Mark Twain’s San Francisco

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Just before he left, Twain had also discovered what was to be his second vocation—lecturing. He gave the first lecture of his life before a paying audience. It took place in Maguire’s Academy of Music on October 2, 1866. Those who have read Twain’s account of this debut in Roughing It should take with a grain of salt his story of how surprised he was that anyone showed up at the hall on the evening of the lecture. As Paul Fatout has established in his recent book, Mark Twain on the Lecture Circuit , Twain must have been fully aware that the house had been sold out for days in advance. He was, after all, one of San Francisco’s favorite characters. The city’s populace went to the hall that evening expecting to have a good time—and they did.

In 1868 Twain, having made a trip to Europe and the Holy Land with a shipload of American tourists as part of the first chartered pleasure cruise ever made, returned to San Francisco once more to revise and expand the letters he had written, while enroute, for the daily Alta California . In two months of concentrated effort, working nightly from midnight to past daybreak, he turned these letters into the book he called Innocents Abroad —his first full-length work. An instant success, this book sold more copies than had any other American work except Uncle Tom’s Cabin . So he had struck at last, here in the West, the bonanza he had dreamed about!

With that, Twain left San Francisco for good. Two years later Bret Harte, then at the very peak of his fame, also migrated east. Harte’s progress across the country on this journey excited, according to Twain, “such a prodigious blaze of national interest and excitement that one might have supposed he was the Viceroy of India on a progress, or Halley’s comet come again after seventy-five years of lamented absence.” Harte was not able to sustain his success, though, and thereafter his course was downward. His works are not read now, not like Twain’s; but he has survived too, in an unexpected way. His legacy is the western—story and film—which in sentiment and stereotypes of character is the direct descendant of Bret Harte’s tales of the Sierra Nevadas.

Many of the lesser literary figures left San Francisco around this time as well. There remained Henry George, to whom, the next epoch of the city’s history belongs, and Ambrose Bierce, who sardonically announced that he intended to stay here and refine the styles of such journalists as he could, and assassinate those he couldn’t. It was not until the end of the century, when Jack London and Frank Norris appeared on the scene, that San Francisco was to experience anywhere near so stimulating a literary era as it had known when Mark Twain lived and wrote there.