Writing in the time of COVID-19: Day Twenty-Seven

It’s taken me 27 days, before I’ve finally gotten around to writing about Mark Twain. That surprises even me, since so many of these blog pages have been devoted to the Old Bastard, as I tend to call him.

A few stories have published in the last few weeks about Mark Twain’s tour of Italy getting stalled due to a cholera pandemic and subsequent quarantine in 1867 where an estimated 113,000 people died.

Interesting, too, that the word “quarantine” originated in Italy. According to the CDC, “The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which mean 40 days.”

40 days. Think about that.

Samuel Clemens Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens September 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople

Ironically enough, during the 1867 quarantine, Twain found himself quarantined on land and not on the ship on which he was a passenger. In The Innocents Abroad, he wrote:

“Of course no one is allowed to go on board the ship, or come ashore from her. She is a prison, now. The passengers probably spend the long, blazing days looking out from under the awnings at Vesuvius and the beautiful city–and in swearing. Think of ten days of this sort of pastime! We go out every day in a boat and request them to come ashore. It soothes them. We lie ten steps from the ship and tell them how splendid the city is; and how much better the hotel fare is here than any where else in Europe; and how cool it is; and what frozen continents of ice cream there are; and what a time we are having cavorting about the country and sailing to the islands in the Bay. This tranquilizes them.”

I’m not sure I entirely believe him.

In these stories about a quarantined Twain, they all reference the 1867 one he encountered in Italy.

But there was another. This time, he was on the ship.

As you may know, Mark Twain had a particular love affair with the Hawaiian Islands, which he obstinately called the Sandwich Islands, after a four-month-and-a-day visit in 1866. Although he traveled extensively in his 74 years of life—35 countries, in a time when travel meant stagecoach and steam engines and sailboats—he never stopped waxing poetic about Hawai‘i, in letters and speeches and books and newspaper articles. He even talked of moving. “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,” he wrote a friend.

In 1895, he got his chance for a return visit.

He was 59 and standing on the deck of his ship as O‘ahu came into view.

“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,” Twain wrote. “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.”

I can imagine the rock star author and lecturer on deck—mop of white hair blowing in the trade winds, shaggy mustache drooping over his mouth, taking a couple puffs on one of the cigars that seemed to always be clamped between his teeth. It was sunset.

“The vast plain of the sea was marked off in bands of sharply-contrasted colors: great stretches of dark blue, others of purple, others of polished bronze; the billowy mountains showed all sorts of dainty browns and greens, blues and purples and blacks, and the rounded velvety backs of certain of them made one want to stroke them, as one would the sleek back of a cat.”

You know where this is going. The visit was not to be, even after a week’s sail from North America. His ship arrived too late in the day to tie up at Honolulu Harbor and before they could dock the next day, a cholera outbreak closed the harbor. He was so close. “Thus suddenly did my dream of twenty-nine years go to ruin,” Twain wrote in Following the Equator. “My lecture-hall was ready, but I was not to see that, either.”

It was a crushing disappointment for Twain, who had yearned to return to Hawai‘i after his first visit in 1866.

I’m sure there are plenty of other crushed dreams among those hundreds of thousands of visitors who have had to cancel their plans for a Hawaiian vacation, so Twain’s certainly not alone in his disappointment.

And yet 105 self-declared visitors arrived by air today, including three on Kauai.

We bumped up to 541 known COVID-19 cases in Hawaii today; still at 21 on Kauai.

Be well. Be sane.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne C. says:

    Yes, it’s good to see Mr. Clemens here in the midst of it all. I’m sure he would have had a thing or two to say (about our valiant leader in the WH, for starters) if he were here today….


    1. Kim Steutermann Rogers says:

      Oh, indeed, the Old Bastard had a lot to say about politicians and missionaries;-)


  2. diane tilley says:

    Once again, a beautifully written piece. I dont know how you keep doing it, day after day. It is one of the first things I read in the morning. Thank you.


    1. Kim Steutermann Rogers says:

      Me, neither, Diane. But thanks for the encouragement. I have readers!


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