The power of mischief, timing, and typography.
Mark Twain has no shortage of cultural credits — celebrated humorist, irreverent adviser to little girls, opinionated critic and cultural commentator, underappreciated poet, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans. But perhaps his greatest feat was his own becoming — how he transformed Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain, “the Lincoln of Literature.”
In The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (public library), Ben Tarnoff chronicles that becoming alongside the rise of the singular “vanguard of democracy” that shaped the course of the Western written word, a course largely steered by Twain. Embedded in the altogether fascinating story, on a closer read, is a testament to history’s cyclical nature as a parallel emerges between San Francisco in the Gold Rush era and Silicon Valley today, and between the respective patron saints of those worlds — Mark Twain and Steve Jobs.
Born in 1835, Twain came of age “at the best possible time,” as the country was on the cusp of a remarkable cultural change, driven in large part by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 — the spark for the famous Gold Rush, which drew risk-takers, pioneers, and enterprising vagabonds from all over the world and elevated San Francisco as a gateway to the era’s El Dorado. Twain, born in the west and raised in Missouri, found in San Francisco what many entrepreneurs today find in Silicon Valley — like many other young men, he “hadn’t come to stay, but to get rich and get out.” The confluence of all these cultural and personal factors created a unique backdrop:
They erected tents and wooden hovels, makeshift structures that made easy kindling for the city’s frequent fires. They built gambling dens and saloons and brothels. They lived among the cultures of five continents, often condensed into the space of a single street: Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australian. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.
By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. The city craved spectacle, whether on the gaslit stages of its many theaters or in the ornately costumed pageantry of its streets. Its wide-open atmosphere endeared it to the young and the odd, to anyone seeking refuge from the overcivilized East. It had an acute sense of its own history, and a paganish appetite for mythmaking and ritual.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the city quickly sprouted a thriving literary scene — a “band of outsiders” known as the Bohemians — for writers are a culture’s foremost mythmakers. Tarnoff captures their spirit:
The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another. San Francisco was where their story began, but it would continue in Boston, New York, and London; in the palace and the poorhouse; in success and humiliation, fame and poverty.
Two concurrent and seemingly opposite cultural forces contributed to the rise of the Bohemians: On the one hand, the Civil War disrupted America’s moral and aesthetic tradition, creating “rifts in the culture wide enough for new voices to be heard”; on the other, the technological advances brought on by the war had also shrunk the country, bringing East and West closer together with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph. San Francisco was in a unique position to reap the fruits of both developments, and “its writers found a wider readership at a moment when the nation sorely needed new storytellers.
In joining the Bohemians, Twain forever changed the course of both his own life and American literature. Tarnoff writes:
No Bohemian made better art than Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer, nurturing the literary powers he would later use to transform American literature. He would help steer the country through its newfangled nationhood, and become the supreme cultural icon of the postwar age. But first, he would spend his formative years on the Far Western fringe, in the company of other young Bohemians struggling to reinvent American writing.
Tarnoff’s enchanting portrait of young Twain is remarkable in several ways — it is exquisitely written, it paints a somewhat timeless picture of the eccentric entrepreneur archetype, but perhaps most of all it reveals details about the beloved author of which most of us are unaware, for seemingly trivial reasons related to the trajectory of recording technology: left with only black-and-white photographs as sensory documentation of his life, we are deaf-blind to details like his striking carrot-colored hair or the peculiar drawl and even more peculiar rhythm of his speech. Tarnoff brings young Twain to life:
What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive — a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.
So on May 2, 1863, Samuel Clemens boarded a stagecoach headed to Mark Twain via a rocky two-hundred-mile journey to San Francisco. At age 27, he was already extraordinary before he had even arrived:
The young Twain … already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada — or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.
Originally, Twain hadn’t planned to stay long, but he found himself entranced by the city’s perpetual cycle of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing. In a letter to his mother and sister from mid-May, he announced he was only going to stay a little while longer — ten days or so, and no more than two weeks. But San Francisco’s bountiful buffet of saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens sang to him a siren song he could not resist. By June, he was still there, living “to the hilt” (to borrow Anne Sexton’s term) and estimating that he knew at least a thousand of San Francisco’s 115,000 citizens — “knew” in the pre-Facebook sense, which makes the scale of his social life all the more impressive.
He eventually left in July, but the spell had been cast:
Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.
One particular detail about Twain made me consider a curious parallel between him and Steve Jobs beyond their similar cultural legacy of revolutionizing their respective fields: Twain, like Jobs, was a disobedient boy (his mother described him as “very wild and mischievous”) who hated school. But perhaps most importantly, he was a typesetter by trade and dropped out of school (as did Jobs) to become “a printer’s devil,” as type apprentices were called at the time. It was through typesetting that he entered into literature, and through typesetting that he found his irreverent voice. Tarnoff writes:
The shop became his schoolroom. He put other people’s lines into print and composed a few of his own. He learned to think of words as things, as slivers of ink-stained metal that, if strung in the right sequence, could make more mischief than any schoolboy prank. At fifteen he began typesetting for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union, and wrote the occasional sketch. When Orion left on a business trip and put his sibling in charge, the teenager lost no time in testing the incendiary potential of the medium. He ignited a feud with the editor of a rival newspaper, scorching the poor man so thoroughly that when Orion returned, he was forced to run an apology.
This sounds remarkably like the story of Steve Jobs, whose era-defining design vision was first tickled by a typography class that he serendipitous wandered into, out of academic mischief and boredom with his prescribed course. Type led Jobs to design innovation and Twain to literary innovation. Both men also came of age at a time of incredible technological progress — for Jobs, the golden age of modern computing, and for Twain, the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. As a young man, Twain saw steamboats and trains and telegraphs transform the diffusion of the printed word across the country. He witnessed America’s booming love affair with newspapers — a century before he was born, the country had 37 newspapers. By the time he entered typesetting, there were more than a thousand.
Tarnoff contextualizes the significance of this shift, and the particular fertility of Twain’s locale of choice:
The newspaper revolution created America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground… By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7.3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t write, compared with 20 percent nationwide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury — it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.