A Tramp Abroad
, first edition book cover, 1880. Larger.
According to one survey, there are well over 200 languages spoken in California
. Unfortunately, those who keep track of such numbers only count the human ones.
"Jim Baker," illustration for A Tramp Abroad
, 1880. Larger.
loved to tell stories in the voices of colorful characters, like California miner Jim Baker, who not only claimed to understand the languages of animals, he also offered strong opinions about them.
. . . you never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And another thing: I've noticed a good deal, and there's just no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a bluejay. You might say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does—but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use. Now I've never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as a human; they shut right down and leave.
No one knew how to poke fun at human self-importance better than Mark Twain. Tall tales like "Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn
," included in the 1880 volume A Tramp Abroad
enlivened American literature and set a standard for American humor rarely achieved.
Lake Tahoe, hotels and boaters; photographer unknown; 1908. Larger.
is a jewel amidst Sierra peaks, one of the deepest—and still one of the clearest—lakes in the world.
Though scientists record that Lake Tahoe's clarity is slowly eroding
, it's not hard to imagine the lake as Mark Twain
experienced it when he visited in 1861
So singularly clear was the water, that where it was only twenty or thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat seemed to be floating in the air! Yes where it was even eighty feet deep. Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand's breadth of sand. Often, as we lay on our faces, a granite boulder, as large as a village church, would start out the bottom apparently, and seem climbing up rapidly to the surface, till presently it threatened to touch our faces, and we could not resist the impulse to seize an oar and avert the danger. ... Down through the transparency of these great depths, the water was not merely transparent, but dazzling, brilliantly so. All objects seen through it had a bright, strong vividness, not only of outline, but of every minute detail, which they would not have had when seen simply through the same depth of atmosphere. So empty and airy did all spaces seem below us, and so strong was the sense of floating high-aloft, in mid-nothingness, that we called these boat excursions "balloon-voyages."
Lake Tahoe from the east shore, photographer Sascha Brück, 2006 . Larger.
No stranger to waterways, Mark Twain also made the Mississippi River
come alive in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
–Contributed by Michael Lysaght
Berndi concert piano, from a catalog, 1908. Larger.
Any working Joe knows exactly how much a sturdy pair of boots is worth, enough, thought Mark Twain
, to inspire more than a little gratitude.
When a famous pianist scheduled a tour of the west coast, Mark Twain figured California miners would take special notice.
The papers announce that Geo. F. Benkert, an eminent pianist of Philadelphia, is on his way out here to give us some concerts. Now, don't you know that fellow will be mighty popular in California? Certainly he will. That is, if he is the same man who makes the boots. The boys all like those Benkert boots, and they will patronize their manufacturer's concerts liberally. Up in the mining towns they will just take it for granted that it is the boot-making Benkert, unless they are specially notified that it is not, and they will go to the concerts reflecting thus: "Dang this feller, I like his boots, and so I'll give him a hyste with his music."—And I think it will astonish this Benkert some, in the mining camps, to look across the top of his piano, and see the feet of his male patrons, propped on the backs of the benches, and long gleaming rows of brand-new, hob-nailed Benkert boots staring him in the face! The boys will naturally hit upon this method of paying him a delicate and appreciative compliment.
Mark Twain's observations on boots and music appeared in "Letters from San Francisco," written in 1865 for the Napa County Reporter
"Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way," The Golden Era
magazine masthead, 1863. Larger.
"Lisbon Earthquake. Illustration of ships on the sea and buildings on shore in a tumult during a catastrophic earthquake," 1850. Larger.
As California scientists strive to unlock the secrets of the earth in order to predict accurately the timing of devastating earthquakes, they may find it helpful to consult some previous research on the subject, Mark Twain
's "Earthquake Almanac."
Oct. 17.—Weather hazy; atmosphere murky and dense. An expression of profound melancholy will be observable upon most countenances. . .
Oct. 19.—Look out for rain. It will be absurd to look in for it. The general depression of spirits increased.
Oct 20.—More weather.
Oct. 21.—Same. . . .
Oct. 23.—Mild, balmy earthquakes.
Mark Twain, photographer Benjamin J. Falk, 1884 (Mark Twain papers, Bancroft Library). Larger.
Oct. 25.—Occasional shakes, followed by light showers of bricks and plastering. N.B.—Stand from under.
Oct. 26.—Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness. About this time expect more earthquakes, but do not look out for them, on account of the bricks.
Oct. 27.—Universal despondency, indicative of approaching disaster. Abstain from smiling, or indulgence in humorous conversation, or exasperating jokes.
Oct. 28.—Misery, dismal forebodings and despair. Beware of all discourse—a joke uttered at this time would produce a popular outbreak.
Oct. 30.—Keep dark!
Oct. 31.—Go slow!
Nov. 1.—Terrific earthquake. This is the great earthquake month. More stars fall and more worlds are slathered around carelessly and destroyed in November than in any other month of the twelve.
"Earthquake Almanac" was published in the Golden Era
in 1865. A part of literary San Francisco in the 1860's, Samuel Clemens—Mark Twain—wrote some of the most outrageous—and outrageously funny—sketches of the time.
"Our Morning Ride," illustration by True Williams in Roughing It
, 1872. Larger.
Everyone knows about the famous fog that blankets the Golden Gate
and keeps San Francisco summers as cool as San Francisco winters. At least, those are the feelings of Mark Twain
who developed an almost endless fascination with central coast weather.
In his 1864 sketch, "Early Rising as Regards Excursions to the Cliff House
," Twain gave readers a brief account of an early morning San Francisco
jaunt, a memorable one that chilled him to the bone.
From the moment we left the stable, almost, the fog was so thick that we could scarcely see fifty yards behind or before, or overhead; and for a while, as we approached the Cliff House, we could not see the horse at all, and were obliged to steer by his ears, which stood up dimly out of the dense white mist that enveloped him. But for these friendly beacons, we must have been cast away and lost.
"Original Cliff House," photographer unknown, 1863. Larger.
I have no opinion of a six-mile ride in the clouds; but if I ever have to take another, I want to leave the horse in the stable and go in a balloon. I shall prefer to go in the afternoon, also, when it is warm, to that I may gape, and yawn, and stretch, if I am drowsy, without disarranging my horse-blanket and letting in a blast of cold wind.
Mark Twain's California writing helped to establish his reputation long before he wrote his classic novels of growing up on the Mississippi River
, Tom Sawyer
and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
"Fort Yuma on the Colorado," artist, date unknown. Larger.
One of the keenest and most original commentators on California climate was Mark Twain
. But once in awhile even he was happy to rely on the observations of others.
In Roughing It
, Mark Twain's personal narrative of travels out west, the humorist considers the scorching heat found in California—and puts his own twist on a venerable tall tale.
One never sees summer-clothing or mosquitoes in San Francisco—but they can be found in Sacramento. Not always and unvaryingly, but about one hundred and forty-three months out of twelve years, perhaps. Flowers bloom there, always, the reader can easily believe—people suffer and sweat, and swear, morning, noon and night, and wear out their staunchest energies fanning themselves. It gets hot there, but if you go down to Fort Yuma you will find it hotter. Fort Yuma is probably the hottest place on earth. The thermometer stays at one hundred and twenty in the shade there all the time—except when it varies and goes higher. It is a U.S. military post, and its occupants get so used to the terrific heat that they suffer without it. There is a tradition (attributed to John Phenix*) that a very, very wicked soldier died there once, and of course, went straight to the hottest corner of perdition,—and the next day he telegraphed back for his blankets.
Mark Twain's Roughing It
was first published in 1872.
"Surely there is a vein for the silver and a place for gold where they fine it," masthead, The Californian,
Sure, everyone's heard of Will Shakespeare and Ben Franklin, but what about a host of other worthy characters whose praises far outstrip the multitude?
Setting the record straight was ever the goal of early California journalist Mark Twain
, who celebrated the accomplishments of a number of men he deemed every bit the equal of the famous Franklin and Shakespeare.
John Smith was the son of his father. He formerly resided in New York and other places, but he has moved to San Francisco now.
Wm. Smith was the son of his mother. This party's grandmother is deceased. She was a brick.
John Brown was the son of old Brown. The body of the latter lies mould'ring in the grave.
Edward Brown ws the son of old Brown by a particular friend. . . .
In early life Grabriel Jones was actually a shoemaker. He is a shoemaker yet.
Previous to the age of 85, Caleb Jones had never given any evidence of extraordinary ability. He has never given any since. . . .
Up to the age of 34, Hosea Wilkerson never had any home but Home, Sweet Home, and even when he had that, he had to sing it himself. At one time it was believed that he would have been famous if he had become celebrated. . . .
Mark Twain's meditations on the manifold qualities of illustrious men appeared in The Californian
Ten-inch Confederate Columbiad at Fort Donelson National Battlefield, photographer Hal Jespersen, 2006. Larger.
Getting sick with the common cold can be a miserable experience, but when you try to cure it, sometimes the symptoms just get worse.
claims to have tried a variety of cures for fighting a cold. None were successful, but in 1863 that didn't keep him from offering readers of San Francisco's Golden Era
newspaper a little personal advice.
A sheet-bath was recommended. I had never refused a remedy yet, and it seemed a poor policy to commence then; therefore I determined to take a sheet-bath, notwithstanding I had no idea what sort of arrangement it was.
It was administered at midnight, and the weather was very frosty. My breast and back were bared, and a sheet (there appeared to be a thousand yards of it) soaked in ice-water, was wound around me until I resembled a swab for a Columbiad.
It was a cruel expedient. When the chilly rag touches one's warm flesh, it makes him start with sudden violence and gasp for breath just as men do in the death agony. It froze the marrow in my bones and stopped the beating of my heart. . . .
Never take a sheet-bath—never. Next to meeting a lady acqaintance, who, for reasons best known to herself, don't see you when she looks at you and don't know you when she does see you, it is the most uncomfortable thing in the world.
With "How to Cure a Cold
," Mark Twain shows that he loves to point out human eccentricities—even when they're his own.
–Contributed by Emily Elrod
"Mark Twain," photographed by Mathew Brady, 1871. Larger.
Californians take justifiable pride in their reputation for innovation and industry, one of the reasons that other Americans look here to find out what will happen next. This pioneering spirit also impressed Mark Twain
, when he explored California's gold country in the 1860's.
Twain recounted his western adventures in Roughing It
, his loosely autobiographical chronicle, which includes this description of the early California pioneers and their industrious character.
It was a splendid population—for all the slow, sleepy, sluggish-brained sloths stayed at home—you never find that sort of people among pioneers—you cannot build pioneers out of that sort of material. It was that population that gave to California a name for getting up astounding enterprises and rushing them through with magnificent dash and daring and a recklessness of cost or consequences, which she bears unto this day—and when she projects a new surprise, the grave world smiles as usual and says, "Well, that is California all over."
Twain may be best known for his books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
and Huckleberry Finn
, both set along Mississippi River
country. But Twain's fanciful California tales helped to establish his early reputation and earn him a place as one of the most beloved writers who have written on California.