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Twain's most chilling time was a fall in San Francisco
Tuesday, February 3, 2004 ©2004 San Francisco Chronicle
Sometime in 1866, probably in his lodgings at the Occidental Hotel
near Sutter and Montgomery, an impecunious freelance journalist named
Samuel Clemens put a pistol to his head. We know this, or think we do,
because of a marginal note he scribbled into a book the year before he
died under his other name, Mark Twain.
What we don't know is why he came so close to suicide in San
Francisco in 1866, or why, thank God, he came no closer.
After even a haphazard study of all the Twain material hitting
bookstore shelves lately, the wonder isn't that Twain almost punched his
own ticket. The wonder is that he claims to have considered it only
Twain is much in the air these days, but when isn't he? This April
will see the publication from UC Press of "Dangerous Intimacy: The
Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years," by Karen Lystra, whose sound
academic bona fides at Cal State Fullerton tend to belie that rather
spicy title. Recent months have also brought the California Legacy
Project's tasty reissue of "Mark Twain's San Francisco" by Bernard Taper
from Heyday Books and Santa Clara University, and a decent if
unremarkable new biography, Fred Kaplan's "The Singular Mark Twain."
In addition, the redoubtable Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley has
been throwing open the sluice gates lately, releasing both a revised
scholarly edition of "Huckleberry Finn" and the overlooked play '"Is He
Dead?" in late 2003. They've also just begun republishing several
volumes of Twain's letters over the next couple of years in e-book form.
(An unreconstructed technophile who nearly bankrupted himself trying to
patent a typesetting contraption, Twain would have loved that.)
In the case of any other writer, one would see all this activity
and immediately smell a centenary. For Twain, a notably unround 94 years
after his death, half a dozen books in as many months amounts to little
more than business as usual. Type "Twain" into Amazon and sort by
publication date, and the titles roll out from here to 2015.
How to get a handle on such profusion? One answer -- perhaps
counterintuitive for America's greatest humorist, perhaps not -- may be
to zero in on Twain's lifelong preoccupation with death. A cheerful
approach it isn't, but a careful scrutiny of Twain's life and career
discloses a man fascinated with suicide, murder, funerals, wakes,
corpses, damnation and reincarnation to a degree well beyond mere
morbidity. Rumors of Mark Twain's obsession with death cannot possibly
Ultimately, of course, death is one of the few things we all have
in common. However, Twain survived a youth more shadowed by mortality
than many, and they were deaths of a particularly immediate and grisly
Not only did his forbidding father, Judge Clemens, die of pneumonia
when Twain was 11, but Twain is said to have witnessed the autopsy
through a keyhole. Not only was he at his "sinless" brother Henry's
bedside as he lay dying after a steamboat explosion, but Twain would
forever blame himself for getting Henry his fateful job on board.
In both cases, guilt sharpened Twain's bereavement. Whether all
sons occasionally wish their fathers dead is one for the Freudians to
sort out, but Twain had more excuse for wishing it than most. And Twain
had argued himself ashore in a dispute with Henry's captain days before
the steamboat explosion, thereby ensuring a portion of survivor's guilt
to go along with the oedipal kind.
Death and laughter
Sometimes it's hard to understand how Twain got out of adolescence
with any sense of humor at all, never mind one that eventually cracked
up half the world, and still convulses legions daily. The mistake here
would be to forget that Twain's humor is probably what got him through
these traumas in the first place.
Another, deeper error would be to suppose that comedy and death are
in any way antithetical. We tend to think of black comedy as a postwar
phenomenon that came in with Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, but
writers like those would have been lost without Twain's example.
Even before Twain, comedy was never all cross-dressing and cream
pies. Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata," the earliest surviving comedy
ever to succeed at longer than skit length, takes place in the middle of
thePeloponnesian War. So it shouldn't surprise us that, throughout
Twain's entire corpus, laughter isn't just a palliative to death and
dying, but their ubiquitous familiar.
The most intrepid, Post-It-equipped critic, were he fool enough to
try flagging every reference to death in Twain's work, would cause an
uptick in 3M's price-to-earnings ratio long before he ever came near
finishing the job. Still, just to refresh the case, consider a few
examples. There's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," an
ostensible children's book that ends in a scene of Jacobean slaughter,
in which the hero brings to bear all the mayhem of 19th century ordnance
on a comparatively defenseless medieval army. There's the
just-rediscovered play, "Is He Dead?,'' which concerns a struggling
painter's scheme to inflate the value of his work by faking his own
demise. And there are all of Twain's countless aphorisms on the subject,
of which a personal favorite remains, "Let us endeavor to live so that
when we come to die, even the undertaker is sorry."
But the uncanniest evidence for Twain's fixation on mortal matters
is simply this: that in his two most enduring books, "The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn" and its habitually underrated junior partner, "The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer," both title characters essentially attend
their own funerals. Tom lucks into his version of this perennial
childhood fantasy, while Huck characteristically takes matters into his
own hands. Inadvertently presumed dead, Tom sneaks back into town and
has the archetypally delicious experience of secretly watching family,
friends and sweetheart all cry their eyes out for him. Huck, on the
other hand, deliberately fakes his own death to escape his father -- who
soon afterward, in a scene terrifying enough even for readers who don't
know about Twain's brother, turns up dead aboard "a steamboat that had
killed herself on a rock."
To paraphrase Ian Fleming: Once is happenstance, but twice is enemy
action. For Twain to use this scenario twice attests to the spell it
always held over him. That he could use it to create two such different
moods -- the one robustly comic, the other "powerful lonesome" -- only
confirms his incomparable gift.
The Sierra-born writer and Twain scholar David Carkeet, author of
the uproarious Twain-reincarnating novel "I Been There Before,"
elaborated on the idea of Twain's preoccupation with mortality in a
recent e-mail: "I too have always been struck by the fact that the same
scene is more or less repeated in those two books -- witnessing the
mourning attending one's death. In Tom's case it's a brash and
egotistical enjoyment of the moment, whereas Huck experiences a somber
consequence of his faked death, and that difference captures the
essential difference between the two boys. As I recall, Huck doesn't
even observe sadness in the faces of the people on the riverboat looking
for his body -- just curiosity. That's life, it all seems to say.
"These two scenes make me think of Clemens' brother Henry's death
from a steamboat explosion, for which Twain blamed himself, as he was
quick to do all the time. ... Henry was the family favorite (probably
irksome to Sam), and the family grief was mighty. Sam conceivably
coveted the tears, and then vicariously got them for himself through the
main characters in those two books."
All of which leads us back to the image of Twain at 31, holed up in
his room at the Occidental. Was he imagining his funeral too? Was he
consoling himself with visions of friends unstrung with grief, of
previously aloof maidens professing their love too late?
Nobody knows. All we have to go on is Twain's marginal reference to
the year 1866. In "The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California,"
author Nigey Lennon doubts even that, giving the date a "[sic]" and
suggesting that Twain is misremembering a low ebb from 1864, just after
he left the San Francisco Morning Call's employ.
Hardly any scholars have attempted to pin Twain down as to exactly
when in 1866 he contemplated suicide, possibly because academic caution
discourages most guesswork that is unsusceptible to proof.
Laboring under no such compunction, I'd put the incident with the
pistol sometime in the fall -- after his return from Hawaii in
mid-August but before Oct. 2, when his first public lecture drew a
rapturous reception and led to his first speaking tour.
Why September? Because, to employ a bit of circular reasoning, the
evidence is scarce to the point of incrimination. The Mark Twain
Project's definitive edition of his correspondence admits that, from
Aug. 25, "No letters are known to survive for the next two months."
Other sources echo this frustrating sense of September 1866 as a
comparative black hole in the available record. We have little in the
way of contemporary sources beyond a couple of press clippings whose
dates of composition are uncertain, some horse- racing stuff datelined
Sacramento, and Twain's extravagantly morose journal entry upon his
return to San Francisco from Hawaii: "Home again. No -- not home again
-- in prison again, and all the wild sense of freedom gone. The city
seems so cramped and so dreary with toil and care and business anxiety.
God help me, I wish I were at sea again!" In a state like that, who'd
feel up to writing letters?
More tellingly, Twain's authorized biographer writes that "Clemens
once declared he had been so blue at this period that one morning he put
a loaded pistol to his head, but found he lacked courage to pull the
In context, "this period" refers implicitly to the interval between
Hawaii and Twain's first lecture. If we accept September 1866 as the
logical month for Twain's flirtation with self-murder, the next question
becomes why. Not penury because his Hawaii dispatches had left him
uncharacteristically flush. Too much fog, after a summer in the tropics?
Without belaboring the suicide angle, most scholars suggest a depression
triggered by Twain's return to the grind of penny journalism, compounded
by homesickness, and aggravated by published mockery from a few old
Then there was the wreck of the Hornet.
Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Twain made one of his first big
splashes as a reporter with an account of survival at sea. He brought
back from Hawaii an exclusive about the Ferguson brothers, who together
with their shipmates from the disabled Hornet presented a story replete
with disaster, cannibalism and unsurpassed courage. Twain soon sold it
to Harper's and earned his first byline in a national magazine, but the
triumph was undercut by a cruel typo. As Twain ruefully recounts in "My
Debut as a Literary Person," the piece was credited to "Mike Swain." An
industrious few have speculated that the misprint was intentional and
Twain's own because the article was so atypical of the sort of writing
he hoped to do.
There's another factor at work, though, one surely touched on
somewhere in the literature, if nowhere I've yet found. It's this: One
of the shipwrecked Ferguson brothers died in August, shortly after
arriving at San Francisco with Twain. Such a cruel stroke would have
been rough enough on Twain, who'd transcribed the young man's story and
stood to profit from it, at least indirectly. On top of everything,
Twain already had his own nightmarish memories of shipboard gore. But
there's one other element that Twain leaves strangely unmentioned, a
coincidence that he'd be sure to notice even if no one else did. You
could look it up: The Ferguson brothers' names were Henry and Sam.
Spooky? Definitely. Deranging, either by itself or in concert with
other emotional reagents? Not so fast.
Letters and journals are hard enough to come by 140 years down the
road; feelings leave even fewer traces. In the end, we're left mainly
with Twain's own marginalia to go on, quoted here at last: "I put the
pistol to my head but wasn't man enough to pull the trigger. Many times
I have been sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed of having
tried. Suicide is the only really sane thing the young or old ever do in
Spoken like a man too self-aware ever to disavow completely his own
actions -- or inactions. It's precisely this long, forgiving memory that
enabled Twain to write about childhood without ever condescending to it.
Whether fantasizing his own funeral at 10 or contemplating suicide
at 30, Twain seems to say, I did both and don't apologize. I'm not any
smarter just because I'm older, but I'm only older because I didn't
When Twain put the pistol to his head that day in San Francisco, he
couldn't know that he was holding the future of American literature at
gunpoint. No man in that position ever knows just how much one bullet
can wing. As always, best not to chance it.
E-mail David Kipen at [log in to unmask]
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