Magazine article The Spectator

Way out West

Magazine article The Spectator

Way out West

Article excerpt


by Roy Morris Jr

Simon & Schuster, £17.99, pp. 282,


This year America celebrates the centenary of Mark Twain's death. He is the nearest that country gets to a national treasure, with a hefty bibliography to show it: the University of California Press's 70-volume Works and Papers represents but a fragment, and in June Penguin published an entire book on the food Twain ate.

Now here comes Roy Morris Jr with a contribution covering Twain's pre-fame journeys among the mines and saloons of the western frontier.

What does it add?

Samuel Clemens (as Twain was born) worked as an itinerant printer and a Mississippi riverboat pilot before a reluctant stint as a Confederate guerilla at the outbreak of civil war. At the age of 25, he decided to go west, avoiding the war altogether. His brother Orion had secured a patronage appointment in the newly created Nevada Territory and Sam went with him. The pair rode a stagecoach west across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains, encountering a fearsome cast of gunslingers, chancers and Mormons (as Brigham Young so rightly advised Sam, 'Ten or eleven wives is all you need'). It took 24 hours to cross the Great Salt Lake and the alkali dust made their noses bleed the whole time. When they pulled in to Carson City the first thing they saw was a shootout.

After forays to silver diggings and timber camps, and a good deal of loafing in hightop Spanish boots with a revolver tucked into his blue jeans, Clemens landed a reporting job on the Territorial Enterprise , a daily newspaper in the booming silver town of Virginia City, 120 miles north-east of Carson and far from the Battle of Shiloh.

In February 1863, the byline 'Mark Twain' appeared for the first time. (Steamboat pilots needed 12 feet of water to float, and steersmen cried, 'mark twain!' - a twain being two fathoms - to signify safe water. …

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