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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
It is quite remarkable how much of the characteristic San Francisco experience Twain crowded into those two years in the city and how many of its abiding themes and phenomena appear in his writings—including even an earthquake. That occurred on October 8, 1865, and caught Twain as he was strolling along Third Street, enjoying the Sabbath peacefulness of the day. It was a sizable quake. It shook down the Merchants Exchange Building and badly damaged the City Hall. It did widespread minor damage as well: “Such another destruction of mantel ornaments and toilet bottles as the earthquake created, San Francisco never saw before,” Twain writes in Roughing It , and notes, “hardly an individual escaped nausea entirely.” Naturally, he set down the numerous curiosities the event produced. “A lady,” he writes, “sitting in her rocking and quaking parlor, saw the wall part at the ceiling, open and shut twice, like a mouth, and then drop the end of a brick on the floor like a tooth. She was a woman easily disgusted with foolishness, and she arose and went out of there.”
Because this earthquake took place around noon of a Sunday, it bred ecclesiastical anecdotes. Twain tells of the minister who, after the first shock, said to his congregation, “Keep your seats! There is no better place to die than this—” and who added, after the third shock, “But outside is good enough!” with which he skipped out the back door. As Twain related it, the hero of this anecdote was an Oakland minister. Oakland had already begun to fulfill its divine destiny as the butt of San Franciscans’ jokes.
Parody, burlesque, fantasy, the tall tale—these forms, which Twain was to employ all his life, even in his more serious works, are prominent in his San Francisco writings; and his deftness in their use was increasing. Exaggerated as many of the pieces are for humorous effect, one cannot but be constantly aware of Twain’s remarkable eye for detail and inimitable ear for the sound of ordinary talk. It was because he saw and heard so accurately that his burlesques and fantasies are as pleasing as they are. One might almost say that the first requirement for the writer of fantasy or other forms of exaggeration is an unusual sense of reality; without that the fantasy is bound to be insipid and unbelievable. For all the playful distortions, the San Francisco of that era comes through in Twain’s writings in a myriad of details which nobody else was noting.
The social satirist in Twain makes its appearance too in these days. The chief target for his moral indignation was the San Francisco police, whom he loathingly portrayed as lazy, stupid, brutal, callous, and corrupt. Probably the strongest satire he wrote in San Francisco was an article recounting the death in prison of a man who had been arrested for stealing seventy-five cents’ worth of flour sacks. The man had been dumped into a cell and left there, and none of the prison officials bothered to see if he was all right. If they looked in at him at all, Twain wrote bitingly, they probably thought there was nothing unusual about him and that the prisoner was merely “sleeping with that calm serenity which is peculiar to men whose heads have been caved in with a club.”
Such articles aroused much indignation. At one point Twain had to get out of San Francisco more or less as a fugitive from the police—not from justice, just the police. They were furious at what he had been writing, and in addition there was some trouble over a brawl that a friend of Twain’s had got into. Twain thought it prudent to leave the city for a couple of months. That was in December, 1864. He went to Angel’s Camp in Calaveras County, where he did a little gold mining and listened to the old miners spin yarns. In his notebook for that period, we find one of these yarns summarized: “Coleman with his jumping frog—bet stranger $50—stranger had no frog, and C. got him one:—in the meantime stranger filled C’s frog full of shot and he couldn’t jump. The stranger’s frog won.” After Twain’s return to San Francisco, Artemus Ward, who was in town on a visit, suggested he ought to submit something to one of the eastern publications; so Twain wrote this anecdote up in tall-tale style and sent it off. It was printed in the Saturday Press on November 18, 1865. It was his first work to appear in a national publication, and it immediately made his name. The nation’s fancy was tickled by this drawling tale of the famous jumping frog.
For a writer there are apt to be two places that have a special importance in his life. One is the place where he was brought up and formed the impressions that, in various guises, will be the basic material he will draw on. The other is the place where he first discovers his vocation. For Twain this place was San Francisco; it was here that he came to the realization, comparatively late in life, that he was not really going to be a river-boat pilot or a printer or a miner or any of the other things he had tried. What he was going to be was a writer.
Twain left San Francisco about a year after the publication of “The Jumping Frog.” During his two and a half years in San Francisco his work had grown surer and also broader in scope. “All the rest of Mark Twain’s books are embryonic in what he had written by December, 1866, when he went east,” Bernard De Voto observed. “These casual pieces outline the future: the humorist, the social satirist, the pessimist, the novelist of American character, Mark Twain exhilarated, sentimental, cynical, angry, and depressed, all are here. The rest is only development.”