A long and rocky road from Nevada to world fame
On Feb. 3, 1863, a young journalist writing for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise would take a pen name, a name that would furnish wit, wisdom and Socratic irony to classic literature of Nevada, America and the world – Mark Twain.
Why “Mark Twain?” There are many answers to that question, but let’s give Helen Keller the afterthought, “…its nautical significance suggests the deep and beautiful things he has written.”
Sam Clemens of 1863 was still rough around the edges, some would say, a drinker and liar of western proportions.
“There is a popular tradition that God Almighty created Nevada; but when you come to see it, you will think differently. Do not let that discourage you though, the country looks something like a singed cat.”
His caustic pen would cause him to be lampooned by other capable journalists on a regular basis. The Gold Hill Daily News wrote on Oct. 22, 1863, “The Carson Stage was later than usual yesterday, being freighted down with a pair of boots of huge dimensions and fearful odor, which occupied the whole top of the coach and rendered it so top heavy that the driver had to proceed slowly and cautiously. There was no mark on them, but an expert, who smelt of them, pronounced them Mark Twain’s.”
To his mother he writes: “I am proud to say I am the most conceited ass in the territory.” He was what one might call a diamond in the rough, and it would take some powerful polishing to smooth those rough edges and shape his amazing destiny.
Sam Clemens had four important mentors in his life, Joe Twichell – spiritual mentor; Henry Huttleston Rogers – financial mentor; William Dean Howells – literary mentor; and Olivia, who was all of these in one. She was the riches of his life.
He first saw her cameo on her brother Charlie’s bed stand aboard the Quaker City in 1867, and from that moment on, she was never off his mind. They were married 34 years. “I warn you that whoever comes within the fatal influence of her beautiful nature is her willing slave forevermore. If ever a man had reason to be thankful for divine providence, it is I.”
Were it not for Olivia, Mark Twain might be remembered today as a western writer in the same breath as Bret Harte.
One hundred and fifty years ago this week a freshly minted “Mark Twain” began mining his literary lodestone from a rich vein of Comstock journalism. It would take a story about a frog to take the leap from journalism to literature, and an amazing woman to refine him and encourage him to become more than a western writer, to become an American author. For that no small miracle we have to thank the unflagging and ever faithful, Livy.
One hundred and fifty years later, America thanks you, Nevada. And the world thanks you, Mrs. Clemens.
Learn more about McAvoy Layne at http://www.ghostoftwain.org.