For the past several months I have been intrigued by author Mark Twain’s time out west. I came upon a book entitled Mark Twain in California by Nigey Lennon, which gave me insight into Twain’s early journalistic years on the Nevada-California border, and then in San Francisco where he wrote for the Morning Call. Prior to starting my research, I only knew Twain as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
His career as a frontier journalist began following a stint as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Samuel Clemens was his name by birth, but it was on the water that he gained his pen name, from the shouts in riverboat jargon for two fathoms –“mark twain!”– i.e. the safe water depth for steamboats. He headed west after the start of the Civil War and, failing at mining the Comstock Lode, took up writing for the local papers. This part of his life was of special interest to me because rumors have been circulating for years that Twain wrote for “The Mountain Messenger”– an assertion long disputed by Twain biographers and scholars, who allege that what appeared in the Messenger at that time under a pen name was only the reprint of an “unremarkable” piece he wrote for a San Francisco newspaper while “hungover.” Journalism at the time barely resembled the rigorous, present-day “All the News That’s Fit to Print” style of The New York Times. In fact, Twain wrote under multiple pseudonyms, including “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass” and simply “Josh,” among others, and his journalistic focus tended to be on barroom “squabbles the night before…usually between Irish and Irish or Chinese and Chinese, with now and then a squabble between the two races for a change.”
Notwithstanding the historical facts -or fiction-I thought it would be interesting to imagine, based on Twain’s own words, his view of current events if he were writing for the Messenger today. So, what would be Josh’s take on the current political climate? Today everyone is squabbling, especially between political parties as well as politicians of the same stripe fighting amongst themselves. Twain’s quip, “I breakfasted every morning with the governor, dined with the principal clergymen and slept in the station house,” might apply to Trump’s rapid decline in popularity among his own supporters after hosting controversial dinner guests at Mar-a-Lago. On other issues, Twain’s habit of speculation with mining stocks led to an observation which might apply to the crypto-fraud debacle of today: “The wreck was complete. The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it. I was an early beggar, and a thorough one.”
Twain was a frontier humorist who dealt on corrupt politicians. He finished his California journalistic career in San Francisco writing humor, philosophizing and moralizing. Twain would have found plenty to write about in the past year in America. We could use a bit more of his ethics – and humor– these days.