Mark Twain In Paradise

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On Sunday morning, March 18, 1866, the steamer A jay. sailed into Honolulu Harbor while the bells of six different mission churches called the freshly converted faithful to worship. Among the passengers most eager to go ashore was a thirty-one-year-old knockabout journalist named Samuel Clemens, on assignment for the Sacramento Union . Mark Twain would later make the Mississippi immortal, but first Hawaii would make him famous. He spent four months and a day exploring the islands and sent back twenty-five dispatches (at twenty dollars each), recounting all that he had seen and heard. Fresh from the grime and clamor of the California mining camps, he was enraptured by the lush, silent Hawaiian landscape and was alternately amused and fascinated by the ^l native Hawaiians and the missionaries, planters, whalers, and hangers-on already seeking to displace them. Compared with his later works, the letters from the Sandwich Islands are crude, repetitive, and overwritten, but they are also filled with his inexhaustible love of the absurd and his sharp eye for detail, and—polished up and tightly edited—they form a major part of his first book, Roughing It , published six years after his return to the mainland. By that time he had delivered a humorous lecture on Hawaii—sometimes billed as “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands”—before packed houses from San Francisco to Keokuk to Manhattan. Most of the selections on the following pages are from Roughing It . The pictures that accompany them were made by two of the first cameramen to photograph the islands. Both, like Clemens, had done their first important work in California. Hugo Stangenwald came to Hawaii in 1853 and became the island’s most prestigious daguerreotypist: he was the first to learn precisely how to cope with the startling clarity of Hawaiian light, and he roamed the islands making portraits and landscapes, eventually winning the eager patronage of th royal family. In 1858, at the height of his popularity, Stangenwald abandoned the camera to study medicine. Charles Leander Weed arrived with his brother James in 1865: six years earlier he had become the first man to photograph the wonders of the Yosemite Valley. His large, crisp Hawaiian views were an instant success, and when the Weed brothers moved on to set up a Hong Kong gallery a few months later, a local newspaper hailed them as “the most worthy and skillful artists in the Pacific, if not the world.” Together, Mark Twain’s prose and the pictures of Stangenwald and Weed offer a portrait in miniature of our fiftieth state when it was still an exotic kingdom and, as Twain wrote, “paradise for an indolent man.”

 
 
 
 

The chief pride of Maui is her dead volcano of Haleakala—which means, translated, “The House of the Sun.” We climbed a thousand feet up the side of this isolated colossus one afternoon; then camped, and next day climbed the remaining nine thousand feet, and anchored on the summit, where we built a fire and froze and roasted by turns all night. With the first pallor of dawn we got up and saw things that were new to us. Mounted on a commanding pinnacle, we watched Nature work her silent wonders. The sea was spread abroad on every hand, its tumbled surface seeming only wrinkled and dimpled in the distance. A broad valley below appeared like an ample checkerboard, its velvety-green sugar plantations alternating with dun squares of barrenness and groves of trees diminished to mossy tufts. Beyond the valley were mountains picturesquely grouped together; but bear in mind, we fancied that we were looking up at these things—not down. We seemed to sit in the bottom of a symmetrical bowl ten thousand feet deep, with the valley and the skirting sea lifted away into the sky above us! It was curious; and not only curious, but aggravating; for it was having our trouble all for nothing, to climb ten thousand feet toward heaven and then have to look up at our scenery. However, we had to be content with it and make the best of it; for all we could do we could not coax our landscape down out of the clouds.…