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In a very real way—tossed with a healthy dose of ironic hyperbole—Mark Twain, the writer, legendary curmudgeon, social commentator, and humorist—was born in Nevada. While it is a historical fact that Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, the nom de plume for the man many claim is the greatest of American authors was first used in February 1863 in Virginia City.
Clemens had come to Nevada to find his fortune, whether it came from silver, timber, or political largesse. Had these ventures not failed spectacularly, Mark Twain may never have been born, grown rich, become poor, and then grown rich once more. Nor would this country, which had no assurance of surviving the Civil War intact in his time, have been blessed with one of its defining voices. Many say that Twain represents the spirit of America in the 19th century. Without the individualistic, frontier spirit still embodied by Nevada, Clemens would be a mere historical footnote and Twain nothing but a glint in the muse’s eye.
While his youth spent in Hannibal, Missouri, as well as his oft-documented adventures in San Francisco, Connecticut, and in the larger world abroad, are well-told tales, Clemens’ time spent in Washoe, as the Nevada Territory was often referred to in those days, has strangely received far less attention. Like Athena bursting forth from Zeus full-grown, Twain emerged from the mind of Clemens in Nevada. Yet even in 1861, his destiny as the greatest of American writers was far from a certainty.
It was not the written word, but a need for freedom and wealth that brought Clemens to Nevada. While he claims to have published numerous letters during his time on the Mississippi, he was in no way a professional writer when he crested the hills into Carson City in 1861. That would come nearly a year later when he accepted a reporter position for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. For now, Clemens was running.
Back in St. Louis he had “somehow found himself” a member of an improvised militia known as the Marion Rangers. Unaffiliated with any official Confederate unit and stuck between his Southern heritage and a love of the Union, Clemens soon resigned citing that he was “incapacitated by fatigue through persistent retreating.” As it did with many Americans of his time, the Civil War refused to leave him to live his life. Under continued threat of conscription by both Union and Confederate forces due to his highly valuable skill as a riverboat pilot, Clemens felt the need to escape.
Fate, or luck, in the form of his older brother, Orion, stepped in and provided Clemens with just the opportunity he needed. Through connections with Lincoln’s cabinet, Orion had secured the prestigious position of Secretary of the Nevada Territory, under Tammany Hall politico Governor Nye. Orion, a notoriously honest man and terrible businessman, was in need of Clemens’ funds, and Clemens needed to get away.
Sam and Orion journeyed 20 days by stagecoach and arrived in “the insignificant village of Carson” City, a journey detailed in Twain’s travelogue/fictional narrative Roughing It. Sam was unimpressed with the 1,500-person mining provincial capital but believed that he would strike it big within three months and head back home laden with Nevada silver.
From September 1861 to April 1862, Clemens heartily undertook the backbreaking and laborious life of a miner and nearly claimed his long-sought-after wealth in a rich mine dubbed “Pride of Utah,” before losing the claim due to jumbled communication between he and his partner, Higbie, to whom he would later dedicate Roughing It. By April, the physical labor took its toll, and, as historian Fred Kaplan details in The Singular Mark Twain, “he took frequent opportunities to sharpen his poker skills, practice his penchant for swearing and cultivate a western swagger, including carrying a pistol, which he had no skill at using.” Wealth from a vein of silver seemed forever lost to Clemens.
Once more providence stepped in, and Clemens moved to Virginia City to replace an Enterprise reporter off to visit his family. The job paid $25 a week, hardly a fortune, but a job that sent 27-year-old Clemens on the road that would see him earn more wealth and fame than any silver mine could ever provide. Photo: Virginia City today
It was at the Enterprise that Clemens first took the pen name Mark Twain, from “the Mississippi leadman’s call meaning twelve feet.” In a town whose chief recreational activities were “drinking, card-playing and fighting,” (Kaplan, pg. 105) the pen name, inspired by fellow reporter Dan De Quille, offered Clemens some protection from the controversial, and often fictitious, claims made by Twain.
By 1863, Clemens and Twain had essentially become one man. Sam began referring to himself as Mark, and the mustache that would become his trademark first took root. While his reporting would most certainly not hold up under the rigors of modern-day journalistic ethics, his time at the Enterprise, coupled with Nevada’s individualistic nature, “were formative in his development as a writer and in the emergence of a distinctive personality.” (Kaplan pg. 108)
It was this distinctive personality that soon got him into life-threatening trouble when on May 21, 1864 he rashly challenged the editor of a rival paper to a duel. A man 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,” Twain wrote. When the challenge was accepted, Twain, who was a notoriously inept shot, felt death staring down on him. He rose early the morning of the duel and spent time “in practicing with the revolver and finding out which end to level at the adversary.”
Despite extensive practice on a fence rail that was “to represent Mr. Laird…who was longer and thinner than a rail.” He missed every shot and was shown up by his second Stephen Gillis, who shot a bird dead at 30 yards.
Only subterfuge and luck allowed Twain to avoid the duel, as Mr. Laird arrived right at the moment while they were examining the dead bird and was told that Twain had made the shot. Mr. Laird flatly refused to duel and Twain “won.” His prize, and ours, was a long life well lived, replete with many successes and a few failures.
While the duel had been avoided, word came to Twain that he was to be the first victim of a newly passed anti-dueling law demanding a minimum two-year prison stay. Twain felt it was time to move on. Clemens had come to Nevada to find freedom and earn a fortune and now, to once again find freedom, he fled Nevada for San Francisco. From then to the years of his death in 1910, Twain found his fortune, lived as free as any man can, and became the most famous American of his generation.
Twain once described Nevada “as the damndest country under the sun,” and, while he spent less than three years here, it is a surety that without Nevada, Sam Clemens would never have become Mark Twain.
The Mark Twain Cultural Center at Incline Village
In Roughing It, Mark Twain details his first view of Lake Tahoe as “surely the fairest picture that the whole earth affords.” It is easy to appreciate Twain’s take on the wonders of Lake Tahoe. From the mirror sheen of the water to the crown of snow-capped peaks, Lake Tahoe is one of Nevada’s true treasures.
He charms the reader for several more pages before confessing, like a guilty child head hung low, to being the accidental architect of a hellish forest fire. “Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame!” Twain wrote from the relative safety of a small canoe on the lake.
Twain and his cohorts watched for hours in horror. When the “crimson spirals” and “tangled network of red lava streams” had burned themselves out, untold acres of pristine woodlands had been destroyed in a “conflagration” of a “reflected hell.”
It is with an appropriate sense of irony that the Mark Twain Cultural Center at Incline Village on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, may just be built upon a faint layer of ash, a geological reminder of the folly of man.
Within the modest building the Ghost of Mark Twain is kept alive in the person of McAvoy Layne. “It’s like being a Monday-through-Friday preacher, whose sermon, though not reverently pious, is fervently American,” Layne says.
Featuring readings form Twain’s works, the center transports us back with a puff of cigar smoke, the twist of a mustache, and a southern drawl to the very beginnings of Twain’s legend and is a unique celebration of a man who without question can lay claim to the title one of a kind.
Editor’s Note: The Mark Twain Cultural Center closed on December 30, 2011, citing financial factors.