New Show Reframes Mark Twain's Work for Contemporary Audiences

By Gordon, Mike | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, April 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

New Show Reframes Mark Twain's Work for Contemporary Audiences


Gordon, Mike, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


Even 150 years ago it was a dream job for a newspaper correspondent: Sail to Hawaii -- the Sandwich Islands -- and write about its people and places in a series of letters for the Sacramento Union. How could Samuel Langhorne Clemens resist?

When the mustachioed Missourian boarded the steamer Ajax in 1866, he signed on with the pseudonym that would later make him famous. And with that, Mark Twain began a romance with the place he famously called "the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean."

'TWAIN MEETS TITA'

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This year marks the sesquicentennial of that trip, which lasted from March 18 to July 19, 1866, and gave Americans their first detailed description of Hawaii. Call Twain a travel writer if you want -- the title fits.

Twain wrote 25 letters in Hawaii -- about 90,000 words -- and sent them by ship to the mainland and the Sacramento Union, which shared them with other newspapers in the west. They are thoroughly Twain: funny, wry and observant. They are also thoroughly of the period and occasionally rely on descriptions of people and practices that are not respectful of Hawaiian culture -- from the bleached bones left for decades on an old Oahu battlefield to the "dusky native women" and "savages" the writer encounters.

Twain, who was only 31, wrote about royalty, missionaries and Native Hawaiian women who swept by on horseback "free as the wind," lounged beneath shade trees and bathed naked in the sea. To walk the streets of Honolulu, Twain wrote, with its "balmy fragrance" of jasmine and oleander, was to walk in "a summer calm as tranquil as the dawn in the Garden of Eden."

Newspaper readers knew little about Hawaii at that time, and Twain became their guide, perhaps the first travel writer to come ashore, said Bob Hirst, chief curator and general editor of the Mark Twain Papers, a huge collection of the author's writing kept at the University of California, Berkeley.

"When he got there it was just absolutely heaven to him," Hirst said in a call from the Bay Area campus. "He did a thorough job of reporting on the islands. He interviewed and saw a lot of people."

While in Hawaii, Twain also scored a true journalistic scoop.

Fifteen survivors of the clipper ship Hornet, which burned and sank off the coast of Central America, reached Hawaii in June after 43 days at sea in an open boat with scant food and water. Twain interviewed them at the Seaman's Hospital on Oahu.

He had to be carried there on a stretcher because he was suffering from saddle sores he got while touring the Big Island on horseback.

"He comes to the hospital where these guys are trying to recover and gets the whole story of this remarkable shipwreck and survival," Hirst said. "He writes it up overnight, and someone has to take it to a ship that is leaving, and it got tossed on board from someone on the dock. The Sacramento Union got the absolute scoop on this."

Across the west the reception to Twain's letters was so positive it surprised the author, who went on to become a public lecturer when he returned to the mainland, said Twain impersonator McAvoy Layne, who has performed as the author for 28 years.

"They loved it," Layne said. "They ate it up."

Twain's letters from Hawaii are among his best writing, full of Hawaiiana and Americana, Layne said by phone from his home in Lake Tahoe, Nev. But Twain possessed more than a sense of humor.

"He had a humorous outlook on life," said Layne, 72. …

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