his career as a writer, he went to work for his brother Orion as a printer in 1851 (Baym 1270). This experience would serve him well later as he followed Orion out west, but first, Twain got the opportunity to satisfy the ambition of many Missouri and Mississippi boys: after an eighteen month apprenticeship, Twain found himself as a riverboat pilot (Baym 1270). Were it not for the Civil War having killed the lucrative business of river-boating, Twain may likely have remained in that career for a greater portion of his life instead of quitting the vocation in 1861 (Baym 1270). Of Twain’s brief stint as a Confederate in the Civil War, Lennon writes that he “subsequently spent a very brief period—no more than a month—seeing the horrors of that war for himself, as a member of a ragtag Confederate militia unit, before he had decided that war was indeed hell” (14). Shortly afterwards, Twain found his opportunity to join the westward expansion when his brother Orion received a secretarial appointment from Nevada Territory Governor James Nye (Lennon 14).
While Twain is often recognized as a realist in the literary world, he was not really a realist by habit in his real life: never intending to stay long in Carson City, Twain thought he would be able get his hands on Comstock gold and bring his fortunes back to Missouri, but his stint as a miner was a brief and unsuccessful one (Lennon 14-15). This became additionally troublesome because Orion’s salary, only $1800 annually, was not quite enough to support both he and his brother, so Twain had to find other means of income, and this is where his background in printing would come in handy (Lennon 15). After contributing several small articles to local publications, Twain accepted a position at the Territorial Enterprise, the oldest paper in the territory (founded in 1858), in August of 1962 as the lowest paid reporter (Lennon 19-21, Loving 87). The modest salary at the time did not stop Twain from making a name for himself, however.
As a frontier writer, he quickly found a niche for himself—through his use of masculine and colloquial language, Twain began to quell the hunger of the western frontiersman by satisfying their appetite for respite through his humor and political satire (Lennon 18, Coulombe 48). In an early article he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise titled “Letter from Carson City,” Twain colors a run of the mill story with humor and satire:
The [Nevada] Supreme Court will meet in Carson City on the 13th of the present month; and in connection with this intelligence I present the following item, giving it in the language in which I received it for fear of mistakes—for its terms are darkly, mysteriously legal, and I have not the most distant conception of what they mean, or what they are intended to have reference to—thus: “Wm. Alford vs. Nathaniel Dewing et als.—Ordered filed, denying rehearing.” There it is, and I wash my hands of the matter. (Twain)
He then goes on to write that what the supreme court clerk had delivered to him was a “written nightmare” which, as he states, “has been distressing me up to the present moment” (Twain). Clearly, those on the borderlands of the frontier who hungered for relief from the toils and troubles of day-to-day life found some relief in the early wit and humor of the southern sojourner.
It was articles like “Letter from Carson City” that began earning some notoriety for him in San Francisco, and it is right and proper—and not without a sense of irony—that it was then and there that the pseudonym “Mark Twain” was born: “Mark Twain” in the jargon of riverboat pilots means two-fathoms deep or “safe water,” that borderland between safety and danger (Baym 1270, Lennon 23-25); what more natural place than the frontier of America could have been the birthplace for he who would become one of America’s most infamous writers? Shortly after “Twain” was born, another irony would be born as well.
Granted that this story is subject to scrutiny by most historians due to its likely embellishment by those who were there and those who repeated the story, the hard fact of the matter is that Twain eventually got himself into some trouble with a man by the name of James Laird, editor of the Territorial Enterprise‘s competing newspaper, the Daily Union. As flaming words between the two went back and forth, an article Twain wrote—never intending to publish—was actually inadvertently published (Lennon 27-28). In this article, Twain suggested that funds for a charity auction were being diverted somewhere dishonorable instead of the intended means of helping aid both Union and Confederate soldiers who had been wounded in the war (Lennon 27). Despite the mistaken publication, the Enterprise did not apologize, retract, or publish any of the letters of complaint, but the Union did, and this probably added a few of the first white hairs to Twain’s head (Lennon 29). Through this dispute, Twain eventually challenged Laird to a duel (which, in the Nevada Territories, was an illegal act at the time). Laird accepted, and this is where the story gets a little shady. One of the facts on the field is that Twain was a terrible marksman—he was an outlaw of the pen, not of the pistol (Coulombe 48). The rest is legend: as he and his friend, Steve Gillis—who was a great marksman and there to serve as Twain’s second for the duel—waited at the designated place for Laird to arrive, Gillis was offering some tips to his friend. Gillis took the gun from Twain and pulled off a miraculous shot on a sparrow that happened to be flying overhead. Just as Laird and his party were arriving down the hill, they heard a gunshot and saw a bird fall out of the sky. When they all arrived at the site of the fallen bird, they saw that the dead bird was sans head. Laird immediately asked at what range was the bird shot and who had pulled the trigger. Gillis answered that the range was about thirty yards and that Twain could hit that mark about four of five times. Laird promptly left without having fired a single shot. Whether or not the more fantastic part of the story is true, the fact remains that Twain got himself into trouble with the locals and potentially with the governor, so it was time to continue his sojourn westward. This time, he would end up in San Francisco.
Even though “Mark Twain” the pseudonym was born in Carson City—then a place that was considered either in California or in the Nevada Territory depending on the day of the week—it was truly “Mark Twain” the writer that was born in San Francisco in May of 1864 (Lennon 31). It did not take him long to find another job as a reporter. He started his career in San Francisco with a paper called The Morning Call (Lennon 33). The trouble is that the Call only wanted Twain to report on the facts of the daily happenings around town; he was not allowed the same freedoms as a writer which he was able to enjoy back in Carson City (Lennon 33-34). However, even though Twain was not able to write in the style with which he had become accustomed, being in San Francisco presented him with the good fortune of meeting and working with both Bret Harte (another giant of American literature) and Ina Coolbrith (the first Poet Laureate of California and of any state in America) (Lennon 45-47). These two would help to shape Twain’s style from the news reporter to the fiction writer and novelist, but that’s not all that shaped Twain while he was in San Francisco.
Since Twain was unable to write with his voice of satire and humor with the Call, he began stockpiling ideas for later publication. There was one story in particular that become the beginning of the end with his time at the Call. On a regular day as Twain was making his rounds for news events, he witnessed a Chinese man being brutally abused, stoned, and otherwise denigrated while a local constable just sat back and watched; he immediately ran back to his office to write up the story, but the Call refused to publish it (Lennon 36). It was their opinion that their regular readers would not respond too well to the story, so Twain’s account had to take place among his stockpile of other un-publishable articles. They would soon see the light of day, however, when he decided to call in some favors and start publishing them through his old friends at the Enterprise back in Carson City, a periodical which was widely read in San Francisco, and it’s ironic that Twain became exponentially more infamous through the proxy of his old paper than his current, local paper (Lennon 45). One cannot help but imagine, too, that events like the one he witnessed of the treatment of the Chinese man that day in San Francisco would inspire later abolitionist novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Albeit most people instinctively associate Mark Twain with the South, Samuel L. Clemens actually became Mark Twain in the Wild West. It was there that he sharpened his skills with his pen and language, becoming a literary outlaw of sorts, and it was there where he would meet those who were the most influential to his career as a writer, namely Bret Harte and Ina Coolbrith. His experiences in the California frontier would greatly fuel his fire for future works which notoriously maintain much ado throughout the present day.
Baym, Nina. “Mark Twain.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Comp. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1270-1273. Print.
Coulombe, Joseph L. Mark Twain and the American West. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003. Web. 31-OCT-11.
Lennon, Ningey. Mark Twain in California. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1982. Print.
Loving, Jerome. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens. Berkeley: U of California P, 2010. Web. 31-OCT-11.
Twain, Mark. “Letter from Carson City.” Territorial Enterprise. gutenberg.net.au. 05-DEC-1862. Web. 03-NOV-2011. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html#TOC3_6