14 April 2016

Did his visit to Hawaii launch Mark Twain's career?

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River, we Quincyans heard a lot in grade school about Mr. Samuel Clemens who grew up just a few miles down the Muddy River from us. Mr. Clemens, of course, is better known to the world as Mark Twain.

We even took several field trips to Hannibal to learn about Huckleberry Finn and Mr. Clemens. Two things stand out in my mind about these fields above all else: standing in the pitch blackness of the Mark Twain Caves - which I never liked - and the delicious fudge that could be bought in downtown Hannibal. Though we learned much about Mr. Clemens, there is one thing - among many others, I'm sure - that we never learned about him: his great love of what he knew as the Sandwich Islands and we know as the Hawaiian Islands.

I've written a few times on these pages about his love of Hawaii (here, here, here, and here about books), a love that I share with him. I bring him up again today because of an interesting article in Honolulu Magazine titled, "The Adventures of Mark Twain: How He Launched a Literary Career in Hawaii" in honor of the 150th anniversary of his visit to the islands.

In the article, Kim Steutermann Rogers suggests "it’s not just what happened to Twain while he was in Hawai‘i that gave the place its favorable sheen. Throughout his life, Hawai‘i trailed Twain like a favorite cat." She continues:
Within two months of returning to San Francisco, Twain rented Maguire’s Academy of Music for $50. He printed handbills and ran advertisements in local newspapers for his first-ever lecture, titled, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.” 

At the time, there was a long tradition of the lecture circuit happening on the Mainland. “It was the MTV and radio and movies rolled together,” says James Caron, professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i. He is the author of a book on Twain’s early career, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter.

And Twain killed it. He detailed how the cats in Hawai‘i have no tails. The snakes have no teeth. How the women wear simple dresses. The men wear nothing at all. He called the language of the Islands a “Sunday” one. Good for the Sabbath but no good for the rest of the week, because there were no words for swearing. 

Newspaper reviews the next day hailed his performance a “brilliant success,” and Twain immediately decided to take his show on the road. “In October, 1866, I broke out as a lecturer,” Twain said, “and from that day to this I have always been able to gain my living without doing any work” [more].
If you're interested in Mark Twain and/or Hawaii, be sure to give the article a read. You should also read his Letters from Hawaii to see what started it all.

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