Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lighting Out for the Territory: Samuel Clemens...Mark Twain

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Author:Roy Morris, Jr.
“If the reader thinks he is done, now, and that this book has no moral to it, he is in error. The moral of it is this: If you are of any account, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are "no account," go away from home, and then you will *have* to work, whether you want to or not. Thus you become a blessing to your friends by ceasing to be a nuisance to them - if the people you go among suffer by the operation.”
― Mark Twain, "Roughing It" (1872)

Picture a twenty-six year old Mississippi riverboat pilot in 1861 who has just lost his livelihood with the coming of the American Civil War. First he is grabbed off the streets of his home town, Hannibal, Missouri, by a squad of Union troops. He and another pilot are dragooned down river to St. Louis to be interviewed by a major in the regular army about operating a steam boat up the Missouri. Luckily a few beautiful ladies come to visit the major and the young men, one known as Samuel L. Clemens, makes a hasty escape out the back way of the office and hides out with relatives in town unit he can get back home.

Next he joins up with a band of self-appointed Confederate guerrillas. After two or three weeks fighting a nasty horse and mosquito bites and foul weather young Sam and his "Marion's Rangers" decide this business of war is a damn sight over-rated.

Luckily, his older brother, Orion Clemens, has managed to use his links with the abolitionist movement and the Republican Party in Missouri to secure a position from the Lincoln Administration as Secretary to the Territorial Governor of Nevada (or Was-hoe, as some called it.) Orion, a bit of a dim bulb in political affairs, needs an sharp assistant. Would his savvy ex-riverboat pilot be in need a job "out in the territory" where the Civil War is no more than a distraction? Yes, Sam figures, there is a need there and so he obliges.

Mark Twain recounted his adventures in a book called "Roughing It" in 1872. The book was a best-seller at the time--the second best seller in a row for the newly married author, couple years after his sharp and satirical Americans-in-Europe travel book, "The Innocents Abroad, Volumes I and II".

Before he became what many critics later called "the first authentic American writer", Twain had a colorful career as a government secretary, silver prospector in boom-town in Nevada and California's Sierra Nevada. He also was a speculator in mines and lost a potential fortune from bad company and ill luck. Finally he took up journalism--something he had done a bit of already as a printer with his brother's newspaper in Hannibal and also in contribution to papers in New Orleans while a river boat pilot.
After his travels in and across half the Pacific, he became a full-time writer and lecturer--making a lot of enemies with his acid tongue and satirical pen of the anti-Chinese police forces and the political humbugs, roughneck miners and swindlers he dealt with. He was lucky frankly that he didn't gert shot in those days, as many a desperado who disliked nosy journalist might have put a hole through him. But Twain also made a lot of friends, including for a time another excellent Western writer, Bret Harte, who gave him a job on a magazine in San Francisco for twelve dollars a week at a time when Twain was at his lowest ebb, down to his last dime and considering suicide after a big silver deal he was counting on fell through.

Later, Twain had to beat it out of San Francisco, partly for writing a story about how the police mistreated Chinese crime victims and partly for being friends with a fellow named Bill Gaines who had a habit of skipping out of town after bail hearings. He later sailed off to the Hawaiian Islands and the lecture he gave to San Franciscans and other cities made him as more famous as a humorist for a time then a writer.

It was a story he leard from a bartender about a certain "Jumping Frog" in a mining town called "Jackass Hill" that later became the inspiration for his first famous story, 1865's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County".

This makes for a great read for those interested in Mark Twain's early career. Roy Morris--who had already written several books about the Civil War period from a military and cultural perspective--puts in all the best parts of Twain's travel book as well as clearing up the record of some of "the stretches" (exaggerations) Twain told his readers at the time. The book gives us both the real follies and fortunes of Young Sam and also his budding and ultimately successful career out West, where he emerged by 1867 as 'Mark Twain", the most famous young author on "the Pacific Slope" in America.

Morris book follows the Clemens' stagecoach adventures along the Oregon Trail to a side route to Nevada, and later his travels and writings on San Francisco and the Hawaiian Islands. Twain was a natural traveller and "Roughing It" is a fine book. This book by Morris deepened even further my appreciation of the great author. Morris captures and picks out the best passages of Twain's narratives of his young life and adds dimension to his ability to wander and record the people and customs of a place--"with a few stretchers" by The Great Man for entertainment value.

“It was a splendid population - for all the slow, sleepy, sluggish-brained sloths stayed at home - you never find that sort of people among pioneers - you cannot build pioneers out of that sort of material. It was that population that gave to California a name for getting up astounding enterprises and rushing them through with a magnificent dash and daring and a recklessness of cost or consequences, which she bears unto this day - and when she projects a new surprise the grave world smiles as usual and says, "Well, that is California all over.”
― Mark Twain, on the first California Gold Rush a decade earlier than he arrived, "Roughing It"


  1. This Roy Morris Jr, certainly has some interesting history pertaining to Mark Twain. There certainly is some areas covered which I would have never known. It's interesting Doug on how some of these icons of the past have a history which if inflated. This sounds like one of them.

  2. Yes, Jack, Mark Twain made no comptunction about "improving" on a story or hiding behind it as beibng true later on.

    As a journalist and later a writer he felt it was more or less in his stock and trade to use satire and exaggeration to improve a story for the sake of the frontier reader's enjoyment or sharing with his news readers and bookbuyers his imaginative and daring style of writing. Usually in modern days one frowns on exaggerations in journalism but this was the Old West and the best writers played up rivalries and such to interest readers.

    Twain was perfectly capable of telling a straight story, too. While he was in Hawaii in 1864 he interviewed some survivors from a shipwreck from an American vessel called "The Hornet" who had been weeks in an open life boat. It was a story that got national attention. So I'm sure he could also deliver the facts when it seemed no embellishment was necessary.

    I find the topic of Twain's and his inflations to be most entertaining. As one of his older fellow journalists on "The San Francisco Call" paper once told him, "First, get your facts straight, Sam, then you can distort them as you like." :-)

  3. Of Mark Twain I read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer when I was a child. I didn't know he had ever written anything else until comparatively recently. He visited New Zealand at least once I believe. This might be a really interesting book to look out for, thanks Doug.

  4. I also first read those two books as a youngster, Iri Ani. I've re-read "Huck Finn", of course, since it's the American equivalent of a Homer great epics. I'm so glad he is read in your country. He has to be on the short list of North America's greatest authors.

    I would recommend "Life on the Mississippi" if you are interested in one of his non-fiction travel books. He brings both his young life as a MIssissippi riverboat pilot together with his visiting that again as a middle-aged man. His observations on the changes on the river and the people and history of each city and town along the MIssissippi is so entertaining and evocative.

    I'll bet Mr. Twain had a lot of interesting things to say about New Zealand! I'll have to look up that part of his work--it might be in "Following the Equator".