It was near the end of June when he returned to Honolulu from a tour of all the islands, fairly worn out and prostrated with saddle boils. He expected only to rest and be quiet for a season, but all unknown to him startling and historic things were taking place in which he was to have a part — events that would mark another forward stride in his career.
The Ajax had just come in, bringing his Excellency Anson Burlingame, then returning to his post as minister to China; also General Van Valkenburg, minister to Japan; Colonel Rumsey and Minister Burlingame’s son, Edward, 42 then a lively boy of eighteen. Young Burlingame had read “The Jumping Frog,” and was enthusiastic about Mark Twain and his work. Learning that he was in Honolulu, laid up at his hotel, the party sent word that they would call on him next morning.
42 [Edward L. Burlingame, now for many years editor of Scribner’s Magazine.]
Clemens felt that he must not accept this honor, sick or well. He crawled out of bed, dressed and shaved himself as quickly as possible, and drove to the American minister’s, where the party was staying. They had a hilariously good time. When he returned to his hotel he sent them, by request, whatever he had on hand of his work. General Van Valkenburg had said to him:
“California is proud of Mark Twain, and some day the American people will be, too, no doubt.”
There has seldom been a more accurate prophecy.
But a still greater event was imminent. On that very day (June 21, 1866) there came word of the arrival at Sanpahoe, on the island of Hawaii, of an open boat containing fifteen starving wretches, who on short, ten-day rations had been buffeting a stormy sea for forty-three days! A vessel, the Hornet, from New York, had taken fire and burned “on the line,” and since early in May, on that meager sustenance, they had been battling with hundreds of leagues of adverse billows, seeking for land.
A few days following the first report, eleven of the rescued men were brought to Honolulu and placed in the hospital. Mark Twain recognized the great news importance of the event. It would be a splendid beat if he could interview the castaways and be the first to get their story to his paper. There was no cable in those days; a vessel for San Francisco would sail next morning. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he must not miss it. Bedridden as he was, the undertaking seemed beyond his strength.
But just at this time the Burlingame party descended on him, and almost before he knew it he was on the way to the hospital on a cot, escorted by the heads of the joint legations of China and Japan. Once there, Anson Burlingame, with his splendid human sympathy and handsome, courtly presence, drew from those enfeebled castaways all the story of their long privation and struggle, that had stretched across forty-three distempered days and four thousand miles of sea. All that Mark Twain had to do was to listen and make the notes.
He put in the night-writing against time. Next morning, just as the vessel for the States was drifting away from her dock, a strong hand flung his bulky envelope of manuscript aboard, and if the vessel arrived his great beat was sure. It did arrive, and the three-column story on the front page of the Sacramento Union, in its issue of July 19th, gave the public the first detailed history of the terrible Hornet disaster and the rescue of those starving men. Such a story occupied a wider place in the public interest than it would in these crowded days. The telegraph carried it everywhere, and it was featured as a sensation.
Mark Twain always adored the name and memory of Anson Burlingame. In his letter home he tells of Burlingame’s magnanimity in “throwing away an invitation to dine with princes and foreign dignitaries” to help him. “You know I appreciate that kind of thing,” he says; which was a true statement, and in future years he never missed an opportunity of paying an instalment on his debt of gratitude. It was proper that he should do so, for the obligation was a far greater one than that contracted in obtaining the tale of the Hornet disaster. It was the debt which one owes to a man who, from the deep measure of his understanding, gives encouragement and exactly needed and convincing advice. Anson Burlingame said to Samuel Clemens:
“You have great ability; I believe you have genius. What you need now is the refinement of association. Seek companionship among men of superior intellect and character. Refine yourself and your work. Never affiliate with inferiors; always climb.”
Clemens never forgot that advice. He did not always observe it, but he rarely failed to realize its gospel. Burlingame urged him to travel.
“Come to Pekin next winter,” he said, “and visit me. Make my house your home. I will give you letters and introduce you. You will have facilities for acquiring information about China.”
It is not surprising then that Mark Twain never felt his debt to Anson Burlingame entirely paid. Burlingame came more than once to the hotel, for Clemens was really ill now, and they discussed plans for his future betterment.
He promised, of course, to visit China, and when he was alone put in a good deal of time planning a trip around the world which would include the great capitals. When not otherwise employed he read; though there was only one book in the hotel, a “blue and gold” edition of Dr. Holmes’s Songs in Many Keys, and this he soon knew almost by heart, from title-page to finis.
He was soon up and about. No one could remain ill long in those happy islands. Young Burlingame came, and suggested walks. Once, when Clemens hesitated, the young man said:
“But there is a Scriptural command for you to go.”
“If you can quote one I’ll obey it,” said Clemens.
“Very well. The Bible says, ‘If any man require thee to walk a mile, go with him, Twain.’”
The command was regarded as sufficient. Clemens quoted the witticism later (in his first lecture), and it was often repeated in after-years, ascribed to Warner, Ward, and a dozen others. Its origin was as here set down.
Under date of July 4 (1866), Mark Twain’s Sandwich Island note-book says:
Went to a ball 8.30 P.M. — danced till 12.30; stopped at General Van Valkenburg’s room and talked with him and Mr. Burlingame and Ed Burlingame until 3 A.M.
From which we may conclude that he had altogether recovered. A few days later. the legation party had sailed for China and Japan, and on the 19th Clemens himself set out by a slow sailing-vessel to San Francisco. They were becalmed and were twenty-five days making the voyage. Captain Mitchell and others of the wrecked Hornet were aboard, and he put in a good deal of time copying their diaries and preparing a magazine article which, he believed, would prove his real entrance to the literary world.
The vessel lay almost perfectly still, day after day, and became a regular playground at sea. Sundays they had services and Mark Twain led the choir.
“I hope they will have a better opinion of our music in heaven than I have down here,” he says in his notes. “If they don’t, a thunderbolt will knock this vessel endways.” It is perhaps worthy of mention that on the night of the 27th of July he records having seen another “splendidly colored, lunar rainbow.” That he regarded this as an indication of future good-fortune is not surprising, considering the events of the previous year.
It was August 13th when he reached San Francisco, and the note-book entry of that day says:
Home again. No — not home again — in prison again, end 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!
There were compensations, however. He went over to Sacramento, and was abundantly welcomed. It was agreed that, in addition to the twenty dollars allowed for each letter, a special bill should be made for the Hornet report.
“How much do you think it ought to be, Mark?” James Anthony asked.
“Oh, I’m a modest man; I don’t want the whole Union office. Call it $100 a column.”
There was a general laugh. The bill was made out at that figure, and he took it to the business office for payment.
“The cashier didn’t faint,” he wrote, many years later, “but he came rather near it. He sent for the proprietors, and they only laughed in their jolly fashion, and said it was a robbery, but ‘no matter, pay it. It’s all right.’ The best men that ever owned a newspaper.”43
43 [“My Debut as a Literary Person.”— Collected works.]
Though inferior to the descriptive writing which a year later would give him a world-wide fame, the Sandwich Island letters added greatly to his prestige on the Pacific coast. They were convincing, informing; tersely — even eloquently — descriptive, with a vein of humor adapted to their audience. Yet to read them now, in the fine nonpareil type in which they were set, is such a wearying task that one can only marvel at their popularity. They were not brilliant literature, by our standards to-day. Their humor is usually of a muscular kind, varied with grotesque exaggerations; the literary quality is pretty attenuated. Here and there are attempts at verse. He had a fashion in those days of combining two or more poems with distracting, sometimes amusing, effect. Examples of these dislocations occur in the Union letters; a single stanza will present the general idea:
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
The turf with their bayonets turning,
And his cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold,
And our lanterns dimly burning.
Only a trifling portion of the letters found their way into his Sandwich Island chapters of ‘Roughing It’, five years later. They do, however, reveal a sort of transition stage between the riotous florescence of the Comstock and the mellowness of his later style. He was learning to see things with better eyes, from a better point of view. It is not difficult to believe that this literary change of heart was in no small measure due to the influence of Anson Burlingame.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00