Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Date of this Version

March 2002


Published in American Periodicals 12 (2002), pp. 96-114. Copyright 2004 by the Research Society for American Periodicals. Used by permission.


On November 20, 1867, Mark Twain wrote the San Francisco Daily Alta California to say that he had come home to America. It was the end of his tour of Europe and the Holy Land aboard the Quaker City, the trip that produced dozens of letters to the Daily Alta and, eventually, a book, The Innocents Abroad. These writings were enormously successful for Twain, as many papers picked up the series written to California, and the whole country knew about him; he was, upon his arrival, a “national figure"(Kaplan 57). It was, for Mark Twain, a moment of major transition in his life and career: he moved beyond the provincial fame he had known as a journalist in the far western United States and literally moved out of the West altogether, for after coming ashore in New York City, he stayed on the eastern seaboard, going to Washington, D.C., "to stay a month or two--possibly longer" (20 November). This trip to Washington was a step in Twain's effort to define himself as a writer. His success as a colloquial western voice in Nevada and California as a writer from the margins of the American states, the Wild Humorist ofthe Pacific Slope, was unsatisfying to him. He wanted to be more than an amusing writer of specialized genre-pieces, yet he could not easily foresee the next step.

This unsettled period in Twain's life produced, among other writings, fourteen letters to the San Francisco Daily Alta California. These articles, written and published between November 20,1867, and August 1, 1869, have received almost no attention from Twain scholars. Yet, the letters demonstrate Twain's authorial maneuvering in this moment of literary identity crisis. Written from Washington, D.C., Connecticut, and Boston, these articles are examples of how Mark Twain negotiated the northeastern American world, a world considerably at odds with Western experience. The articles, written not just by a westerner, but by an emerging author of national fame, are the work of a writer who understood that the Northeast was the hub of the American literary market. Twain wanted entré into that market. The letters to the Alta demonstrate Twain's interaction with this establishment on avariety of levels. First, he is the outsider awed by the emblems of American cultural life. He is also the westerner endowed with enough "'horse sense" to see the hypocrisy of politics and “culture." At the same time, he uses humor to establish a position of power for his perspective, creating an authorial voice that can see the upper crust from within and report the foolishness of it back to a western readership, He attains, in the words of Don Florence, a humor that offers "fluidity," that grants him "power and freedom" (7-8). And, with this freedom, he entertains a San Francisco readership trying to live a border life between frontier grit and metropolitan style.