A captivating chronicle of Twain's time in Nevada


Not sure what to get for that Nevadaphile's Christmas stocking?

Assuming it is a rather bodacious and sturdy stocking, one could hardly go wrong with the "Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1." It weighs in at 3 pounds, 8 ounces for its 736 pages.

Published on the 100th anniversary of his death -- just as Twain had wished, though earlier and considerably expurgated editions have been published -- the book is the product of six editors at the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

Twain started writing his autobiography in 1870, assembling various drafts and chapters, but in 1906 began dictating almost daily to a stenographer. He completed the work four months before his death in April 1910.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, considered the patron saint of Nevada journalism, first used the nom de plume Mark Twain on Feb. 3, 1863, in dispatches from Carson City for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. Ten years later he would offer the quaint explanation about how it was derived from his days as a riverboat pilot on the ever-shifting Mississippi River, where the leadsman would take soundings to determine the depth. Twelve feet of clearance was needed for the draft of the paddleboats, thus the leadsman would call out for the log book, "Mark twain," or two fathoms.

According to Twain biographer Andrew Hoffman, Twain told people he took up the pseudonym after Capt. Isaiah Sellers died and no longer needed it for his own byline in the New Orleans newspapers. Among the problems with that story, according to Hoffman in "Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens," are that Sellers did not die until months after Clemens started using the byline, and no one can find the name being used in any newspaper prior to those Enterprise dispatches.

Because newspapering is parching work for penurious pay, a more Nevada centric and less clean-cut explanation might be closer to the truth, which Twain was seldom averse to stretching.

"People who knew Sam in Nevada said that he arrived at the pseudonym by entering a saloon and calling out in the leadsman's singsong intonation 'Mark twain!' -- meaning the bartender should pour two drinks and mark them down on the debit ledger," writes Hoffman.

Sellers' name is not found in the index of Volume 1 of the autobiography, but there are several references to Nevada and the Territorial Enterprise, which were featured extensively in Twain's second book, "Roughing It."

As one of the appendices notes, Twain joined a Confederate home guard in Missouri at the outbreak of the Civil War but resigned two weeks later to join his brother Orion, who had been appointed territorial secretary for Nevada. More than two dozen chapters in "Roughing It" are devoted to his Nevada experiences.

This autobiography contains an expanded explanation for why he left the territory five months before statehood: to avoid prosecution for dueling. Actually, the duel was arranged but never took place. According to Reliable -- actually another of his aliases -- and surely trustworthy Twain recollection, that was because of a ruse by a friend who was acting as his second for the scheduled duel.

The book is worth its not inconsiderable price tag for the chapter on dueling alone, dictated Jan. 19, 1906. It is typical of the loquacious Twain's style of understated, nonchalant rhetoric to describe the outlandish and preposterous.

"In those early days dueling suddenly became a fashion in the new Territory of Nevada," Twain begins, "and by 1864 everybody was anxious to have a chance in the new sport, mainly for the reason that he was not able to thoroughly respect himself so long as he had not killed or crippled somebody in a duel or been killed or crippled in one himself."

How he escapes his own assignation with perforation is a tale worthy of any Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn yarn.

In April 1864, casting about for editorial topics while left in charge of his newspaper -- his boss was visiting San Francisco -- Twain decided to unleash a few barbs at his competitor at the Virginia City Union.

"I woke up Mr. Laird with some courtesies of the kind that were fashionable among newspaper editors in that region," writes Twain, "and he came back at me the next day in a most vitriolic way. He was hurt by something I had said about him -- some little thing -- I don't remember what it was now -- probably called him a horse-thief, or one of those little phrases customarily used to describe another editor. They were no doubt just, and accurate, but Laird was a very sensitive creature, and he didn't like it."

Twain, who claims he literally could not hit the side of a barn door with a pistol, recounts that as his fellow duelist was riding up his second, Steve Gillis, a remarkable marksman, shot the head off an errant sparrow at 30 yards and convinced Laird it was Twain who performed the feat. Though Laird retreated, "a little tottery on his legs," Twain could not escape a newly passed territorial law making dueling punishable by two years in jail. So Twain and his second hied over to California.

A true Nevadaphile will appreciate this and other tales of early Nevada, and Hoffman's book might make a nice chaser to Twain's heady rhetorical libations.

Thomas Mitchell is senior opinion editor of the Review-Journal. He may be contacted at (702) 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.

 

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