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Mark Twain’s San Francisco

July 2024
15min read

Sam Clemens, jack of many trades, hit the big town in 1864. Two years later, his true vocation discovered, he strode upon the national scene as Mark Twain

During the 1860’s a literary movement of considerable force and originality flourished in that boisterous, gaudy, nouveau riche metropolis of the frontier, San Francisco. Gathered here were Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Henry George, and a number of lesser lights, such as the flamboyant Joaquin Miller. Their activities produced one of the most exciting of American provincial rebellions.

The rebellion, an unconscious one for the most part, was against the proper Bostonian standards and taste which ruled literature in the East. Those exquisite, constrictive standards could hardly cope with the raw, lusty material of life in San Francisco and the frontier region it served as metropolis. Imagine Henry James trying to make a story out of a contest between two jumping frogs! Of necessity, the whole San Francisco experience was one that was almost bound to appall a Beacon Hill brahmin. Clarence King, a member of the Henry Adams circle, visited San Francisco about this time and sniffed that it struck him as “a monument to California’s march from barbarism to vulgarity.” The quality of life in the East then was imitation Victorian. That of San Francisco’s West was closer to the Elizabethan in its vigor, forthrightness, ribaldry, its acceptance of violence and excess of every sort, its excitement over the new prospects being daily unfolded, and its crude, undisguised interest in sheer wealth. San Francisco’s experience profoundly stirred the nation’s imagination and affected its outlook.

The most important of these writers of the sixties to us now, of course, is Twain. San Francisco and the Far West were important to Twain, too—just how important has perhaps not been sufficiently recognized. It was here, after trying one thing and another—typesetting, riverboat piloting, a brief spell of soldiering, mining—that he entered upon his real vocation. All along he had been “scribbling,” as he put it, but here in the Far West he became a writer, the kind of writer that he was to be. Here, in actual fact, Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain.

He came to the Far West in 1861, accompanying his brother Orion, who had been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. After about two and a half years in that mining country, that extraordinary wasteland in which almost nothing grew except great quantities of silver and gold, he moved to San Francisco. That was in May, 1864, when he was twenty-eight.

Only fifteen years previously, when the Gold Rush began, San Francisco had been an obscure hamlet of a few hundred people. Now it teemed with a population of 115,000, whose dominant characteristics were vigor, resourcefulness, and boundless optimism. It could boast a score of newspapers, an academy of natural sciences, six theatres, some fine hotels and excellent restaurants, forty-one churches, and about ten times that many saloons.

"I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union,” he later wrote in Roughing It . “After the sage-brush and alkali deserts of Washoe, San Francisco was Paradise to me.” By this time he was no stranger to the city. For about a year he had been contributing occasional articles to its pioneer literary journal, the Golden Era , and for a couple of years the broadly humorous and prankish pieces he had been doing as city editor of Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise had received wide circulation in San Francisco. From the very start of his writing in the West he had been addressing a San Francisco audience. In effect, Virginia City in those days was San Francisco’s “mining suburb.” To make the more than two-hundred-mile journey across the Sierras was practically commuting for a good many people, whether business or pleasure was their bent. In the year before he settled in San Francisco Twain made the trip numerous times. He wrote in a letter to his mother that when he visited San Francisco he tell as much at home on Montgomery Street as he did on Main Street back in Hannibal.

It was as Samuel Clemens that he had arrived in Nevada, and he was still not quite Mark Twain when he came on to San Francisco. That pen name—probably the most famous in the history of literature and the one that feels to us now the most apt, somehow, the most “right"—he had adopted just the year before (it first appeared in print February 2, 1863) in Virginia City, where pseudonyms were the thing among the local columnists. It still sat new on him; he hadn’t really broken it in yet. By the time he left San Francisco a few years later, he wore the name most naturally; it had become one that fitted not only the writing that developed here but his personality as well.

He had, as yet, submitted nothing to a national publication. Despite the favor his writing had already begun to win with the local audience, he doesn’t seem to have been particularly set on a writer’s career at the time he took up residence in San Francisco. His simple ambition in those days was to become a millionaire in a day or two—an ambition he shared with just about every other San Franciscan, nearly all of whom, like him, were engaged in mining speculations. “Speculation went mad,” he recalls. “Bankers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, laborers, even the very washerwomen and servant-girls, were putting up their earnings on silver stocks, and every sun that rose in the morning went down on paupers enriched and rich men beggared. What a gambling carnival it was!” In anticipation of the wealth that would be his as soon as he chose to cash in his stocks, Twain at first lived in millionaire style at the Lick House and the Occidental Hotel. And then—well, let Twain tell it: “And then—all of a sudden, out went the bottom and everything and everybody went to ruin and destruction! The wreck was complete. The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it. I was an early beggar and a thorough one. My hoarded stocks were not worth the paper they were printed on. I threw them all away.”

This was just one bubble of many which, during this and the succeeding epoch, inflated enchantingly and then burst with a damp pop in San Francisco.

So Twain had to go to work after all. He took a job as a reporter on the Call , as the entire reportorial staff, in fact. It was fearful drudgery. All day he used to “rake the town from end to end,” looking for news, and at night had to visit the six theatres one after another, getting only the merest glimpse of the plays and operas he had to report on. Around eleven at night he sat down to write up these gleanings, doing his best, as he recalled later in his posthumously published memoirs, to make them “cover as much acreage as I could.”

During his months on the Call Twain remembered doing only one story with spontaneous enthusiasm. He saw some Irish hoodlums stoning a Chinese laundryman tor fun one day, while a policeman looked on with amused interest—and Twain went back to the office and wrote this scene down, no doubt in outraged fashion. The next clay, for the first time, he opened the paper eagerly to look for his story. It was not to be seen. When he went to the paper’s owner, Mr. Barnes, and asked why the story had been killed, Barnes replied that the Call was like the New York Sun of that clay, the paper of the poor. As Twain recalled later, Barnes said that “It gathered its livelihood from the poor, and we must respect their prejudices or perish. The Irish were the poor . . . and they hated the Chinamen.” It was an incident that reveals much about the state of things in San Francisco, at that time and for decades afterward, in regard to the Chinese. Twain often alluded to it indignantly in later life. Yet he himself, when he first came to San Francisco, had been capable of playing such crude jokes on the Chinese as dropping beer bottles from the window of his California Street lodgings onto the tin roofs of their shacks below, just for the fun of seeing them run out into the street in fright. That incident, by the way, is one that Twain does not recall in his memoirs.

The best thing about the Call for Twain was its location—in the same building as the United States Mint. Whenever Twain could find the time, he would go down to the second floor and hobnob with the secretary of the Superintendent of the Mint, who was none other than Bret Harte. The two men were about the same age, but Harte was already an established literary figure. Twain naturally deferred to him, and though very different in personality and appearance—Harte elegant and dandified, Twain with his disorderly mop of hair, drawling speech, and slouched stance—they got along well in those years. Harte had formerly been a compositor, like Twain, and his first connection with the Golden Era had been as a printer. It amused Twain to hear Harte tell of how he used to write his first stories for that journal directly in type, much to the puzzlement of the Era ’s, editor, upon whose desk these stories, which he had never seen in manuscript, would suddenly appear as galleys of type. They used to discuss their writing trade as well, and Twain credits Harte’s advice on style as having been helpful. In later years, as Twain’s star rose and Harte’s declined, the two men fell out. “I think he was incapable of emotion,” Twain wrote in his memoirs, “for I think he had nothing to feel with. . . . He said to me once with a cynical chuckle that he thought he had mastered the art of pumping up the tear of sensibility. The idea conveyed was that the tear of sensibility was oil, and that by luck he had struck it.”

After a few months Twain was fired by the Call—a not surprising development in view of Twain’s lack of interest in its style and policy, but still one that rankled. He was broke. “For two months,” he recalls, “my sole occupation was avoiding acquaintances . . . I became very adept at ‘slinking.’ ” Soon, though, he began to write for other journals—the Golden Era , the Californian , the Sacramento Union , the Daily Dramatic Chronicle —and to contribute regular letters on San Francisco to the Territorial Enterprise .

In these signed pieces he could let himself go as he hadn’t been able to do on the Call . In them, the San Francisco of the sixties comes alive and kicking, with all its verve and foibles and delights and pretensions. All sorts of aspects, large and small, came under Twain’s amused scrutiny—fashions, politics, theatre critics, rival newspapers, opera, prize fights, spiritualism. He wrote up an opera performance in the solemn style of a music critic—the difference being that what Twain reviewed was the performance of the furniture mover. ("I was particularly impressed by the able manner in which Signer Bellindo Alphonso Cellini, the accomplished bass-relievo furniture scout and sofa shifter, performed his part.")

He parodied the fashion writers and the city’s social set in his reports on the Lick House and Pioneer balls. “The fan used by Mrs. B. was of real palm-leaf and cost four thousand dollars—the handle alone cost six bits. Her head dress was composed of white chantilly lace, surmounted by a few artificial worms, and butterflies and things, and a tasteful tarantula done in jet.” And he lovingly described the easy grace with which one of the guests at the Pioneer Ball blew her nose: her manner of doing so “marked her as a cultivated and accomplished woman of the world; its exquisitely modulated tone excited the admiration of all who had the happiness to hear it.” As for the new style of hoop skirts, that merited a whole article, from which we learn that, “to critically examine these hoops—to get the best effect—one should stand on the corner of Montgomery and look up a steep street like Clay or Washington ... It reminds me of how I used to peep under circus tents when I was a boy and see a lot of mysterious legs about with no visible bodies attached to them. And what handsome vari-colored garters they wear now-adays!”

The ladies of fashionable South Park were shocked and infuriated by such impertinent observations, but at places like the Bank Exchange bar, where the gentlemen of the town gathered to drink Pisco punch, exchange good talk, and admire the luscious painting of Samson and Delilah above the bar, there were roars of laughter. (Twain, in another of his articles, carefully describes this “magnificent picture” that adorned the Bank Exchange and tells how the carping stranger who comes in invariably says, after taking one look at the painting, “Them scissors is too modern—there warn’t no scissors like that in them days, by a d—d sight.")

All sorts of characters swim into Twain’s kenminers, millionaires, actors, bill collectors, notables, bums. He is on easy terms with them all. In the Turkish bath in the Montgomery Block he even met a man named Tom Sawyer, with whom he liked playing penny ante. Long afterward this man enjoyed the conviction that it was he who inspired Twain’s famous book, and outside of a tavern he acquired near Third and Mission he proudly hung the sign: “ALE AND SPIRITS! THE ORIGINAL TOM SAWYER: PROP.”

Twain had the gift of gaiety and delight, and this quality is communicated even when he is being ostensibly misanthropic, as, for instance, in his account of a trip he let himself be persuaded to take out to the Cliff House at four o’clock in the morning, at which time, according to the friend who persuaded him, the road would not be crowded and nature would be at its most pristine and bracing. Twain prefaces this piece with an epigraph, which goes:

“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."— Benjamin Franklin

“I don’t see it."— George Washington

“No,” Twain writes, “the road was not encumbered by carriages—we had it all to ourselves. I suppose the reason was, that most people do not like to enjoy themselves too much, and therefore they do not go out to the Cliff House in the cold and the fog and the dead silence and solitude of four o’clock in the morning.” The fog was so thick, he continues, that “we could not see the horse at all, and were obliged to steer by his ears, which stood up dimly out of the dense white mist that enveloped him. But for those friendly beacons, we must have been cast away and lost.” And once they got out there and the fog did lift, he found himself in no mood to enjoy any of the sights—not even the seals, “writhing and squirming like exaggerated maggots.” His moral is a simple one: “If you go to the Cliff House at any time after seven in the morning, you cannot fail to enjoy it.”

He himself did go on other occasions, which proved enjoyable and fruitful. It was there that he one day discovered Nature’s eternal law of compensation, which he formulated thus, in another of his articles: “Behold, the same gust of wind that blows a lady’s dress aside and exposes her ankle, fills your eyes so full of sand that you can’t see it.”

It is quite remarkable how much of the characteristic San Francisco experience Twain crowded into those two years in the city and how many of its abiding themes and phenomena appear in his writings—including even an earthquake. That occurred on October 8, 1865, and caught Twain as he was strolling along Third Street, enjoying the Sabbath peacefulness of the day. It was a sizable quake. It shook down the Merchants Exchange Building and badly damaged the City Hall. It did widespread minor damage as well: “Such another destruction of mantel ornaments and toilet bottles as the earthquake created, San Francisco never saw before,” Twain writes in Roughing It , and notes, “hardly an individual escaped nausea entirely.” Naturally, he set down the numerous curiosities the event produced. “A lady,” he writes, “sitting in her rocking and quaking parlor, saw the wall part at the ceiling, open and shut twice, like a mouth, and then drop the end of a brick on the floor like a tooth. She was a woman easily disgusted with foolishness, and she arose and went out of there.”

Because this earthquake took place around noon of a Sunday, it bred ecclesiastical anecdotes. Twain tells of the minister who, after the first shock, said to his congregation, “Keep your seats! There is no better place to die than this—” and who added, after the third shock, “But outside is good enough!” with which he skipped out the back door. As Twain related it, the hero of this anecdote was an Oakland minister. Oakland had already begun to fulfill its divine destiny as the butt of San Franciscans’ jokes.

Parody, burlesque, fantasy, the tall tale—these forms, which Twain was to employ all his life, even in his more serious works, are prominent in his San Francisco writings; and his deftness in their use was increasing. Exaggerated as many of the pieces are for humorous effect, one cannot but be constantly aware of Twain’s remarkable eye for detail and inimitable ear for the sound of ordinary talk. It was because he saw and heard so accurately that his burlesques and fantasies are as pleasing as they are. One might almost say that the first requirement for the writer of fantasy or other forms of exaggeration is an unusual sense of reality; without that the fantasy is bound to be insipid and unbelievable. For all the playful distortions, the San Francisco of that era comes through in Twain’s writings in a myriad of details which nobody else was noting.

The social satirist in Twain makes its appearance too in these days. The chief target for his moral indignation was the San Francisco police, whom he loathingly portrayed as lazy, stupid, brutal, callous, and corrupt. Probably the strongest satire he wrote in San Francisco was an article recounting the death in prison of a man who had been arrested for stealing seventy-five cents’ worth of flour sacks. The man had been dumped into a cell and left there, and none of the prison officials bothered to see if he was all right. If they looked in at him at all, Twain wrote bitingly, they probably thought there was nothing unusual about him and that the prisoner was merely “sleeping with that calm serenity which is peculiar to men whose heads have been caved in with a club.”

Such articles aroused much indignation. At one point Twain had to get out of San Francisco more or less as a fugitive from the police—not from justice, just the police. They were furious at what he had been writing, and in addition there was some trouble over a brawl that a friend of Twain’s had got into. Twain thought it prudent to leave the city for a couple of months. That was in December, 1864. He went to Angel’s Camp in Calaveras County, where he did a little gold mining and listened to the old miners spin yarns. In his notebook for that period, we find one of these yarns summarized: “Coleman with his jumping frog—bet stranger $50—stranger had no frog, and C. got him one:—in the meantime stranger filled C’s frog full of shot and he couldn’t jump. The stranger’s frog won.” After Twain’s return to San Francisco, Artemus Ward, who was in town on a visit, suggested he ought to submit something to one of the eastern publications; so Twain wrote this anecdote up in tall-tale style and sent it off. It was printed in the Saturday Press on November 18, 1865. It was his first work to appear in a national publication, and it immediately made his name. The nation’s fancy was tickled by this drawling tale of the famous jumping frog.

For a writer there are apt to be two places that have a special importance in his life. One is the place where he was brought up and formed the impressions that, in various guises, will be the basic material he will draw on. The other is the place where he first discovers his vocation. For Twain this place was San Francisco; it was here that he came to the realization, comparatively late in life, that he was not really going to be a river-boat pilot or a printer or a miner or any of the other things he had tried. What he was going to be was a writer.

Twain left San Francisco about a year after the publication of “The Jumping Frog.” During his two and a half years in San Francisco his work had grown surer and also broader in scope. “All the rest of Mark Twain’s books are embryonic in what he had written by December, 1866, when he went east,” Bernard De Voto observed. “These casual pieces outline the future: the humorist, the social satirist, the pessimist, the novelist of American character, Mark Twain exhilarated, sentimental, cynical, angry, and depressed, all are here. The rest is only development.”

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.

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