110 Early Mark Twain Stories Found In California, And They Tell Us So Much About Him
Well, how's this for a score? Scholars of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California have found 110 early Mark Twain stories. The discovered documents, many almost 150 years old, consist of newspaper articles Twain wrote between 1865 and 1866 for Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada — and were previously considered lost in a fire at the Territorial Enterprise building in 1875. (See, I told you — quite a day's work.)
The recovering of these documents is a particularly exciting find, since the columns themselves are about San Francisco, and were written when Twain was living in California. The Mark Twain Project, currently led by general editor Bob Hirst, has archived and digitized a large collection of Twain's notebooks, thousands of his private letters, unpublished manuscripts, and many published short works, which have been housed at UC Berkeley since 1949.
At the time of writing, Twain was filing a column for the Enterprise six days a week, detailing life in San Francisco for readers living in Virginia City. Both cities were taken by storm by the gold rush and mining boom of the late 1800s, and Twain's already-offbeat writing focused on stories of miners and gold speculators, police officers, and the corruption of early life on the American Western frontier.
These columns, which show Twain as a young writer just beginning to find his own style within the American literary canon, offer new material to Twain scholars and enthusiasts alike. The Associated Press cites one example, in which Twain recreates a conversation between two gold speculators:
In one letter, Twain gives detailed dialogue between two gold speculators trapped in a shaft, clinging to rope tied to an old horse named Cotton. "Johnny, I've not lived as I ought to have lived. D--n that infernal horse!" Twain reported one man saying to the other. "Johnny, if we are saved I mean to be a good man and a Christian."
It's unclear how Twain acquired that level of detail. Hirst said the story is likely based on some facts.
This kind of improvised detail by Twain, who was likely not trapped in the mining shaft himself, has led some publications, including Vulture, to claim that the writer Twain fabricated his early columns. But hey, who really knows? Maybe Twain's thirst for adventure led him to poke his head down into the shaft for a bit.
Developing his voice as a writer, however, was not without without its own unique pitfalls. According to The Guardian, these papers indicate that Twain, who was 29 years old at the time, seemed to be struggling with his identity, both on and off the page:
The articles were written, Hirst said, at a time of great uncertainty in Twain’s life, when he was trying to decide in which direction to take his career. “It’s really a crisis time for him,” Hirst said. “He’s going to be 30 on 30 November 1865, and for someone not to have chosen a career by that time in this period was quite unusual.”
Twain had been resisting becoming a humorist, according to Hirst, because at the time humor was considered a lower order of writing.
Some even suggest that at one point Twain contemplated suicide. The Washington Post quotes a letter from Twain to his brother, in which Twain wrote: "If I do not get out of debt in three months — pistols or poison for one — exit me."
Luckily for readers, Twain suffered on to become the man who would create some of literature's most beloved characters, like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
This newest collection of rediscovered writings is expected to be included in a collection of Twain's work sometime next year.