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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oahu hawaii

At the time of Twain’s visit, Kīlauea was as fiery and smoky as it is today.
Photo: Courtesy of the Hawai‘i State Archives 


And then there were the people with whom Twain stayed in touch long after his ship sailed back to San Francisco.


As chaplain of the American’s Seamen’s Friend Society, the Rev. Samuel C. Damon founded the Honolulu Sailor’s Home as a place where “no intoxicating liquors shall be drank on the premises,” and “no women of character admitted.” Not exactly the establishment in which one would expect to find the bohemian Twain, but apparently Twain was able to resist imbibing long enough to peruse Damon’s extensive library of books. 


“Father Damon wasn’t a stick-in-the-mud kind of guy,” Caron tells me. “He was minister to sailors, so he was probably used to the rough side of people, and he didn’t seem to mind whatever sort of rough edges Clemens brought with him.”


Twain and Damon became fast friends, the chaplain going so far as to allow Twain to cart a stash of books to his nearby lodgings for the late-night reading and writing sessions the scribbler was known to do. And when, in 1867, Twain published his first book, he sent an autographed copy to Damon. 


Another relationship Twain made during his visit, this one more political, was with a man who would later become king, David Kalākaua. In 1887, Twain’s publishing company printed Kalākaua’s The Legends and Myths of Hawai‘i, still in print and readily available in bookstores across Hawai‘i today.


In 1908, just two years before his death, the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee sent Twain a hand-carved koa mantelpiece for his new home in Connecticut. Twain installed the mantel in his favorite room, the billiard parlor, on his 73rd birthday, and in one of the thousands of letters Twain wrote throughout his life, he penned a thank you that included 10 simple words still quoted today, calling Hawai‘i “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.”


volcano house hawaii

While on the Big Island, Mark Twain stayed at Volcano House, which could be considered Hawai‘i’s first tourist hotel. The men here are unidentified.
PHOTO: COURTESY of the smithsonian


In a long life where twain often struggled to find emotional and financial security, the Hawaiian Islands came to represent something more than a one-time vacation destination. In a sense, Hawai‘i launched his career, both on the lecture circuit and in the literary world. In Hawai‘i, Twain formed lifelong friendships, both business and personal. And, perhaps, it was the very disappointment of 1895, the dream of returning to Hawai‘i and exploring the haunts of a young man so close to realization but thwarted, that wound Hawai‘i in Twain’s heart for good the way the cats about which Twain often wrote circle the legs of their rescuers.


“There was nothing for us to do but sit about the decks in the shade of the awnings and look at the distant shore,” Twain wrote from the Warrimo. “We lay in luminous blue water; shoreward the water was green-green and brilliant; at the shore itself it broke in a long white ruffle, and with no crash, no sound that we could hear. The town was buried under a mat of foliage that looked like a cushion of moss. The silky mountains were clothed in soft, rich splendors of melting color, and some of the cliffs were veiled in slanting mists. I recognized it all. It was just as I had seen it long before, with nothing of its beauty lost, nothing of its charm wanting.”



Author’s Note 

A 16-year resident of Hawai‘i, Kim Steutermann Rogers has been known to shadow scientists deep into rain forests and throughout uninhabited atolls in her quest to write about Hawai‘i’s endemic—and often endangered—flora and fauna. But lately, she’s been retracing the steps of long-dead Mark Twain in hopes of finding a missing journal she suspects America’s great literary scribbler left in Hawai‘i. If you have it or have heard any family stories about Mark Twain’s time in Hawai‘i, please contact her immediately at She says she’ll dedicate the book she’s writing about Twain’s relationship with the Islands to you. 


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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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