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The following review appeared 20 December 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain got over his first heated objections to changing the name of Lake Bigler to Lake Tahoe. In his later works he referred to Tahoe as his favorite lake in the entire world. He wrote and lectured for years about his original discovery of its beauty when he and an acquaintance went there intending to stake a timber claim. In Roughing It he described his first impression: "it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords." There is some irony in his claim that he managed to deface it by starting a forest fire there on his first visit in 1861.
If you have followed the news coverage this past year of the controversy between Nevada and California, each state vying for the honors of identifying the location of Mark Twain's timber claim, David Antonucci's Fairest Picture will be of interest. Antonucci presents what he calls a "preponderance of evidence" that the location was in California on the north shore of Lake Tahoe.
Mark Twain Forum subscribers who took advantage of the author's offer for a free download of Chapter Eight of Fairest Picture will be familiar with Antonucci's arguments in favor of the California claim. Several of his points are persuasive. The fact that Mark Twain in Roughing It describes the location as on the "north shore" is hard to ignore. Antonucci's argument that both the white and grey rocks described by Twain are only visible in the water near the north shore is a good point. His discussion about the most likely route Mark Twain would have used to arrive at the lake is also plausible. The explanation that Mark Twain found the area isolated from other people was evidence he was not at the busy Nevada area made sense. Antonucci's argument that the size of the trees, which were different in the two locations, also has merit. Even the distance to "blue water" from the shore is worth consideration.
Less convincing are Antonucci's opinions on the "flat rock" which figures in Mark Twains descriptions of dining and card playing at Tahoe. He includes a photo of flat rocks demonstrating that they exist on the "northeast" quadrant of the lake near where he thinks Mark Twain's "upper camp" was located. Identifying and distinguishing between the upper and lower camps is problematic. Antonucci asserts that the terms "upper" and "lower" were Clemens's way of associating the name of the camp with the adjoining terrain.
Antonucci argues that an historical fire survey has been conducted at the site that Nevada proponents claim was the location of Mark Twain's timber claim. This survey determined there had been no fire there in the 1860s. Antonucci's arguments might be more persuasive if a historical fire survey had also been done at the possible California north shore site. While Antonucci is not responsible for such a survey, the lack of such evidence for his proposed site is worth noting. The forest fire Twain claimed he started was a large factor in his letters home at the time and in his later Roughing It account.
Fairest Picture has some interesting photos and many maps, some which do not always deliver precise information. For example, Carnelian Bay is discussed, but I failed to find it on any map included in the book. A map with all of the geographic names used in the text would have been welcome. A list of illustrations would have been helpful as well as a more comprehensive index.
Fairest Picture contains a wealth of general information
about Lake Tahoe and its history. Antonucci provides several interesting examples
of earlier visitors' views of the Lake, including John Fremont's 1844 account.
Antonucci also gives descriptions of the activity around the lake in the 1800s
including the activities of both long-time Washoe residents and the newcomers
from the east. A later chapter discusses present day access to locations Antonucci
describes in the book. An Appendix presents selected passages from Mark Twain's
works relevant to Lake Tahoe. But Antonucci's primary goal is to establish
his argument for the location of Mark Twain's timber claim in California.
The Nevada vs. California debate will continue, no doubt, and this book covers
the argument for the California side of the duel.
Reviewed by Arianne Laidlaw, Mark Twain enthusiast. Under her
married name (Jeanne Adamson), she wrote her Masters thesis Mark
Twains Nemesis: His
Beloved Brother, Henry at the University of Texas in El Paso. After two years in West Africa with the Peace Corps, she entered the PhD program at the University of California in Berkeley to be near the Mark Twain Papers. She had to drop out due to a family crisis but returned to do research over a decade later, where she was diverted by some articles preserved in a Mark Twain scrapbook which she thought he anonymously wrote. The fascination continues.