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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Photos: Courtesy of the hawai‘i state archives
Twain was in Hawai‘i stringing for the Sacramento Union, receiving $20 for each travel letter he sent back to the continent by way of ship’s mail, but he made himself perfectly at home in the offices of Whitney, who later wrote, “I became quite attached to the stranger, who proved to be Mark Twain—a nom de plume then hardly known beyond the border of California, as he was just beginning his literary career.”
In all, the Sacramento Union published 25 of Twain’s dispatches—business reports on the prospects of whaling, sugar, and other commerce; cultural criticisms of Hawai‘i’s government, religion, and funereal practices; and humorous anecdotes about cats and horses and mosquitoes. Newspapers reprinted them up and down the West Coast, and readers relished comments like, “At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen.”
If Twain’s life was boring just a few weeks before, all that changed in Hawai‘i. He did the usual things one does when visiting Hawai‘i: He climbed Diamond Head. He tried surfing, unsuccessfully. He witnessed the “lascivious hula hula.” He sampled poi. On Maui, he watched the sunrise over Haleakalā. Then, he went to Hawai‘i Island where he fell under Pele’s spell at Kīlauea, of which he later wrote for the Union, “The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky.”
Twain kept so busy that he wound up bedridden with saddle sores from all the riding he did on mule- and horseback. But he also spent a lot of time just hanging out. He’d arrived in Hawai‘i with a pocketful of introductory letters that he fanned like a royal flush of cards wherever he went.
Twain’s letters got him stays with prominent families throughout the Islands, including Samuel G. Wilder at Kualoa Ranch on O‘ahu, where, according to family lore, Twain’s language was so shocking that the ears of then 5-year-old Laura Wilder Wight were stuffed with cotton. While on Hawai‘i Island, Twain and a traveling companion spent a night at Frederick Schwartz Lyman’s home. Later, Lyman wrote, “They enjoyed the supper very much and seemed very grateful for our hospitality. After supper they laid themselves out to entertain us, especially Mr. C with his slow drawling way. He kept us in roars of laughter.”
Whereas Twain’s recent experiences in California and Nevada had included landlords demanding rent money, run-ins with miners and arrests by police, in Hawai‘i, it seems Twain, for all his peculiarities, was well liked. What’s more, Twain had fun. He expected to “ransack the Islands” for one month. He stayed four.
But it’s not just what happened to Twain while he was in Hawai‘i that gave the place its favorable sheen. Throughout his life, Hawai‘i trailed Twain like a favorite cat.
Within two months of returning to San Francisco, Twain rented Maguire’s Academy of Music for $50. He printed handbills and ran advertisements in local newspapers for his first-ever lecture, titled, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.”
At the time, there was a long tradition of the lecture circuit happening on the Mainland. “It was the MTV and radio and movies rolled together,” says James Caron, professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i. He is the author of a book on Twain’s early career, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter.
And Twain killed it. He detailed how the cats in Hawai‘i have no tails. The snakes have no teeth. How the women wear simple dresses. The men wear nothing at all. He called the language of the Islands a “Sunday” one. Good for the Sabbath but no good for the rest of the week, because there were no words for swearing.
Newspaper reviews the next day hailed his performance a “brilliant success,” and Twain immediately decided to take his show on the road. “In October, 1866, I broke out as a lecturer,” Twain said, “and from that day to this I have always been able to gain my living without doing any work.”
According to Caron, the Hawai‘i lectures set the national stage for Twain’s comic genius. Twain estimated he gave a version of it some 150 times.
Weeks later, Twain made what he would later call his “debut as a literary person” when a prominent East Coast magazine, Harper’s Monthly, ran his story about 15 sailors who’d spent 43 days in an open boat on 10 days’ rations after their ship, the Hornet, burned near the equator. (Read more about that story in our upcoming July issue.) The men had washed ashore during Twain’s visit, giving him access to interviews and their personal journals. Twain had already published extensively in West Coast newspapers, and just the year before his Jumping Frog story had published in a small East Coast journal. But, in his mind, those didn’t count. They weren’t literary enough. Harper’s, most certainly, did count.