Mark Twain’s San Francisco


After a few months Twain was fired by the Call—a not surprising development in view of Twain’s lack of interest in its style and policy, but still one that rankled. He was broke. “For two months,” he recalls, “my sole occupation was avoiding acquaintances . . . I became very adept at ‘slinking.’ ” Soon, though, he began to write for other journals—the Golden Era , the Californian , the Sacramento Union , the Daily Dramatic Chronicle —and to contribute regular letters on San Francisco to the Territorial Enterprise .

In these signed pieces he could let himself go as he hadn’t been able to do on the Call . In them, the San Francisco of the sixties comes alive and kicking, with all its verve and foibles and delights and pretensions. All sorts of aspects, large and small, came under Twain’s amused scrutiny—fashions, politics, theatre critics, rival newspapers, opera, prize fights, spiritualism. He wrote up an opera performance in the solemn style of a music critic—the difference being that what Twain reviewed was the performance of the furniture mover. ("I was particularly impressed by the able manner in which Signer Bellindo Alphonso Cellini, the accomplished bass-relievo furniture scout and sofa shifter, performed his part.")

He parodied the fashion writers and the city’s social set in his reports on the Lick House and Pioneer balls. “The fan used by Mrs. B. was of real palm-leaf and cost four thousand dollars—the handle alone cost six bits. Her head dress was composed of white chantilly lace, surmounted by a few artificial worms, and butterflies and things, and a tasteful tarantula done in jet.” And he lovingly described the easy grace with which one of the guests at the Pioneer Ball blew her nose: her manner of doing so “marked her as a cultivated and accomplished woman of the world; its exquisitely modulated tone excited the admiration of all who had the happiness to hear it.” As for the new style of hoop skirts, that merited a whole article, from which we learn that, “to critically examine these hoops—to get the best effect—one should stand on the corner of Montgomery and look up a steep street like Clay or Washington ... It reminds me of how I used to peep under circus tents when I was a boy and see a lot of mysterious legs about with no visible bodies attached to them. And what handsome vari-colored garters they wear now-adays!”

The ladies of fashionable South Park were shocked and infuriated by such impertinent observations, but at places like the Bank Exchange bar, where the gentlemen of the town gathered to drink Pisco punch, exchange good talk, and admire the luscious painting of Samson and Delilah above the bar, there were roars of laughter. (Twain, in another of his articles, carefully describes this “magnificent picture” that adorned the Bank Exchange and tells how the carping stranger who comes in invariably says, after taking one look at the painting, “Them scissors is too modern—there warn’t no scissors like that in them days, by a d—d sight.")

All sorts of characters swim into Twain’s kenminers, millionaires, actors, bill collectors, notables, bums. He is on easy terms with them all. In the Turkish bath in the Montgomery Block he even met a man named Tom Sawyer, with whom he liked playing penny ante. Long afterward this man enjoyed the conviction that it was he who inspired Twain’s famous book, and outside of a tavern he acquired near Third and Mission he proudly hung the sign: “ALE AND SPIRITS! THE ORIGINAL TOM SAWYER: PROP.”

Twain had the gift of gaiety and delight, and this quality is communicated even when he is being ostensibly misanthropic, as, for instance, in his account of a trip he let himself be persuaded to take out to the Cliff House at four o’clock in the morning, at which time, according to the friend who persuaded him, the road would not be crowded and nature would be at its most pristine and bracing. Twain prefaces this piece with an epigraph, which goes:

“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."— Benjamin Franklin

“I don’t see it."— George Washington

“No,” Twain writes, “the road was not encumbered by carriages—we had it all to ourselves. I suppose the reason was, that most people do not like to enjoy themselves too much, and therefore they do not go out to the Cliff House in the cold and the fog and the dead silence and solitude of four o’clock in the morning.” The fog was so thick, he continues, that “we could not see the horse at all, and were obliged to steer by his ears, which stood up dimly out of the dense white mist that enveloped him. But for those friendly beacons, we must have been cast away and lost.” And once they got out there and the fog did lift, he found himself in no mood to enjoy any of the sights—not even the seals, “writhing and squirming like exaggerated maggots.” His moral is a simple one: “If you go to the Cliff House at any time after seven in the morning, you cannot fail to enjoy it.”

He himself did go on other occasions, which proved enjoyable and fruitful. It was there that he one day discovered Nature’s eternal law of compensation, which he formulated thus, in another of his articles: “Behold, the same gust of wind that blows a lady’s dress aside and exposes her ankle, fills your eyes so full of sand that you can’t see it.”