Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XLVII

Bohemian Days

Mark Twain’s position on the ‘Call’ was uncongenial from the start. San Francisco was a larger city than Virginia; the work there was necessarily more impersonal, more a routine of news-gathering and drudgery. He once set down his own memories of it:

At nine in the morning I had to be at the police court for an hour and make a brief history of the squabbles of the night before. They were usually between Irishmen and Irishmen, and Chinamen and Chinamen, with now and then a squabble between the two races, for a change.

During the rest of the day we raked the town from end to end, gathering such material as we might, wherewith to fill our required columns; and if there were no fires to report, we started some. At night we visited the six theaters, one after the other, seven nights in the week. We remained in each of those places five minutes, got the merest passing glimpse of play and opera, and with that for a text we “wrote up” those plays and operas, as the phrase goes, torturing our souls every night in the effort to find something to say about those performances which we had not said a couple of hundred times before.

It was fearful drudgery-soulless drudgery — and almost destitute of interest. It was an awful slavery for a lazy man.

On the Enterprise he had been free, with a liberty that amounted to license. He could write what he wished, and was personally responsible to the readers. On the Call he was simply a part of a news-machine; restricted by a policy, the whole a part of a still greater machine — politics. Once he saw some butchers set their dogs on an unoffending Chinaman, a policeman looking on with amused interest. He wrote an indignant article criticizing the city government and raking the police. In Virginia City this would have been a welcome delight; in San Francisco it did not appear.

At another time he found a policeman asleep on his beat. Going to a near-by vegetable stall he borrowed a large cabbage-leaf, came back and stood over the sleeper, gently fanning him. It would be wasted effort to make an item of this incident; but he could publish it in his own fashion. He stood there fanning the sleeping official until a large crowd collected. When he thought it was large enough he went away. Next day the joke was all over the city.

Only one of the several severe articles he wrote criticizing officials and institutions seems to have appeared — an attack on an undertaker whose establishment formed a branch of the coroner’s office. The management of this place one day refused information to a Call reporter, and the next morning its proprietor was terrified by a scathing denunciation of his firm. It began, “Those body-snatchers” and continued through half a column of such scorching strictures as only Mark Twain could devise. The Call’s policy of suppression evidently did not include criticisms of deputy coroners.

Such liberty, however, was too rare for Mark Twain, and he lost interest. He confessed afterward that he became indifferent and lazy, and that George E. Barnes, one of the publishers of the Call, at last allowed him an assistant. He selected from the counting-room a big, hulking youth by the name of McGlooral, with the acquired prefix of “Smiggy.” Clemens had taken a fancy to Smiggy McGlooral — on account of his name and size perhaps — and Smiggy, devoted to his patron, worked like a slave gathering news nights — daytimes, too, if necessary — all of which was demoralizing to a man who had small appetite for his place anyway. It was only a question of time when Smiggy alone would be sufficient for the job.

There were other and pleasanter things in San Francisco. The personal and literary associations were worth while. At his right hand in the Call office sat Frank Soule — a gentle spirit — a graceful versifier who believed himself a poet. Mark Twain deferred to Frank Soule in those days. He thought his verses exquisite in their workmanship; a word of praise from Soule gave him happiness. In a luxurious office up-stairs was another congenial spirit — a gifted, handsome fellow of twenty-four, who was secretary of the Mint, and who presently became editor of a new literary weekly, the Californian, which Charles Henry Webb had founded. This young man’s name was Francis Bret Harte, originally from Albany, later a miner and school-teacher on the Stanislaus, still later a compositor, finally a contributor, on the Golden Era. His fame scarcely reached beyond San Francisco as yet; but among the little coterie of writing folk that clustered about the Era office his rank was high. Mark Twain fraternized with Bret Harte and the Era group generally. He felt that he had reached the land — or at least the borderland — of Bohemia, that Ultima Thule of every young literary dream.

San Francisco did, in fact, have a very definite literary atmosphere and a literature of its own. Its coterie of writers had drifted from here and there, but they had merged themselves into a California body-poetic, quite as individual as that of Cambridge, even if less famous, less fortunate in emoluments than the Boston group. Joseph E. Lawrence, familiarly known as “Joe” Lawrence, was editor of the Golden Era36, and his kindness and hospitality were accounted sufficient rewards even when his pecuniary acknowledgments were modest enough. He had a handsome office, and the literati, local and visiting, used to gather there. Names that would be well known later were included in that little band. Joaquin Miller recalls from an old diary, kept by him then, having seen Adah Isaacs Menken, Prentice Mulford, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Fitzhugh Ludlow, Mark Twain, Orpheus C. Kerr, Artemus Ward, Gilbert Densmore, W. S. Kendall, and Mrs. Hitchcock assembled there at one time. The Era office would seem to have been a sort of Mount Olympus, or Parnassus, perhaps; for these were mainly poets, who had scarcely yet attained to the dignity of gods. Miller was hardly more than a youth then, and this grand assemblage impressed him, as did the imposing appointments of the place.

The Era rooms were elegant [he says],the most grandly carpeted and most gorgeously furnished that I have ever seen. Even now in my memory they seem to have been simply palatial. I have seen the world well since then — all of its splendors worth seeing — yet those carpeted parlors, with Joe Lawrence and his brilliant satellites, outshine all things else, as I turn to look back.

36 [The Golden Era, California’s first literary publication, was founded by Rollin M. Daggett and J. McDonough Foard in 1852.]

More than any other city west of the Alleghanies, San Francisco has always been a literary center; and certainly that was a remarkable group to be out there under the sunset, dropped down there behind the Sierras, which the transcontinental railway would not climb yet, for several years. They were a happy-hearted, aspiring lot, and they got as much as five dollars sometimes for an Era article, and were as proud of it as if it had been a great deal more. They felt that they were creating literature, as they were, in fact; a new school of American letters mustered there.

Mark Twain and Bret Harte were distinctive features of this group. They were already recognized by their associates as belonging in a class by themselves, though as yet neither had done any of the work for which he would be remembered later. They were a good deal together, and it was when Harte was made editor of the Californian that Mark Twain was put on the weekly staff at the then unexampled twelve-dollar rate. The Californian made larger pretensions than the Era, and perhaps had a heavier financial backing. With Mark Twain on the staff and Bret Harte in the chair, himself a frequent contributor, it easily ranked as first of San Francisco periodicals. A number of the sketches collected by Webb later, in Mark Twain’s first little volume, the Celebrated Jumping Frog, Etc., appeared in the Era or Californian in 1864 and 1865. They were smart, bright, direct, not always refined, but probably the best humor of the day. Some of them are still preserved in this volume of sketches. They are interesting in what they promise, rather than in what they present, though some of them are still delightful enough. “The Killing of Julius Caesar Localized” is an excellent forerunner of his burlesque report of a gladiatorial combat in The Innocents Abroad. The Answers to Correspondents, with his vigorous admonition of the statistical moralist, could hardly have been better done at any later period. The Jumping Frog itself was not originally of this harvest. It has a history of its own, as we shall see a little further along.

The reportorial arrangement was of brief duration. Even the great San Francisco earthquake of that day did not awaken in Mark Twain any permanent enthusiasm for the drudgery of the ‘Call’. He had lost interest, and when Mark Twain lost interest in a subject or an undertaking that subject or that undertaking were better dead, so far as he was concerned. His conclusion of service with the Call was certain, and he wondered daily why it was delayed so long. The connection had become equally unsatisfactory to proprietor and employee. They had a heart-to-heart talk presently, with the result that Mark Twain was free. He used to claim, in after-years, with his usual tendency to confess the worst of himself, that he was discharged, and the incident has been variously told. George Barnes himself has declared that Clemens resigned with great willingness. It is very likely that the paragraph at the end of Chapter LVIII in ‘Roughing It’ presents the situation with fair accuracy, though, as always, the author makes it as unpleasant for himself as possible:

“At last one of the proprietors took me aside, with a charity I still remember with considerable respect, and gave me an opportunity to resign my berth, and so save myself the disgrace of a dismissal.”

As an extreme contrast with the supposititious “butterfly idleness” of his beginning in San Francisco, and for no other discoverable reason, he doubtless thought it necessary, in the next chapter of that book, to depict himself as having reached the depths of hard luck, debt, and poverty.

“I became an adept at slinking,” he says. “I slunk from back street to back street. . . . I slunk to my bed. I had pawned everything but the clothes I had on.”

This is pure fiction. That he occasionally found himself short of funds is likely enough — a literary life invites that sort of thing — but that he ever clung to a single “silver ten-cent piece,” as he tells us, and became the familiar of mendicancy, was a condition supplied altogether by his later imagination to satisfy what he must have regarded as an artistic need. Almost immediately following his separation from the ‘Call’ he arranged with Goodman to write a daily letter for the Enterprise, reporting San Francisco matters after his own notion with a free hand. His payment for this work was thirty dollars a week, and he had an additional return from his literary sketches. The arrangement was an improvement both as to labor and income.

Real affluence appeared on the horizon just then, in the form of a liberal offer for the Tennessee land. But alas! it was from a wine-grower who wished to turn the tract into great vineyards, and Orion had a prohibition seizure at the moment, so the trade was not made. Orion further argued that the prospective purchaser would necessarily be obliged to import horticultural labor from Europe, and that those people might be homesick, badly treated, and consequently unhappy in those far eastern Tennessee mountains. Such was Orion’s way.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00