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Mark Twain’s San Francisco
Sam Clemens, jack of many trades, hit the big town in 1864. Two years later, his true vocation discovered, he strode upon the national scene as Mark Twain
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
He had, as yet, submitted nothing to a national publication. Despite the favor his writing had already begun to win with the local audience, he doesn’t seem to have been particularly set on a writer’s career at the time he took up residence in San Francisco. His simple ambition in those days was to become a millionaire in a day or two—an ambition he shared with just about every other San Franciscan, nearly all of whom, like him, were engaged in mining speculations. “Speculation went mad,” he recalls. “Bankers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, laborers, even the very washerwomen and servant-girls, were putting up their earnings on silver stocks, and every sun that rose in the morning went down on paupers enriched and rich men beggared. What a gambling carnival it was!” In anticipation of the wealth that would be his as soon as he chose to cash in his stocks, Twain at first lived in millionaire style at the Lick House and the Occidental Hotel. And then—well, let Twain tell it: “And then—all of a sudden, out went the bottom and everything and everybody went to ruin and destruction! The wreck was complete. The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it. I was an early beggar and a thorough one. My hoarded stocks were not worth the paper they were printed on. I threw them all away.”
This was just one bubble of many which, during this and the succeeding epoch, inflated enchantingly and then burst with a damp pop in San Francisco.
So Twain had to go to work after all. He took a job as a reporter on the Call , as the entire reportorial staff, in fact. It was fearful drudgery. All day he used to “rake the town from end to end,” looking for news, and at night had to visit the six theatres one after another, getting only the merest glimpse of the plays and operas he had to report on. Around eleven at night he sat down to write up these gleanings, doing his best, as he recalled later in his posthumously published memoirs, to make them “cover as much acreage as I could.”
During his months on the Call Twain remembered doing only one story with spontaneous enthusiasm. He saw some Irish hoodlums stoning a Chinese laundryman tor fun one day, while a policeman looked on with amused interest—and Twain went back to the office and wrote this scene down, no doubt in outraged fashion. The next clay, for the first time, he opened the paper eagerly to look for his story. It was not to be seen. When he went to the paper’s owner, Mr. Barnes, and asked why the story had been killed, Barnes replied that the Call was like the New York Sun of that clay, the paper of the poor. As Twain recalled later, Barnes said that “It gathered its livelihood from the poor, and we must respect their prejudices or perish. The Irish were the poor . . . and they hated the Chinamen.” It was an incident that reveals much about the state of things in San Francisco, at that time and for decades afterward, in regard to the Chinese. Twain often alluded to it indignantly in later life. Yet he himself, when he first came to San Francisco, had been capable of playing such crude jokes on the Chinese as dropping beer bottles from the window of his California Street lodgings onto the tin roofs of their shacks below, just for the fun of seeing them run out into the street in fright. That incident, by the way, is one that Twain does not recall in his memoirs.
The best thing about the Call for Twain was its location—in the same building as the United States Mint. Whenever Twain could find the time, he would go down to the second floor and hobnob with the secretary of the Superintendent of the Mint, who was none other than Bret Harte. The two men were about the same age, but Harte was already an established literary figure. Twain naturally deferred to him, and though very different in personality and appearance—Harte elegant and dandified, Twain with his disorderly mop of hair, drawling speech, and slouched stance—they got along well in those years. Harte had formerly been a compositor, like Twain, and his first connection with the Golden Era had been as a printer. It amused Twain to hear Harte tell of how he used to write his first stories for that journal directly in type, much to the puzzlement of the Era ’s, editor, upon whose desk these stories, which he had never seen in manuscript, would suddenly appear as galleys of type. They used to discuss their writing trade as well, and Twain credits Harte’s advice on style as having been helpful. In later years, as Twain’s star rose and Harte’s declined, the two men fell out. “I think he was incapable of emotion,” Twain wrote in his memoirs, “for I think he had nothing to feel with. . . . He said to me once with a cynical chuckle that he thought he had mastered the art of pumping up the tear of sensibility. The idea conveyed was that the tear of sensibility was oil, and that by luck he had struck it.”