Tracking Twain: Hawaii? Paradise? Hell? Or Just Another Place?

One hundred and fifty years ago in March, Mark Twain laid eyes on Hawai‘i for the first time. I’ve written before of his first words on sighting the Islands: “O‘ahu loomed high, rugged, useless, barren, black and dreary, out of the sea….”

Some years later, Twain laid those same, sharp eyes on those same features of the same island, this time writing, “On the seventh day out we saw a dim vast bulk standing up out of the wastes of the Pacific and knew that that spectral promontory was Diamond Head, a piece of this world which I had not seen before for twenty-nine years. So we were nearing Honolulu, the capital city of the Sandwich Islands—those islands which to me were Paradise; a Paradise which I had been longing all those years to see again. Not any other thing in the world could have stirred me as the sight of that great rock did.”

Twain’s life-changing experiences of four months and a day “ransacking the islands” explains how the same sight changed from “barren” and “black” and “useless” to “Paradise,” and why he longed to return.

On Twain’s second sighting of Hawai‘i, though, all he did was gaze upon his beloved Paradise. The year was 1895. He was 59. The reddish brown hair of his earlier visit had whitened. His wife and daughter accompanied him. Six hundred awaited his performance at a sold out show in Honolulu. He’d planned to give a lecture that had made him famous long before Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sealed the deal on his literary immortality. He estimated he’d given this particular lecture some 150 times before. It was, for him, a sure-fire winner. A moneymaker. It was the one about Hawai‘i that he first billed, “Our Fellow Savages in the Sandwich Islands.” (Twain perpetuated the moniker given to Hawai‘i by British explorer Captain Cook, something that’s always made me scratch my own grey locks, considering Twain’s clear pro-American/anti-British stance in his published letters for the Sacramento Union.)

But Twain never would give the Hawai‘i lecture to a Hawai‘i audience in Hawai‘i. By the time his ship pulled into Honolulu, the harbor was closed. Quarantined due to a cholera outbreak. And Twain would only gaze upon the place where he covered an event that he would later call his “debut as a literary person.”

Standing on a ship outside Honolulu harbor, he was heartbroken. And, yet, maybe the mere glance of his dream from askance was a good thing. Maybe gazing allowed Hawai‘i to remain the Paradise it was in Twain’s mind. I’ve heard other visitors to Hawai‘i say the same basic thing as the reason why they don’t move to the Islands—it would make the place less special. Maybe, had Twain come ashore, he might have run into a swarm of mosquitoes or a herd of cats with no tails or a poisonous “santipede” or some such thing that would turn his Paradise into a Hell or, worse, just another place, one of the hundreds Twain had visited in his lifetime. Just like with people, sometimes places make better acquaintances than spouses.

I recently wrote a story about the sesquicentennial of Twain’s visit to Hawai‘i for the April issue of HONOLULU Magazine. If you have a chance to read it, I hope you will.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne C. says:

    Some places definitely make better acquaintances than spouses. I feel so very fortunate that I landed in a place I was happy to marry. It was nip-and-tuck there for a short while, though. Newark NJ? Ames IA? Huntsville AL? No, no, a thousand times no! Thank goodness for good geo-karma (because that’s what I choose to call it). Nice piece, Kim!


    1. Kim says:

      Geo-karma! I love that word!


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