Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Guests and Songs in Twain's "Letter from Carson City"

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Guests and Songs in Twain's "Letter from Carson City"

Article excerpt

Up on the famed Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, Sam Clemens lived as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper. He remained awake all night Wednesday so he would not miss Thursdays early morning stagecoach for Carson City, the territorial capital. After arriving in Carson City he learned there was to be a party that evening. He went, and asked the host, former California Governor J. Neely Johnson, if he could "stand around awhile." The twenty-seven-year-old newsman then remained at the party until around 2 a.m. Friday. Having been up for some forty-five hours, he went to bed Friday morning and "slept the greater part of the time" until Saturday afternoon.

Late on Saturday, January 31st, he wrote a newspaper column in the form of a letter, reporting on the party.1 The letter was dispatched to Virginia City, arriving at the Territorial Enterprise office on Sunday. Since compositors and printers did not work on Sundays, there were no morning papers on Mondays. Thus, it was not until Tuesday morning, February 3, 1863, that readers of the Territorial Enterprise perused the letter signed by "Mark Twain," the first known item for which Sam Clemens used this pen name in print.

The letter is a delightful sketch ofTwain's observations at that Carson City dinner party. Sometime after Clemens arrived at the party another Virginia City reporter, Clement T. Rice of the rival Virginia City Daily Union1 showed up and gained Governor Johnson's permission "to stand on the porch." Although Rice is a central figure in this first Twain letter, he is never identified and is referred to simply as "the Unreliable," a familiar character and target in Twain's writing in 1863. It was useful for Sam Clemens to include him in humorous sketches, especially in order to throw skewering barbs at his behavior.

Governor Johnson, their host, was the fourth governor of California. The three California governors who preceded him had all been married, but Mrs. Johnson, the former Mary Zabriskie, was the first "First Lady of California" to hold an Inaugural Ball.3 Not long after leaving office in 1858, Gov. Johnson began practicing law in then-nascent Carson City.

In the 1,729-word letter about the Johnsons' party, Twain was providing readers with their first glimpse inside the popular couple's home. Governor and Mrs. Johnson had a "new house-a large house, with its ceilings embellished with snowy mouldings; its floors glowing with warm-tinted carpets; with cushioned chairs and sofas to sit on, and a piano to listen to; with fires so arranged that you can see them, and know that there is no humbug about it; with walls garnished with pictures, and above all, mirrors, wherein you may gaze."4

C. T. Rice, "The Unreliable," was Sam Clemens's counterpart on the staff of the Virginia City Daily Union. The two became acquainted after meeting in the fall of 1861, when both were rooming and boarding at Mrs. Margret Murphy's in Carson City. During October and November 1861, Sam was clerking for his brother during the first session of the Nevada Territorial Legislature while Rice was legislative reporter for the Carson City Daily Silver Age. At the time, Sam dubbed their boarding house Mrs. Murphy's "ranch" and "corral." In Roughing It, written a decade later, a single reference is made to the fourteen boarders as the "Irish Brigade." Another "brigade" of eleven men laid a timber claim on the northeast shore of Lake Tahoe. Three or four of the men were residents at Mrs. Murphy's.5

In November, 1862, the Silver Age ceased publication. The press was moved to Virginia City to open a new paper, the Virginia City Daily Union. During the second session of the Territorial Legislature, in late 1862, Sam Clemens was reporting on the session for the Territorial Enterprise. Rice was writing for the competition, the Daily Union. In the columns of the Union, Rice criticized one of Clemens's reports on legislative proceedings. Clemens responded in the Enterprise, referring to Rice as "The Unreliable. …

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