Scholars Find Treasure Trove of Mark Twain's Early Writing

Posted on May 7, 2015

Mark Twain scholars at the University of California at Berkeley have uncovered a literary treasure trove: the lost early stories of Mark Twain when he worked for the newspaper that is now the San Francisco Chronicle. As a young man, Twain worked in San Francisco and wrote six columns a week which were in letter form. Each day the letter was taken by stagecoach to Nevada to be published in The Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City.

According to the Chronicle, each story was titled "Letter From San Francisco" and reported on local happenings. Being Twain, the happenings weren't always completely factual. But from the excerpts, it seems clear that they were always entertaining. The scholars managed to track down the stories by an exhaustive search of newspaper archives and scrapbooks.

In one letter dated October 20, 1865, he told the tale of two gold miners who were inspecting a mine shaft when the rope holding them broke. The miners plummeted to the bottom of the well, but were eventually rescued by their horse. The horse, named Cotton, was fond of taking breaks for "profound meditation." Cotton chose to meditate when the rope broke, but apparently rallied in time to save the miners -- although it's unclear from the excerpt released how he did that.

The writing style is gripping and quite entertaining. But it included detailed descriptions of the miners' expressions and conversations held at the bottom of the well. It's unclear whether Twain traveled to the mine to interview the miners or stayed in San Francisco and just made up the missing parts on his own. Twain experts imply that the latter explanation was most likely. Of course the story was much more entertaining the way he told it.

Bob Hirst, the editor of the UC Berkeley's Mark Twain Project, found fascinating insights into Twain's mindset at the time. He dutifully turned in his journalistic columns, but letters reveal that he was truly miserable. In personal letters, Twain bemoaned his high debt and suggested he might commit suicide if he couldn't get the debt cleared in 3 months. He also drank too much. He wrote to his brother, "If I do not get out of debt in three months -- pistols or poison for one -- exit me."

He eventually ditched his job and moved to Hawaii. He turned his hand to fiction and wrote Innocents Abroad and the rest is history. The excerpts will be released in the future. In the meantime you can find a wealth of Twain material, including revisions to his manuscript of Huckleberry Finn at marktwainproject.org.
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