The Surgeon General officially declared a cholera epidemic in San Francisco
the same month the *America *departed from the city's port. Then, as now,
it is probably reasonable to suspect the outbreak was extensive well before
it was officially registered, and San Francisco was one of the last U.S.
metropoles to declare the outbreak which spread from coast to coast in
1866, which turned out to be the peak year for cholera in the U.S. during
the prolonged midcentury pandemic (which began, if I'm remembering
correctly, in Russia).
So, I don't think it is at all unlikely that cholera was introduced from
the outset, although it definitely worsened as the voyage progressed, and
both ships - the *San Francisco *and the *America - *returned to their
origins (NYC & SF) with numerous casualties. There are conflicting totals,
but at least twenty deaths aboard each vessel.
Now, I'll admit, it's hard to know exactly how the disease progressed
through the ships and passengers, who transferred between vessels at
Nicaragua. Cholera is, of course, bacterial, and it would've been
incredibly difficult to remove it from ships, even after infected
passengers disembarked, as there would've been limited capacity for
deep cleaning and numerous crewmembers were afflicted as well. And the
ships Twain traveled on were making continuous cycles between the isthmus
and U.S. ports.
Predictably (and xenophobically), newspaper reports treated cholera as an
exotic South American disease even after there were ongoing outbreaks
across US, including in NYC and SF. These accounts frequently blame,
specifically, a group of soldiers from which many casualties came for the
sorry conditions aboard the *America *and *San Francisco*.
But, many crew and passengers, including Sam himself, had extreme symptoms
(up to and including death) before the *America *reached Nicaragua (or took
aboard said soldiers). As he wrote in his notebook early in the trip,
"Nearly everybody seasick. Happily I escaped - had something worse."
Shortly thereafter, presumably during what he describes as "a long, long
night," he makes a note about a reported influenza epidemic in Hawaii,
perhaps wondering whether that was what was causing the *America*'s
My Occam's Razor assumption is that cholera was pretty much everywhere
Twain traveled during the year 1866 and particularly in confined
conditions, it spread rapidly and caused much distress, whether or not it
was officially diagnosed or proved extremely deadly.
I can't pretend to have a reliable account of the fluctuations of Sam's
emotional states. He was certainly capable, during these years, of moving
from euphoric to suicidal, with considerable aid from alcohol, as has been
well established. I don't think he was particularly prone, at 31-years-old,
to consider himself "early in his career," though in retrospect that is the
case. He had been a professional writer for more than four years, and
despite some recent strikes, I suspect he feared that if he died
aboard the *America
*his self-proclaimed "call to literature" would be forgettable indeed. More
importantly, as he was quick to remind people, he had been a working man
for more than half his life.
Reading "Genius" as self-reflective is not to deny the potential allusions
to Poe. Indeed, I think of Dennis Eddings's conclusion to "Sam Clemens
Reads Edgar Poe," in which he links the two authors expressly through the
themes of self-deception and distrust, including "suspicion of reading
itself." "Genius" is a poem which encourages distrust, even disdain for the
poet. Twain's sometimes disdain for Poe was perhaps in keeping with his
sometimes disdain for himself.
*Matt Seybold, PhD*
Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies
Scholar-in-Residence, Center for Mark Twain Studies
Host, The American Vandal Podcast
Peterson Chapel Vestry, Cowles Hall
[log in to unmask]
On Sun, Sep 26, 2021 at 3:30 AM Scott Holmes <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> Were there any stops made by the America on its journey south? It seems
> unlikely that cholera would have been introduced at the outset, from San
> Francisco. I read the "madeallthedifference" article but I don't sense
> the kind of fatalism in Twain's poem that would arise from deaths aboard
> the ship. It also seems very early in his career for him to be too
> worried about being a genius. So, I remain a bit baffled regarding the
> subject(s) of his open verse. I'm leaning towards the idea that he is
> reacting to something he was reading. Passing out dead drunk in an
> alley doesn't fit with my image of the man.
> On 9/25/21 3:36 PM, Barbara Schmidt wrote:
> > I do not think there was any cholera aboard the steamer AMERICA when
> > Clemens composed “Genius” if the date in the notebook of Dec. 21 is
> > and that is when he did indeed write “Genius.”
> > There is no indication of the cause of death of the child on Christmas
> > aboard the AMERICA and attributing it to cholera may be difficult to
> > The AMERICA arrived in Nicaragua on Dec. 28, 1866 and there encountered
> > cholera. It was after Clemens boarded the SAN FRANCISCO that the cholera
> > spread among the passengers and the tone of his journal entries changed.
> > However ..... Notebook 7 is described as “chaotic” and without seeing how
> > the pages are bound in Notebook 7, it may be difficult to conclude on
> > which leg of the journey the work was composed if those pages have been
> > disbound and reinserted at a later time.
> > Barb
> > On Saturday, September 25, 2021, Matt Seybold <[log in to unmask]>
> >> Jocelyn & I recently wrote about this, including scans of the original
> >> from Twain’s notebooks, courtesy of the Mark Twain Project:
> >> https://marktwainstudies.com/madeallthedifference/
> >>> On Sep 25, 2021, at 3:53 PM, Scott Holmes <[log in to unmask]>
> >> wrote:
> >>> I posted this quote on Facebook without any explanation and got back
> >> some curious responses. I'm wondering if anyone can add light to
> >> why-where-and/or when:
> >>> "Geniuses are people who dash off weird, wild, incomprehensible poems
> >> with astonishing facility, & then go & get booming drunk & sleep in the
> >> gutter…people who have genius do not pay their board, as a general
> >>> I suspect he was reacting to someone being referred to as a genius...