This year America celebrates the cent-enary of Mark Twain’s death.
This year America celebrates the cent-enary of Mark Twain’s death. He is the nearest that country gets to a national treasure, with a hefty bibliography to show it: the University of California Press’s 70-volume Works and Papers represents but a fragment, and in June Penguin published an entire book on the food Twain ate. Now here comes Roy Morris Jr with a contribution covering Twain’s pre-fame journeys among the mines and saloons of the western frontier. What does it add?
Samuel Clemens (as Twain was born) worked as an itinerant printer and a Mississippi riverboat pilot before a reluctant stint as a Confederate guerilla at the outbreak of civil war. At the age of 25, he decided to go west, avoiding the war altogether. His brother Orion had secured a patronage appointment in the newly created Nevada Territory and Sam went with him. The pair rode a stagecoach west across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains, encountering a fearsome cast of gunslingers, chancers and Mormons (as Brigham Young so rightly advised Sam, ‘Ten or eleven wives is all you need’). It took 24 hours to cross the Great Salt Lake and the alkali dust made their noses bleed the whole time. When they pulled in to Carson City the first thing they saw was a shootout.
After forays to silver diggings and timber camps, and a good deal of loafing in high-top Spanish boots with a revolver tucked into his blue jeans, Clemens landed a reporting job on the Territorial Enterprise, a daily newspaper in the booming silver town of Virginia City, 120 miles north-east of Carson and far from the Battle of Shiloh.
In February 1863, the byline ‘Mark Twain’ appeared for the first time. (Steamboat pilots needed 12 feet of water to float, and steersmen cried, ‘mark twain!’ — a twain being two fathoms — to signify safe water.) The young reporter had not yet grown the famous handlebar moustache, but he had found his voice.
Next stop San Francisco, where a tart at the Hotel Nymphomania handed Twain a calling card advertising ‘Three hundred pounds of black passion, 50 cents’. Morris’s account of post-1849 California is wonderful. Twain secured more hack work, and a comic sketch about a jumping frog — Morris judges it ‘a masterpiece’ — led to continent-wide syndication and a commission for a travel series on Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands. Lighting Out for the Territory ends as Twain sets off on a more ambitious assignment across Europe and Asia, a tour which provided the raw material for The Innocents Abroad, his first bestseller.
Morris, whose previous books include Walt Whitman in the Civil War, takes his title from the last paragraph of Huckleberry Finn. ‘It’s time to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest’, notes Huck, wishing to avoid being ‘sivilised’ by Aunt Sally. Of course, Twain told the story of his western peregrinations himself, in the sunny Roughing It (1872). But he made half of it up, investing the account with what he called ‘stretchers’. Morris separates fact from fiction, thus revealing — and this is the book’s central value — the processes by which Twain transformed the raw material of his life into art. It is a strange kind of alchemy, one that lies at the heart of every writer’s trade.
Morris keeps up a lively pace, ably conjuring the thump of hooves on dirt, the whiff of the smoking gun and the bone-cold of a mountain silver camp before the sun rises over the Sierra Nevada. He is long on description and short on analysis, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and he quotes widely and wisely.
Sara Wheeler’s books include Too Close to the Sun, Terra Incognita and Travels in a Thin Country.