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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 9 Mar 2004 10:51:50 -0600
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The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Larry Howe.



Taper, Bernard. Ed. _Mark Twain's San Francisco_. Santa Clara, CA: Santa
Clara University, and Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2003. Pp. 264 + xxxii. Paper.
$14.95. ISBN 1-890771-69-4.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Larry Howe
Roosevelt University

Copyright (c) 2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

It has long been recognized, but perhaps somewhat forgotten, that Mark
Twain's career in journalism played an important role in his development as
a writer of literature. A number of collections of his journalistic
writings help to suggest ways in which his early pieces indicate the shape
of a career to come. The release of _Mark Twain and the Buffalo Express_
(1999), for example, is the latest in a line of books that focus on
portions of his journalism career. Bernard Taper's _Mark Twain's San
Francisco_ was a relatively early contribution of this sort, appearing
first in 1963. Its republication now is a welcome addition to this aspect
of Mark Twain studies.

There are at least two ways to read Taper's collection of Mark Twain's
California journalism. I suspect that most Twain fans may look to this
volume for material not in print elsewhere. Of the 83 entries, 24 pieces
appear in the two volumes of _Early Tales and Sketches_ from the Mark Twain
Project, only 15 appear in Louis Budd's two-volume edition of the
_Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays_. Two of the earliest
pieces in Taper's volume were reprinted in Henry Nash Smith's _Mark Twain
of the Enterprise_ (1957), another was reprinted in Edgar Branch's _Clemens
of the Call_ (1969), and a handful of these California pieces found their
way into a collection like _Sketches New and Old_. Still, over half have
appeared only in the first edition of Taper's volume. Although one might be
disappointed by the fact that there is no newly added material in this
edition--indeed, only a paragraph or two of the introduction has been
slightly amended; otherwise, the text of the first edition is reproduced in
its entirety, including the sketchy and sometimes sporadic
headnotes--having the volume back in print should please Twain scholars and
enthusiasts alike.

Anyone interested in tracking the source and development of the
characteristic sensibility found in Twain's later work will delight in "A
Complaint About Correspondents," in which Twain lays down "one brief,
solitary law for letter writing ... : Write only about things and people
your correspondent takes a living interest in"(240). Letters from home,
such as one from his Aunt Nancy, which report on the progress of the war
(two weeks after he has learned all that and more via overland telegraph
and the pony express) interlarded with chapters of Scripture, hold no
interest for him. By contrast, "[t]he most useful and interesting letters
... are from children seven or eight years old. This is the petrified
truth" (242). An admirable example is from a niece who not only includes
details about the people he wants to know about, but does so in the sort of
innocent rambling tone that characterizes Sociable Jimmy and Huckleberry
Finn. Indeed, his niece Annie reminds us of Huck by opening her letter with
the promise that, were he there, she could tell him about "Moses in the
Bulrushers again. I know it better now" (243).

Although Twain is known for his amassing of multiple fortunes in his later
life, somewhat different expectations are expressed in "A Graceful
Compliment" in which he marvels at receiving an income tax bill addressed
to him for the sum of $36.82 including penalty and warrant: "I am taxed on
my income! This is perfectly gorgeous! I never felt so important in my life
before. To be treated in this splendid way, just like another William B.
Astor! Gentlemen, we _must_ drink" (136). He goes on to describe the
impressive document ("as grand as a steamboat's manifest") which bears on
its other side "some happy blank verse headed 'Warrant'."  He provides a
sample of this "Ode," "equal to anything in Shakespeare: 'But in case
sufficient goods, chattels and effects cannot be found, then you are hereby
commanded to seize so much of the real estate of said person as my be
necessary to satisfy the tax.'  There's poetry for you!" (137). Twain's
clever way with calculation invites him to compound the ten-day late
penalty on into the future, playfully incurring a mounting personal debt to
the government of $12,000 for every century for which the debt remains

Twain's characteristic satirical attitude abounds throughout the
collection. And in at least two instances he exhibits his proclivity toward
hoaxes. In one sequence of letters published in the _Californian_ in May
1865, Twain ostensibly solicits, unauthorized, the professional services of
Eastern ministers to fill a vacancy at Grace Cathedral, anticipating his
later skepticism about some professional clergymen. His exchange with
Bishop Hawk of New York, along with Twain's commentary, results in frantic
letters from others begging him to leave off publishing their
correspondence. Facetiously disappointed, Twain reports:

"I am a suffering victim of my infernal disposition to be always obliging
somebody without being asked to do it. Nobody asked me to help the vestry
of Grace Cathedral to hire a minister: I dashed into it on my own hook, in
a spirit of absurd enthusiasm, and a nice mess I have made of it. I have
not succeeded in securing either of the three clergy men I wanted, but that
is not the worst of it--I have brought a swarm of low-priced back-country
preachers about my ears that I begin to be a little appalled at the work of
my own hands. I am afraid I have evoked a spirit that I cannot lay. A
single specimen of the forty-eight letters addressed to me from the
interior will suffice to show the interest my late publication has excited"

He follows with a ridiculous application from a preacher of "Grasshopper
Chateau" who combines tears, flapdoodle, soulbutter, and hogwash with a
promise to lowball "any man on the continent" (90).

A more elaborate hoax commences with an announcement in the _Golden Era_
that Mr. Smith Brown Jones, Esq., will join their staff of contributors.
But the correspondence in which Jones agreed to be engaged by the _Era_,
the editors are forced to admit, was a rambling and incoherent fraud
perpetrated on them by a man whom the real Jones identifies as a "Mr.
Marcus Twain," who had attempted to engage Jones to contribute to the
_Bohemian_, purportedly a religious journal. The hoax culminates in a
rather questionable breach of journalistic ethics: the report in the _Era_
about the trial of Mark Twain was filed by S. Browne Jones even though he
brought the charges and was the primary witness for the prosecution. The
report describes "usual unblushing effrontery, and boldfaced impudence" of
the defendant, and notes that the latter had attempted "to buy us off"
(119). Testifying for the prosecution, an editor of the _Era_ claims to have:

"[n]ever trusted [Twain] with anything original, except obituary notices.
He had a morbid desire to write such notices. He overdid the matter. Had to
drop him. Defendant had three volumes of manuscript obituary notices. His
object was, I believe, to have on ready for any emergency. The names of the
decease, as well as the dates, were left blank, ready to be filled in at a
moment's notice" (121).

Another damning witness is a Senator up for reelection who testifies that
Twain had offered to write favorable things about him in the _Bohemian_ if
the Senator would pick up Twain's bar tab at the Bank Exchange for the
duration of the campaign. After a month, the Senator stopped paying for the
bill because "'Twas very large" (122), and Twain had not printed his
promised support of the Senator. After producing only one defense witness,
who can attest only that Twain was an excellent poker player, the defendant
changes his plea to guilty and is sentenced to "forty-eight hours in the
city Prison, on bread and water," for which Twain is said to have "shed
tears profusely" (124).

Although the attribution of this hoax to Twain is not without its doubters,
it embodies much of the self-effacing humor we identify with him. And even
if this performance were the work of Twain's colleagues at the _Era_, it
contributes to the second manner of reading Taper's volume, the one that he
intended the book to serve. For although Taper concentrates on the writing
of one journalist who would go on to great fame, his primary aim is to
record Twain's distinctive voice in order to capture the atmosphere of San
Francisco at this pivotal era in the nation's identity formation. The
pieces he includes certainly convey Twain's voice and temperament, but they
also signal a cultural tenor and an improvisational journalistic ethos
characteristic of the region and era. The collection as a whole helps us to
place Twain within a context, among a community and a culture shaped by
newspapers that contained poetry and humor as much as news and political
controversy. Even a chestnut like "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" reads a
differently when contained within this frame. This version was reprinted in
the _Californian_, about a month after it appeared in the _Saturday Press_.
Twain availed himself of the opportunity to change the name "Smiley" to
"Greeley" and altered the title from "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (as
it appeared in the _Saturday Press_) to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of
Calaveras County."  But in addition to these material differences, the tale
is conditioned by its appearance among a range of Twain's Pacific Slope
journalism and thus can be appreciated within the full context of his
vernacular practice of rhetorical pranks, satires, and hoaxes.

But the picture we observe here is not derived from Twain alone. Taper
makes ample use of the illustrations of Edward Jump, who contributed
visually to the culture of San Francisco contemporaneous with Twain. The
thirteen lithographs and one woodcut included in the volume represent the
largest single collection of Jump's distinctive caricatures of San
Francisco's public culture. For that alone, Taper's collection would be
valuable. Jump's images are crowded with vivid figures, high and low, not
the least of which is Emperor Norton, who embodied some of the same
iconoclastic spirit that Twain captured in his writing. So what Taper
offers us, and the California Legacy Project brings back to our attention
again, is not just a collection of Twain's writing, but a lens for
understanding an idiosyncratic, though simultaneously quintessential
American city in its youth. The Gold Rush made San Francisco a destination
for those seeking opportunity in the middle of the nineteenth century, and
it has periodically attracted a migration from within and beyond the
nation's borders even to this day. Although San Francisco has changed since
its first heyday, the essence of the city we see in _Mark Twain's San
Francisco_ can still be felt.