Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XLII

Reportorial Days

Reference has already been made to the fashion among Virginia City papers of permitting reporters to use the editorial columns for ridicule of one another. This custom was especially in vogue during the period when Dan de Quille and Mark Twain and The Unreliable were the shining journalistic lights of the Comstock. Scarcely a week went by that some apparently venomous squib or fling or long burlesque assault did not appear either in the Union or the Enterprise, with one of those jokers as its author and another as its target. In one of his “home” letters of that year Mark Twain says:

I have just finished writing up my report for the morning paper and giving The Unreliable a column of advice about how to conduct himself in church.

The advice was such as to call for a reprisal, but it apparently made no difference in personal relations, for a few weeks later he is with The Unreliable in San Francisco, seeing life in the metropolis, fairly swimming in its delights, unable to resist reporting them to his mother.

We fag ourselves completely out every day and go to sleep without rocking every night. When I go down Montgomery Street shaking hands with Tom, Dick, and Harry, it is just like being on Main Street in Hannibal and meeting the old familiar faces. I do hate to go back to Washoe. We take trips across the bay to Oakland, and down to San Leandro and Alameda, and we go out to the Willows and Hayes Park and Fort Point, and up to Benicia; and yesterday we were invited out on a yachting excursion, and had a sail in the fastest yacht on the Pacific coast. Rice says: “Oh no — we are not having any fun, Mark — oh no — I reckon it’s somebody else — it’s probably the gentleman in the wagon” (popular slang phrase), and when I invite Rice to the Lick House to dinner the proprietor sends us champagne and claret, and then we do put on the most disgusting airs. The Unreliable says our caliber is too light — we can’t stand it to be noticed.

Three days later he adds that he is going sorrowfully “to the snows and the deserts of Washoe,” but that he has “lived like a lord to make up for two years of privation.”

Twenty dollars is inclosed in each of these letters, probably as a bribe to Jane Clemens to be lenient with his prodigalities, which in his youthful love of display he could not bring himself to conceal. But apparently the salve was futile, for in another letter, a month later, he complains that his mother is “slinging insinuations” at him again, such as “where did you get that money” and “the company I kept in San Francisco.” He explains:

Why, I sold Wild Cat mining ground that was given me, and my credit was always good at the bank for $2,000 or $3,000, and I never gamble in any shape or manner, and never drink anything stronger than claret and lager beer, which conduct is regarded as miraculously temperate in this place. As for company, I went in the very best company to be found in San Francisco. I always move in the best society in Virginia and have a reputation to preserve.

He closes by assuring her that he will be more careful in future and that she need never fear but that he will keep her expenses paid. Then he cannot refrain from adding one more item of his lavish life:

“Put in my washing, and it costs me one hundred dollars a month to live.”

De Quille had not missed the opportunity of his comrade’s absence to payoff some old scores. At the end of the editorial column of the Enterprise on the day following his departure he denounced the absent one and his “protege,” The Unreliable, after the intemperate fashion of the day.

It is to be regretted that such scrubs are ever permitted to visit the bay, as the inevitable effect will be to destroy that exalted opinion of the manners and morality of our people which was inspired by the conduct of our senior editor [which is to say, Dan himself].

The diatribe closed with a really graceful poem, and the whole was no doubt highly regarded by the Enterprise readers.

What revenge Mark Twain took on his return has not been recorded, but it was probably prompt and adequate; or he may have left it to The Unreliable. It was clearly a mistake, however, to leave his own local work in the hands of that properly named person a little later. Clemens was laid up with a cold, and Rice assured him on his sacred honor that he would attend faithfully to the Enterprise locals, along with his own Union items. He did this, but he had been nursing old injuries too long. What was Mark Twain’s amazement on looking over the Enterprise next morning to find under the heading “Apologetic” a statement over his own nom de plume, purporting to be an apology for all the sins of ridicule to the various injured ones.

To Mayor Arick, Hon. Wm. Stewart, Marshal Perry, Hon. J. B. Winters, Mr. Olin, and Samuel Wetherill, besides a host of others whom we have ridiculed from behind the shelter of our reportorial position, we say to these gentlemen we acknowedge our faults, and, in all weakness and humility upon our bended marrow bones, we ask their forgiveness, promising that in future we will give them no cause for anything but the best of feeling toward us. To “Young Wilson” and The Unreliable (as we have wickedly termed them), we feel that no apology we can make begins to atone for the many insults we have given them. Toward these gentlemen we have been as mean as a man could be — and we have always prided ourselves on this base quality. We feel that we are the least of all humanity, as it were. We will now go in sack-cloth and ashes for the next forty days.

This in his own paper over his own signature was a body blow; but it had the effect of curing his cold. He was back in the office forthwith, and in the next morning’s issue denounced his betrayer.

We are to blame for giving The Unreliable an opportunity to misrepresent us, and therefore refrain from repining to any great extent at the result. We simply claim the right to deny the truth of every statement made by him in yesterday’s paper, to annul all apologies he coined as coming from us, and to hold him up to public commiseration as a reptile endowed with no more intellect, no more cultivation, no more Christian principle than animates and adorns the sportive jackass-rabbit of the Sierras. We have done.

These were the things that enlivened Comstock journalism. Once in a boxing bout Mark Twain got a blow on the nose which caused it to swell to an unusual size and shape. He went out of town for a few days, during which De Quille published an extravagant account of his misfortune, describing the nose and dwelling on the absurdity of Mark Twain’s ever supposing himself to be a boxer.

De Quille scored heavily with this item but his own doom was written. Soon afterward he was out riding and was thrown from his horse and bruised considerably.

This was Mark’s opportunity. He gave an account of Dan’s disaster; then, commenting, he said:

The idea of a plebeian like Dan supposing he could ever ride a horse! He! why, even the cats and the chickens laughed when they saw him go by. Of course, he would be thrown off. Of course, any well-bred horse wouldn’t let a common, underbred person like Dan stay on his back! When they gathered him up he was just a bag of scraps, but they put him together, and you’ll find him at his old place in the Enterprise office next week, still laboring under the delusion that he’s a newspaper man.

The author of ‘Roughing It’ tells of a literary periodical called the Occidental, started in Virginia City by a Mr. F. This was the silver-tongued Tom Fitch, of the Union, an able speaker and writer, vastly popular on the Coast. Fitch came to Clemens one day and said he was thinking of starting such a periodical and asked him what he thought of the venture. Clemens said:

“You would succeed if any one could, but start a flower-garden on the desert of Sahara; set up hoisting-works on Mount Vesuvius for mining sulphur; start a literary paper in Virginia City; h — l!”

Which was a correct estimate of the situation, and the paper perished with the third issue. It was of no consequence except that it contained what was probably the first attempt at that modern literary abortion, the composite novel. Also, it died too soon to publish Mark Twain’s first verses of any pretension, though still of modest merit —“The Aged Pilot Man”— which were thereby saved for ‘Roughing It.’

Visiting Virginia now, it seems curious that any of these things could have happened there. The Comstock has become little more than a memory; Virginia and Gold Hill are so quiet, so voiceless, as to constitute scarcely an echo of the past. The International Hotel, that once so splendid edifice, through whose portals the tide of opulent life then ebbed and flowed, is all but deserted now. One may wander at will through its dingy corridors and among its faded fripperies, seeking in vain for attendance or hospitality, the lavish welcome of a vanished day. Those things were not lacking once, and the stream of wealth tossed up and down the stair and billowed up C Street, an ebullient tide of metals and men from which millionaires would be struck out, and individuals known in national affairs. William M. Stewart who would one day become a United States Senator, was there, an unnoticed unit; and John Mackay and James G. Fair, one a senator by and by, and both millionaires, but poor enough then — Fair with a pick on his shoulder and Mackay, too, at first, though he presently became a mine superintendent. Once in those days Mark Twain banteringly offered to trade businesses with Mackay.

“No,” Mackay said, “I can’t trade. My business is not worth as much as yours. I have never swindled anybody, and I don’t intend to begin now.”

Neither of those men could dream that within ten years their names would be international property; that in due course Nevada would propose statues to their memory.

Such things came out of the Comstock; such things spring out of every turbulent frontier.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05