Mark Twain irritates me.
He’s like the grain of sand in your sock that won’t come out no matter how many times you stop hiking, unlace your shoes, peel off your sweaty sock and shake it like a fist at the sky.
I managed to move away from my ancestral home of Missouri without much thinking about the man, save the required high school reading of his most famous novel—one that wouldn’t publish for almost 20 years after his visit to my current home, Hawai‘i.
But once I got here, he seemed to appear around every corner, as popular as Hawai‘i’s ABC Stores.
Twain arrived in Hawai‘i 150 years ago this coming Friday. He was fleeing editors and debtors of San Francisco. A few weeks before his escape from the Mainland, he admitted in a letter to his mother that he was bored with life. In another letter to his brother, he acknowledged that he aspired to a literary life.
I arrived in Hawai‘i in 16 years ago this past December. I had sold a business before moving here. My husband and I sold a house and three cars. We told family and friends the move would last a year. Like Twain, I felt an urge for something more in life.
One day, browsing the now extinct Tin Can Mailman bookstore in Wailua, I came across a used copy of Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawai‘i edited by A. Grove Day. This was the year 2003. My surprise at learning America’s famous scribbler had beat me to the 50th state 93 years before its admission to statehood must have been great, because I pitched Twain’s visit to Maui as a story for a magazine, and they bought it.
“I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five,” Twain wrote as a travel journalist for the Sacramento Union. “I had a jolly time. I would not have fooled any of it writing letters under any consideration whatever.”
I went to Maui for a couple days. Stayed a week. Wrote furiously in my journal the entire time. Still had a jolly time.
Thing is, 13 years have passed since I found that worn, yellow-covered book, and I’m still thinking about Twain. Over time, different things about his relationship with Hawai‘i have fascinated me.
First, it was his traveling companion, Mr. Brown. I loved Mr. Brown. He was irreverent. Funny. Always getting into trouble. Then, I found out Mr. Brown was invented. A fictive character. This coming from Twain, a supposed journalist at the time. I was a little aghast. And naïve. In Twain’s day, journalism wasn’t held to the same standards we like to think journalists are held today.
Eventually, I got over Mr. Brown’s invention. Then, I was intrigued by the fact being thrown around by tour guides and travel writers about the Waimea Canyon on Kaua‘i’s west side. They claimed Mark Twain had dubbed it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” I flew to Oahu, then to San Francisco to research that tidbit, only to conclude that while Twain planned to visit Kaua‘i, he never did. He never compared the Waimea Canyon to the Grand Canyon. Furthermore, the Grand Canyon wasn’t even called the Grand Canyon in 1866.
There have been other things: learning that Twain’s career as a man of humor got started with a stand-up routine based solely on Hawaii content. And that later in his life, Twain considered an article he wrote for Harper’s Monthly about shipwrecked sailors who washed ashore on Hawai‘i Island his, “Debut as a Literary Person.”
But what interests me now is something in the environmental psychology world that’s called, “place attachment.” In other words, how we bond with place much the same way we bond with people. And why it’s important—for ourselves and our world—that we do so.
Twain attached to Hawai‘i for life. He often talked about a return visit. According to his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain hoped to move to Hawaii. In 1881, Twain wrote his friend Charles Warren Stoddard:
If the house would only burn down, we would pack up the cubs and fly to the isles of the blest, and shut ourselves up in the healing solitudes of Haleakala and get a good rest; for the mails do not intrude there, nor yet the telephone and the telegraph. And after resting, we would come down the mountain a piece and board with a godly, breech-clouted native, and eat poi and dirt and give thanks to whom all thanks belong, for those privileges, and never house-keep any more…. What I have always longed for was the privilege of living forever away up on one of those mountains in the Sandwich Islands overlooking the sea.
Twain never did move to Hawaii. But I did.
Twain is known for waxing eloquent about the Islands. At a dinner in New York in 1889, he said,
No alien land in all the earth has any deep, strong charm for me but that one; no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack; I can feel the spirit of its woody solitudes, I hear the plashing of the brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.
On his 73rd birthday, the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee sent Twain a mantelpiece made of the native hardwood koa for the new house he’d just built. In gratitude, Twain wrote a thank you note referring to Hawai‘i as, “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.”
But Twain’s early words about Hawai‘i weren’t all so flattering. The first description he gave of sighting the Islands from the ship Ajax were:
We came in sight of two of this group of islands, Oahu and Molokai (pronounced O-waw-hoo and Molloki), on the morning of the 18th, and soon exchanged the dark blue waters of the deep sea for the brilliant light blue of “sounding.” The fat, ugly birds (said to be a species of albatross) which had skimmed after us on tireless wings clear across the ocean, left us, and an occasional flying-fish went skimming over the water in their stead. Oahu loomed high, rugged, useless, barren, black and dreary, out of the sea, and in the distance Molokai lay like a homely sway-backed whale on the water.
Wait. Twain called albatross fat? And ugly?
I can only conclude he was mistaken in his bird identification. And that Hawaii grew on him.
In honor of the pending sesquicentennial of Twain’s arrival in Hawai‘i, I am headed to Honolulu next week. I’ll arrive from the west by air. I’ll tramp around Diamond Head, Waikiki, Honolulu. I’ll talk to noted historians, newspaper journalists, Hawaiian cultural practitioners, and more. In a few weeks, I’ll head to Maui, then, Hawai‘i Island and do the same. I’ll blog about it as I go. Eventually, I’ll write it all up in book form and, hopefully, one day remove this grain of sand called Mark Twain from my sock. Or, at least, sift it around to a new place that doesn’t rub so much.