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It has long been recognized, but perhaps somewhat forgotten, that Mark Twain's career in journalism played an important role in his development as a writer of literature. A number of collections of his journalistic writings help to suggest ways in which his early pieces indicate the shape of a career to come. The release of Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express (1999), for example, is the latest in a line of books that focus on portions of his journalism career. Bernard Taper's Mark Twain's San Francisco was a relatively early contribution of this sort, appearing first in 1963. Its republication now is a welcome addition to this aspect of Mark Twain studies.
There are at least two ways to read Taper's collection of Mark Twain's California journalism. I suspect that most Twain fans may look to this volume for material not in print elsewhere. Of the 83 entries, 24 pieces appear in the two volumes of Early Tales and Sketches from the Mark Twain Project, only 15 appear in Louis Budd's two-volume edition of the Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays. Two of the earliest pieces in Taper's volume were reprinted in Henry Nash Smith's Mark Twain of the Enterprise (1957), another was reprinted in Edgar Branch's Clemens of the Call (1969), and a handful of these California pieces found their way into a collection like Sketches New and Old. Still, over half have appeared only in the first edition of Taper's volume. Although one might be disappointed by the fact that there is no newly added material in this edition--indeed, only a paragraph or two of the introduction has been slightly amended; otherwise, the text of the first edition is reproduced in its entirety, including the sketchy and sometimes sporadic headnotes--having the volume back in print should please Twain scholars and enthusiasts alike.
Anyone interested in tracking the source and development of the characteristic sensibility found in Twain's later work will delight in "A Complaint About Correspondents," in which Twain lays down "one brief, solitary law for letter writing ... : Write only about things and people your correspondent takes a living interest in" (240). Letters from home, such as one from his Aunt Nancy, which report on the progress of the war (two weeks after he has learned all that and more via overland telegraph and the pony express) interlarded with chapters of Scripture, hold no interest for him. By contrast, "[t]he most useful and interesting letters ... are from children seven or eight years old. This is the petrified truth" (242). An admirable example is from a niece who not only includes details about the people he wants to know about, but does so in the sort of innocent rambling tone that characterizes Sociable Jimmy and Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, his niece Annie reminds us of Huck by opening her letter with the promise that, were he there, she could tell him about "Moses in the Bulrushers again. I know it better now" (243).
Although Twain is known for his amassing of multiple fortunes in his later life, somewhat different expectations are expressed in "A Graceful Compliment" in which he marvels at receiving an income tax bill addressed to him for the sum of $36.82 including penalty and warrant: "I am taxed on my income! This is perfectly gorgeous! I never felt so important in my life before. To be treated in this splendid way, just like another William B. Astor! Gentlemen, we _must_ drink" (136). He goes on to describe the impressive document ("as grand as a steamboat's manifest") which bears on its other side "some happy blank verse headed 'Warrant'." He provides a sample of this "Ode," "equal to anything in Shakespeare: 'But in case sufficient goods, chattels and effects cannot be found, then you are hereby commanded to seize so much of the real estate of said person as my be necessary to satisfy the tax.' There's poetry for you!" (137). Twain's clever way with calculation invites him to compound the ten-day late penalty on into the future, playfully incurring a mounting personal debt to the government of $12,000 for every century for which the debt remains outstanding.
Twain's characteristic satirical attitude abounds throughout the collection. And in at least two instances he exhibits his proclivity toward hoaxes. In one sequence of letters published in the Californian in May 1865, Twain ostensibly solicits, unauthorized, the professional services of Eastern ministers to fill a vacancy at Grace Cathedral, anticipating his later skepticism about some professional clergymen. His exchange with Bishop Hawk of New York, along with Twain's commentary, results in frantic letters from others begging him to leave off publishing their correspondence. Facetiously disappointed, Twain reports:
I am a suffering victim of my infernal disposition to be always obliging somebody without being asked to do it. Nobody asked me to help the vestry of Grace Cathedral to hire a minister: I dashed into it on my own hook, in a spirit of absurd enthusiasm, and a nice mess I have made of it. I have not succeeded in securing either of the three clergy men I wanted, but that is not the worst of it--I have brought a swarm of low-priced back-country preachers about my ears that I begin to be a little appalled at the work of my own hands. I am afraid I have evoked a spirit that I cannot lay. A single specimen of the forty-eight letters addressed to me from the interior will suffice to show the interest my late publication has excited (89).
He follows with a ridiculous application from a preacher of "Grasshopper Chateau" who combines tears, flapdoodle, soulbutter, and hogwash with a promise to lowball "any man on the continent" (90).
A more elaborate hoax commences with an announcement in the Golden Era that Mr. Smith Brown Jones, Esq., will join their staff of contributors. But the correspondence in which Jones agreed to be engaged by the Era, the editors are forced to admit, was a rambling and incoherent fraud perpetrated on them by a man whom the real Jones identifies as a "Mr. Marcus Twain," who had attempted to engage Jones to contribute to the Bohemian, purportedly a religious journal. The hoax culminates in a rather questionable breach of journalistic ethics: the report in the Era about the trial of Mark Twain was filed by S. Browne Jones even though he brought the charges and was the primary witness for the prosecution. The report describes "usual unblushing effrontery, and boldfaced impudence" of the defendant, and notes that the latter had attempted "to buy us off" (119). Testifying for the prosecution, an editor of the Era claims to have:
[n]ever trusted [Twain] with anything original, except obituary notices. He had a morbid desire to write such notices. He overdid the matter. Had to drop him. Defendant had three volumes of manuscript obituary notices. His object was, I believe, to have on ready for any emergency. The names of the decease, as well as the dates, were left blank, ready to be filled in at a moment's notice (121).
Another damning witness is a Senator up for reelection who testifies that Twain had offered to write favorable things about him in the _Bohemian_ if the Senator would pick up Twain's bar tab at the Bank Exchange for the duration of the campaign. After a month, the Senator stopped paying for the bill because "'Twas very large" (122), and Twain had not printed his promised support of the Senator. After producing only one defense witness, who can attest only that Twain was an excellent poker player, the defendant changes his plea to guilty and is sentenced to "forty-eight hours in the city Prison, on bread and water," for which Twain is said to have "shed tears profusely" (124).
Although the attribution of this hoax to Twain is not without its doubters, it embodies much of the self-effacing humor we identify with him. And even if this performance were the work of Twain's colleagues at the Era, it contributes to the second manner of reading Taper's volume, the one that he intended the book to serve. For although Taper concentrates on the writing of one journalist who would go on to great fame, his primary aim is to record Twain's distinctive voice in order to capture the atmosphere of San Francisco at this pivotal era in the nation's identity formation. The pieces he includes certainly convey Twain's voice and temperament, but they also signal a cultural tenor and an improvisational journalistic ethos characteristic of the region and era. The collection as a whole helps us to place Twain within a context, among a community and a culture shaped by newspapers that contained poetry and humor as much as news and political controversy. Even a chestnut like "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" reads a differently when contained within this frame. This version was reprinted in the Californian, about a month after it appeared in the Saturday Press. Twain availed himself of the opportunity to change the name "Smiley" to "Greeley" and altered the title from "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (as it appeared in the Saturday Press) to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." But in addition to these material differences, the tale is conditioned by its appearance among a range of Twain's Pacific Slope journalism and thus can be appreciated within the full context of his vernacular practice of rhetorical pranks, satires, and hoaxes.
But the picture we observe here is not derived from Twain alone. Taper makes
ample use of the illustrations of Edward Jump, who contributed visually to the
culture of San Francisco contemporaneous with Twain. The thirteen lithographs
and one woodcut included in the volume represent the largest single collection
of Jump's distinctive caricatures of San Francisco's public culture. For that
alone, Taper's collection would be valuable. Jump's images are crowded with
vivid figures, high and low, not the least of which is Emperor Norton, who embodied
some of the same iconoclastic spirit that Twain captured in his writing. So
what Taper offers us, and the California Legacy Project brings back to our attention
again, is not just a collection of Twain's writing, but a lens for understanding
an idiosyncratic, though simultaneously quintessential American city in its
youth. The Gold Rush made San Francisco a destination for those seeking opportunity
in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it has periodically attracted a
migration from within and beyond the nation's borders even to this day. Although
San Francisco has changed since its first heyday, the essence of the city we
see in Mark Twain's San Francisco can still be felt.