The Adventures of Mark Twain: How He Launched a Literary Career in Hawai‘i
We recount Mark Twain’s adventures in the Islands as a young rascal, 150 years ago, and the impact that Hawai‘i had on the rest of his career.
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A young Mark Twain, photographed in 1867, the year after he visited Hawai‘i, and before his reddish-brown hair transformed into the silvery white most people think of today.
Photo: Courtesy of Library of congress
Mark Twain stood on the deck of the Warrimo as O‘ahu came into view.
“On the seventh day out we saw a dim vast bulk standing up out of the wastes of the Pacific and knew that that spectral promontory was Diamond Head, a piece of this world which I had not seen before for twenty-nine years,” Twain wrote. “So we were nearing Honolulu, the capital city of the Sandwich Islands—those islands which to me were Paradise; a Paradise which I had been longing all those years to see again. Not any other thing in the world could have stirred me as the sight of that great rock did.”
The year was 1895. Twain was 69. We can imagine the great author and lecturer on deck—mop of white hair blowing in the trade winds, shaggy mustache drooping over his mouth, taking a couple puffs on one of the cigars that seemed to always be clamped between his teeth. It was sunset.
“The vast plain of the sea was marked off in bands of sharply-contrasted colors: great stretches of dark blue, others of purple, others of polished bronze; the billowy mountains showed all sorts of dainty browns and greens, blues and purples and blacks, and the rounded velvety backs of certain of them made one want to stroke them, as one would the sleek back of a cat.”
Unfortunately, the visit was not to be, even after a week’s sail from Vancouver, British Columbia. The Warrimo arrived too late in the day to tie up at Honolulu Harbor, and a cholera outbreak closed the harbor the following day. “Thus suddenly did my dream of twenty-nine years go to ruin,” Twain wrote in Following the Equator. “My lecture-hall was ready, but I was not to see that, either.”
It was a crushing disappointment for Twain, who for years had yearned to return to Hawai‘i after his first visit in 1866. Although he traveled extensively in his 74 years of life—35 countries, in a time when travel meant stagecoach and steam engines and sailboats—he never stopped waxing poetic about Hawai‘i, in letters and speeches and books and newspaper articles. He even talked of moving. “What I have always longed for was the privilege of living forever away up on one of those mountains in the Sandwich Islands overlooking the sea,” he wrote a friend.
Honolulu as it appeared in the mid-1800s, when Mark Twain visited.
Photo: Courtesy of the Hawai‘i State Archives
When Mark Twain first arrived in Honolulu in 1866, he wasn’t the Mark Twain the world knows and loves today. Heck, he was barely even Mark Twain. A short four months before, Samuel Clemens published a short story about a frog under a fairly new pseudonym, one that harkened back to his riverboat pilot days. The San Francisco Alta took note, writing, “Mark Twain’s story in the Saturday Press of November 18th, called ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,’ has set all New York in a roar, and he may be said to have made his mark …”
Twain fled San Francisco as a 30-year-old bachelor, drinking and cavorting, barely keeping his head above financial disaster. It had been a tumultuous few years for him as a reporter for a string of newspapers, first in Nevada and then California, where he railed against the drudgery of daily deadlines and stodgy editors who, in a growing trend since the Civil War, actually wanted him to report stories that didn’t just ring true but contained the actual facts of things. “I do not know what to write; my life is so uneventful,” Twain moaned in a letter to his mother in Missouri six weeks before departing for Hawai‘i. “I wish I was back there piloting up and down the river again.”
This was all before Tom and Huck and the white suit for which Twain would become famous. But he did possess the wild tangle of hair we’ve seen over the years on dozens of book covers—only it was reddish-brown. He had the gait, too, a shuffle many confused for drunkenness. And cigars. That lifelong habit was well-entrenched when Twain took his first stroll through downtown Honolulu—practically straight for The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, whose publisher, Henry M. Whitney, later reported that, when Twain was around, at least a box of cigars a week disappeared.