Mark Twain knew the way to San Jose

Mark Twain knew the way to San Jose

Mark Twain stipulated that his autobiography be published 100
years after he was

dead, and unaware, and indifferent.

This gave him the freedom to be scathingly candid. The first
volume of his memoirs was published last November and I’ve been
enjoying the thick tome that reveals the creative mind from which
sprang Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and many other memorial
characters.
Mark Twain stipulated that his autobiography be published 100 years after he was “dead, and unaware, and indifferent.” This gave him the freedom to be scathingly candid. The first volume of his memoirs was published last November and I’ve been enjoying the thick tome that reveals the creative mind from which sprang Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and many other memorial characters.

Young Samuel Langhorne Clemens from Hannibal, Mo., would never have become Mark Twain without paying his literary dues as a newspaper reporter. Scholars don’t know for sure if he ever came to our South Valley region, but he did take a few trips to San Jose and wrote about his experiences in the city that a century later would become the capitol of the high-tech industry.

Clemens got his start as a professional writer in 1862 when, as a miner in western Nevada, he sent “contributions” to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise under the pen name “Josh.” In October of that year, the Enterprise hired him full-time as a cub reporter. No doubt the frontier life of the silver mining territory provided him with a Mother Lode of material – from shoot-outs, robberies and drunken brawls. On Feb. 3, 1863, the newspaper published a humorous travel article about a trip to Carson City. It was a milestone in that it was the first time Clemens signed himself as “Mark Twain,” a pen name derived from the riverboat term for the safe depth of two fathoms.

To flee prosecution for engaging in a duel, Clemens moved to San Francisco on June 1, 1864 and started working for The Morning Call as its only reporter. He spent as much as 18 hours a day, six days a week covering local news, courts and criminal activities, reviewing theater productions and producing filler items of local interest. Clemens would later describe the job as “fearful drudgery.”

Many of his articles written during his four months at this newspaper appear in the book “Clemens of the ‘Call’: Mark Twain in San Francisco,” edited by Edgar Branch who estimates that Twain wrote more than 5,000 items (including brief fillers). Among his most memorial articles is one headlined: “Inexplicable New from San Jose.” It was inspired by a trip Clemens and seven other San Francisco reporters took on the recently opened railroad line (now used by Caltrain) on Sunday, Aug. 14, 1864 to the farm village of San Jose. They spent an hour roaming the town – imbibing a drink or two at the Continental Hotel – before heading by a convoy of buggies the 12 miles to the Warm Springs resort, located in what’s now the city of Fremont. There, they enjoyed the day hiking, swimming in the hot springs, dining and drinking. Clemens used the trip as the basis for a humorous sketch published in the Call on Aug. 23, 1864 and written in a drunkard’s style. He refers to San Jose with a drunkard’s slur as “Sarrozay,” and describes it as “a lovely place.”

Twain then tells of the construction of a house of worship in the city as “a new church in a tall scaffolding – I watched her an hour, but can’t understand it. I don’ see how they got her in – I don’ see how they goin’ to get her out. Corralled for good, praps. Hic! Them hiccups again. Comes from s-sociating with drunken beasts.”

Twain continued working as a newspaper reporter for several more years. He made at least one return visit to San Jose, seeing the Academy of Notre Dame and the newly built Santa Clara County Courthouse as well as spending a couple of hours with a Mr. Prevost for an article on California’s silk industry. His San Francisco Bulletin article of Dec. 7, 1866, describes San Jose as “a handsome city of 6,000 inhabitants” and Twain claims astonishment at finding “the city is also out of debt and has $150,000 in its treasury.” He doubts the truth of these statements. “I give these marvels as they were told to me – I dare not vouch for them,” he warns readers. “Cities and counties that are out of debt are very rare; the official virtue that permits them to remain so is still rarer – wherefore we must receive such statements as the above with caution.”

Reading Twain’s news articles reveals a young writer who is still trying to find his voice. Sometimes he comes off as too cute, trying too much to be funny. His humorous newspaper writing must have irritated editors, one of whom encouraged him to resign his job with a San Francisco paper to avoid the embarrassment of being fired. But his newspaper experience trained Twain in the writer’s discipline and enabled him to develop his humorous viewpoint of humanity to become the beloved American literary figure.

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