Mark Twain’s San Francisco

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During the 1860’s a literary movement of considerable force and originality flourished in that boisterous, gaudy, nouveau riche metropolis of the frontier, San Francisco. Gathered here were Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Henry George, and a number of lesser lights, such as the flamboyant Joaquin Miller. Their activities produced one of the most exciting of American provincial rebellions.

The rebellion, an unconscious one for the most part, was against the proper Bostonian standards and taste which ruled literature in the East. Those exquisite, constrictive standards could hardly cope with the raw, lusty material of life in San Francisco and the frontier region it served as metropolis. Imagine Henry James trying to make a story out of a contest between two jumping frogs! Of necessity, the whole San Francisco experience was one that was almost bound to appall a Beacon Hill brahmin. Clarence King, a member of the Henry Adams circle, visited San Francisco about this time and sniffed that it struck him as “a monument to California’s march from barbarism to vulgarity.” The quality of life in the East then was imitation Victorian. That of San Francisco’s West was closer to the Elizabethan in its vigor, forthrightness, ribaldry, its acceptance of violence and excess of every sort, its excitement over the new prospects being daily unfolded, and its crude, undisguised interest in sheer wealth. San Francisco’s experience profoundly stirred the nation’s imagination and affected its outlook.

The most important of these writers of the sixties to us now, of course, is Twain. San Francisco and the Far West were important to Twain, too—just how important has perhaps not been sufficiently recognized. It was here, after trying one thing and another—typesetting, riverboat piloting, a brief spell of soldiering, mining—that he entered upon his real vocation. All along he had been “scribbling,” as he put it, but here in the Far West he became a writer, the kind of writer that he was to be. Here, in actual fact, Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain.

He came to the Far West in 1861, accompanying his brother Orion, who had been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. After about two and a half years in that mining country, that extraordinary wasteland in which almost nothing grew except great quantities of silver and gold, he moved to San Francisco. That was in May, 1864, when he was twenty-eight.

Only fifteen years previously, when the Gold Rush began, San Francisco had been an obscure hamlet of a few hundred people. Now it teemed with a population of 115,000, whose dominant characteristics were vigor, resourcefulness, and boundless optimism. It could boast a score of newspapers, an academy of natural sciences, six theatres, some fine hotels and excellent restaurants, forty-one churches, and about ten times that many saloons.

"I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union,” he later wrote in Roughing It . “After the sage-brush and alkali deserts of Washoe, San Francisco was Paradise to me.” By this time he was no stranger to the city. For about a year he had been contributing occasional articles to its pioneer literary journal, the Golden Era , and for a couple of years the broadly humorous and prankish pieces he had been doing as city editor of Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise had received wide circulation in San Francisco. From the very start of his writing in the West he had been addressing a San Francisco audience. In effect, Virginia City in those days was San Francisco’s “mining suburb.” To make the more than two-hundred-mile journey across the Sierras was practically commuting for a good many people, whether business or pleasure was their bent. In the year before he settled in San Francisco Twain made the trip numerous times. He wrote in a letter to his mother that when he visited San Francisco he tell as much at home on Montgomery Street as he did on Main Street back in Hannibal.

It was as Samuel Clemens that he had arrived in Nevada, and he was still not quite Mark Twain when he came on to San Francisco. That pen name—probably the most famous in the history of literature and the one that feels to us now the most apt, somehow, the most “right"—he had adopted just the year before (it first appeared in print February 2, 1863) in Virginia City, where pseudonyms were the thing among the local columnists. It still sat new on him; he hadn’t really broken it in yet. By the time he left San Francisco a few years later, he wore the name most naturally; it had become one that fitted not only the writing that developed here but his personality as well.