Even in 1860s Nevada Territory, newspaper readers had expectations and didn’t always appreciate being trifled with. That’s something young Sam Clemens learned the hard way, and it’s the principal story told in Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, by James E. Caron, an English professor at the University of Hawaii.
The book details just what mischief the young newspaper reporter was up to when, while representing the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise beginning in 1862, he decided to bend or disregard the usual rules of journalism. Unsuspecting readers making their way through long columns of solemn legislature resolutions or mining claims would come upon sudden appearances of drunken dialect, or whoppers so ridiculous that readers found themselves dared to call the author’s bluff.
Some did. When Clemens left Virginia City two years later, he was fleeing possible arrest for violating an anti-dueling statute, having challenged a rival editor. Clemens had been accused of “unmanly public journalism”, which he considered to be fighting words.
But what might have looked like one more failed mineral prospector leaving the Comstock Lode district was, in fact, a young man who had struck it rich in a very specific way. He had discovered a literary alter-ego whose articles assumed the straight-faced appearance of traditional newspaper journalism yet somehow detailed highly unlikely frontier curiosities—petrified men, or bloody massacres committed by settlers holding worthless mining stocks.
Such stories were not that far removed from later tales, told by the same author, one of which involved a jumping frog.
As detailed by Caron, Clemens arrived in Nevada Territory with his older brother Orion, who had been appointed territory secretary. The younger Clemens, while mining silver, began submitting comic letters signed as “Josh” to the Territorial Enterprise.
Eventually the paper took Clemens on and assigned him to describe sober doings, such as the session of the territorial legislature. Yet, while Clemens duly reported those events, the assignments couldn’t hold his attention, and he began placing items ranging from the dodgy to the irresponsible.
It was in early 1863 that Clemens began signing such stories with his now-renowned pseudonym, a navigation term from his days as a riverboat pilot before the Civil War. Caron marks the first appearance of “Mark Twain” in the Territorial Enterprise on 3 February 1863.
Fans of Twain who may come to Caron’s book with expectations should be aware that the book is probably meant for a scholarly readership. That explains its high price, as well as its long, footnoted discussion of the evolving comic tradition in early 19th-century American journalism.
Compared with Ron Powers’ 2005 biography, which considered Twain as perhaps America’s first rock star, Caron’s book has a more specific focus: scholarly analysis of items authored by Clemens from 1862, when he signed on with the Territorial Enterprise, to 1869, when he established his national reputation with The Innocents Abroad.
Readers soon will realize that in this book about Mark Twain, there is very little of Twain himself. Yet once the motivated reader discovers that the specific newspaper items that Caron examines are easily Googled, then this book takes on a new dimension as a diverting interactive exercise.
One story cited by Caron is “Petrified Man”, in which Clemens describes an apparently fossilized miner who—as possibly discerned by careful readers—is both winking and thumbing his nose. A second example is “A Bloody Massacre Near Carson”, which purports to detail the grisly discovery of a woman and many children hacked to death by a man who apparently held worthless mining stock. Territorial Enterprise readers who may have had their own experiences with mining stocks might have noticed how the story seemed more concerned with the stocks than the slain children.
A third example, in which Clemens suggested that money collected for charity had been diverted, was judged beyond the pale, even in Virginia City, and he had to leave. If it seems reasonable to assume that Clemens was discouraged, Caron includes the testimony of Clemens’ editor, who said he joined Clemens on the departing stagecoach meaning to stay for only a short while but remained because of the pleasure of Clemens’ company. Virginia City, Caron writes, was a boomtown that grew from about 4,000 residents in 1862 to about 25,000 the next year. Many of those who arrived there were just like Clemens, young men eager to make their fortunes. It was in this heady climate of possibility that Clemens found his voice.
The book has a curious structure in which Caron organizes chapters and smaller sections into “acts” and “scenes.” While it’s odd, it reinforces how readers must at all times accept what he calls Clemens’ “essential theatricality.” That’s one way of describing how Clemens apparently just couldn’t keep himself from performing, exchanging “yarns” for food in the mining camps of Nevada Territory and even, as Caron describes, charming one mining partner, Calvin Higbie, into performing the necessary tedious tasks.
“So good was Clemens at yarning that he could charm Higbie into doing all the housework and cooking while they lived together,” Caron writes. That sounds familiar.
"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.READ the article