Mr. Twain’s wild ride
How his down-and-out Central Valley days gave the great writer his voice—and made him famous
It’s spring in the sleepy town of Angels Camp. Winds roll down from the Sierras and the hills are months away from being cooked in a brown whiskey burn. Trees sway gently along the Victorian saloons, the gilded balconies, the soda fountains and the old-time barbershop. And, yet, there’s something eerie about this rustic vision. Maybe it’s all the pictures of that one old man. Maybe it’s the giant statues of frogs.
Between May 16 and 20, over 50,000 people will descend on Angels Camp to attend its annual Jumping Frog Jubilee. The event honors the town’s place in the mythology of Mark Twain, who penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” while living here in 1865. Today, Twain’s admirers from around the world have made the “Frog Jump” a literary Mecca. The Jubilee is full of unusual sights, with little “Tom” and “Becky” contestants in straw hats and sunbonnets, scores of European press, and, of course, croaking bullfrog derbies. It’s a tribute to the brazen flair that made Twain a national icon, not to mention the Central Valley’s best-selling author ever.
But when Twain came to Angels Camp in 1865, he’d never have imagined such fortunes lay ahead. Back then, people knew him only as a shifty schemer and hellacious drunk. He’d traveled to California to experience the wild Sacramento Valley—what he called the land of “gold, whiskey, fights, and fandangos”—but times were tough. As a writer, Twain lacked an identity. He loathed convention, and the bland literary standards of the day were strangling his energy and optimism. In Virginia City, Nev., the boredom had nearly been fatal. During his first stint as a reporter, Twain had fabricated a news story as a prank, enraged the community, been challenged to a duel and finally skipped town. Fishing for work between Sacramento—the “city of saloons,” as he affectionately labeled it—and San Francisco, he found himself in a creative no man’s land, hating the labored eloquence and superficial refinement that marked “great writing,” yet having no better vision of his own. Now 29, he was increasingly depressed.
Salvation came from a friend smashing a glass pitcher over a San Francisco bartender’s head. Fearing the law, Twain (and his pal) quickly cut out of town again. He drifted on to Calaveras County. Here, while patrolling the grungy mining hamlets near Jackass Hill, he heard a whopper of a tale about a corrupt frog race. Suddenly he had a radical idea about how to bring the story to life.
For decent society, California was the end of the world, but the rhythms of its rough second-class culture were creeping into Twain’s voice. His isolation here had galvanized him. He’d survived the dim card rooms of Sacramento and the muddy slopes of Angels Camp on his own terms, and now he’d approach the craft of storytelling similarly. Years of resentment festered as he carefully lined his victims against the wall: the highbrow language, the trustworthy narrator, the dignified subject matter. These were the first casualties in Twain’s new war on American style.
When Twain finished “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” he’d happily ignored every codified rule of writing. Odd and irreverent, the story made a deadpan mockery of pretension and a virtue of pointlessness. Twain sent the piece off to a New York magazine, The Saturday Press, and got it published right away. Then something curious happened. The story started jumping, like a Calaveras bullfrog, across the country from one magazine to another. Suddenly there was a buzz about a young humorist named Mark Twain.
But Twain wasn’t hearing the applause inside the bottle he’d crawled into. Poor communications and his own restlessness kept him in the dark about his own fame. While New York elites were toasting his first success, Twain was alone in bars toasting his own demons. Whiskey raging in his bloodstream, he was crashing in pool halls and smoking enough cigars to kill the monster Oriental roaches that holed up beside him. His mood swings returned with a vengeance. He teetered between episodes of hot-blooded rage and monumental laziness. His hair and clothing were often a savage mess, and after his night-long benders he looked like the devil incarnate. Later, when Twain’s future father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, asked for letters of reference from the young man’s “friends” out west, he got back a steady stream of hate mail, informing him that Twain was a loser, a nasty drunk and a first-rate scoundrel born to swing on the end of a noose.
Finally, in the same week that Twain was arrested for public drunkenness, reports began trickling into the Sacramento Valley about his smashing success on the East Coast. Among those assuring him in letters that the “Jumping Frog” story had made him a celebrity was his mother. Twain wrote her back, claiming his disbelief that New Yorkers were raving about such “a villainous back-woods sketch.” But, in truth, he had the opposite reaction—his renegade stylist’s instincts finally had been validated by a home run.
Twain’s national triumph helped Californians see him in a different light. So recently regarded as a hack journalist and foul-mouthed inebriate with scant prospects, he’d suddenly become a literary force. But it did little to quell his rabid depression. For one thing, he was still dead broke. Though his story had been reprinted across the country, this was an age without copyright enforcement; only two magazines chose to pay him for it. Things seemed hopeless. He tried a few times to kill himself. (Years later, he admitted, “Many times I have been sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed of having tried.”)
Desperately in need of cash, Twain sobered up for a few days and landed a job as a travel writer for the Sacramento Union. He sailed to Honolulu in March of 1866 and found something startling there: It seemed his “Jumping Frog” story had jumped half way across the Pacific Ocean. Twain discovered himself to be a literary sensation throughout the islands. Only then, under palm trees and perfect breezes, did the depression begin to loosen its grip on him.
Revitalized, Twain had another creative breakthrough. The bad boy in him was itching to skewer American subcultures. To do it, all he’d need was an arrogant Yankee traveling companion, whose pronouncements he could gather for the record. Finding such a person in Hawaii proved too much work, so Twain made one up. The notorious “Mr. Brown” allowed him to become a closet shock-jock; Twain’s Union travelogues (later collected and modified to become Roughing It) reveled in outrageous and provocative statements, which he attributed to Brown in order to deflect readers’ enmity. Within a year, he would perfect this charade, combining it with the rebellious style of “Jumping Frog” to blaze a trail for himself as a writer.
Days before leaving the islands, Twain had another stroke of luck: A handful of emaciated shipwreck survivors tumbled onto a shore near Honolulu. These sea-faring skeletons were all that remained of the crew of the Hornet, an American clipper that had burned at sea some 43 harrowing days earlier. Twain knew it would be a national story. That night, the Hornet’s sun-baked castaways, who’d just spent six weeks paddling across 4,000 miles of unforgiving ocean, saw a saddle-sore Twain carried in on a stretcher to interview them.
Tossing the flames and waves right off the page, Twain’s coverage of the shipwreck for the Union proved again his linguistic command. It was a harsh, immediate epic, and the biggest news story of the year. Once again, the name Mark Twain was on everybody’s lips. When he returned to Sacramento to collect his wages, the Union editors slapped down a $300 bonus for putting their newspaper on the map.
Sauntering back out into the city’s shady streets, Twain could hear the nation calling him. More importantly, he now knew who he was: the brash, clever humorist of the West; the unapologetic trickster of tales both real and invented; the rambler with a knack for offending, a gift for entertaining, and a powerful talent for inspiring the imagination in ways that where wholly new in the American literary landscape.
And so, every spring in this sleepy foothills town, the Twain banners tip in the breeze and an old, silver-haired presence glowers from the road signs and dusty windows everywhere. Soon, inevitably, the tranquility explodes with memory and adulation: crowds bustling, bullfrogs jumping. It’s one small community’s homage to the wild spirit of California, and a storyteller who made his name from it.
Scott Thomas Anderson recently completed a long-term critical study of Mark Twain for UC Davis.