How Hawaii Charmed Mark Twain

On March 18, 1866, a 30-year-old writer named Samuel Clemens arrived by steamer in Honolulu to report on the Islands for the Sacramento Union. Now, 150 years later, we explore how the famous author’s one-time visit turned into a lifelong love affair with the Islands.

Mark Twain stood on the deck of the Warrimo 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.”

The year was 1895. Twain was 69. We can imagine the great 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.”

Unfortunately, the visit was not to be, even after a week’s sail from Vancouver, British Columbia. The Warrimo arrived too late in the day to tie up at Honolulu Harbor, and a cholera outbreak closed the harbor the following day. “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 for years had yearned to return to Hawai‘i after his first 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.

When Mark Twain first arrived in Honolulu in 1866, he wasn’t the Mark Twain the world knows and loves today. Heck, he was barely even Mark Twain. A short four months before, Samuel Clemens published a short story about a frog under a fairly new pseudonym, one that harkened back to his riverboat pilot days. The San Francisco Alta took note, writing, “Mark Twain’s story in the Saturday Press of November 18th, called ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,’ has set all New York in a roar, and he may be said to have made his mark …”

Twain fled San Francisco as a 30-year-old bachelor, drinking and cavorting, barely keeping his head above financial disaster. It had been a tumultuous few years for him as a reporter for a string of newspapers, first in Nevada and then California, where he railed against the drudgery of daily deadlines and stodgy editors who, in a growing trend since the Civil War, actually wanted him to report stories that didn’t just ring true but contained the actual facts of things. “I do not know what to write; my life is so uneventful,” Twain moaned in a letter to his mother in Missouri six weeks before departing for Hawai‘i. “I wish I was back there piloting up and down the river again.”

This was all before Tom and Huck and the white suit for which Twain would become famous. But he did possess the wild tangle of hair we’ve seen over the years on dozens of book covers—only it was reddish-brown. He had the gait, too, a shuffle many confused for drunkenness. And cigars. That lifelong habit was well-entrenched when Twain took his first stroll through downtown Honolulu—practically straight for The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, whose publisher, Henry M. Whitney, later reported that, when Twain was around, at least a box of cigars a week disappeared.

Twain was in Hawai‘i stringing for the Sacramento Union, receiving $20 for each travel letter he sent back to the continent by way of ship’s mail, but he made himself perfectly at home in the offices of Whitney, who later wrote, “I became quite attached to the stranger, who proved to be Mark Twain—a nom de plume then hardly known beyond the border of California, as he was just beginning his literary career.”

In all, the Sacramento Union published 25 of Twain’s dispatches—business reports on the prospects of whaling, sugar, and other commerce; cultural criticisms of Hawai‘i’s government, religion, and funereal practices; and humorous anecdotes about cats and horses and mosquitoes. Newspapers reprinted them up and down the West Coast, and readers relished comments like, “At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen.”

If Twain’s life was boring just a few weeks before, all that changed in Hawai‘i. He did the usual things one does when visiting Hawai‘i: He climbed Diamond Head. He tried surfing, unsuccessfully. He witnessed the “lascivious hula hula.” He sampled poi. On Maui, he watched the sunrise over Haleakalā. Then, he went to Hawai‘i Island where he fell under Pele’s spell at Kīlauea, of which he later wrote for the Union, “The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky.”

Twain kept so busy that he wound up bedridden with saddle sores from all the riding he did on mule- and horseback. But he also spent a lot of time just hanging out. He’d arrived in Hawai‘i with a pocketful of introductory letters that he fanned like a royal flush of cards wherever he went.

Twain’s letters got him stays with prominent families throughout the Islands, including  Samuel G. Wilder at Kualoa Ranch on O‘ahu, where, according to family lore, Twain’s language was so shocking that the ears of then 5-year-old Laura Wilder Wight were stuffed with cotton. While on Hawai‘i Island, Twain and a traveling companion spent a night at Frederick Schwartz Lyman’s home. Later, Lyman wrote, “They enjoyed the supper very much and seemed very grateful for our hospitality. After supper they laid themselves out to entertain us, especially Mr. C with his slow drawling way. He kept us in roars of laughter.”

Whereas Twain’s recent experiences in California and Nevada had included landlords demanding rent money, run-ins with miners and arrests by police, in Hawai‘i, it seems Twain, for all his peculiarities, was well liked. What’s more, Twain had fun. He expected to “ransack the Islands” for one month. He stayed four.

But it’s not just what happened to Twain while he was in Hawai‘i that gave the place its favorable sheen. Throughout his life, Hawai‘i trailed Twain like a favorite cat.

Within two months of returning to San Francisco, Twain rented Maguire’s Academy of Music for $50. He printed handbills and ran advertisements in local newspapers for his first-ever lecture, titled, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.”

At the time, there was a long tradition of the lecture circuit happening on the Mainland. “It was the MTV and radio and movies rolled together,” says James Caron, professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i. He is the author of a book on Twain’s early career, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter.

And Twain killed it. He detailed how the cats in Hawai‘i have no tails. The snakes have no teeth. How the women wear simple dresses. The men wear nothing at all. He called the language of the Islands a “Sunday” one. Good for the Sabbath but no good for the rest of the week, because there were no words for swearing.

Newspaper reviews the next day hailed his performance a “brilliant success,” and Twain immediately decided to take his show on the road. “In October, 1866, I broke out as a lecturer,” Twain said, “and from that day to this I have always been able to gain my living without doing any work.”

According to Caron, the Hawai‘i lectures set the national stage for Twain’s comic genius. Twain estimated he gave a version of it some 150 times.

Weeks later, Twain made what he would later call his “debut as a literary person” when a prominent East Coast magazine, Harper’s Monthly, ran his story about 15 sailors who’d spent 43 days in an open boat on 10 days’ rations after their ship, the Hornet, burned near the equator. (Read more about that story in our upcoming July issue.) The men had washed ashore during Twain’s visit, giving him access to interviews and their personal journals. Twain had already published extensively in West Coast newspapers, and just the year before his Jumping Frog story had published in a small East Coast journal. But, in his mind, those didn’t count. They weren’t literary enough. Harper’s, most certainly, did count.

And then there were the people with whom Twain stayed in touch long after his ship sailed back to San Francisco.

As chaplain of the American’s Seamen’s Friend Society, the Rev. Samuel C. Damon founded the Honolulu Sailor’s Home as a place where “no intoxicating liquors shall be drank on the premises,” and “no women of character admitted.” Not exactly the establishment in which one would expect to find the bohemian Twain, but apparently Twain was able to resist imbibing long enough to peruse Damon’s extensive library of books.

“Father Damon wasn’t a stick-in-the-mud kind of guy,” Caron tells me. “He was minister to sailors, so he was probably used to the rough side of people, and he didn’t seem to mind whatever sort of rough edges Clemens brought with him.”

Twain and Damon became fast friends, the chaplain going so far as to allow Twain to cart a stash of books to his nearby lodgings for the late-night reading and writing sessions the scribbler was known to do. And when, in 1867, Twain published his first book, he sent an autographed copy to Damon.

Another relationship Twain made during his visit, this one more political, was with a man who would later become king, David Kalākaua. In 1887, Twain’s publishing company printed Kalākaua’s The Legends and Myths of Hawai‘i, still in print and readily available in bookstores across Hawai‘i today.

In 1908, just two years before his death, the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee sent Twain a hand-carved koa mantelpiece for his new home in Connecticut. Twain installed the mantel in his favorite room, the billiard parlor, on his 73rd birthday, and in one of the thousands of letters Twain wrote throughout his life, he penned a thank you that included 10 simple words still quoted today, calling Hawai‘i “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.”

In a long life where twain often struggled to find emotional and financial security, the Hawaiian Islands came to represent something more than a one-time vacation destination. In a sense, Hawai‘i launched his career, both on the lecture circuit and in the literary world. In Hawai‘i, Twain formed lifelong friendships, both business and personal. And, perhaps, it was the very disappointment of 1895, the dream of returning to Hawai‘i and exploring the haunts of a young man so close to realization but thwarted, that wound Hawai‘i in Twain’s heart for good the way the cats about which Twain often wrote circle the legs of their rescuers.

“There was nothing for us to do but sit about the decks in the shade of the awnings and look at the distant shore,” Twain wrote from the Warrimo. “We lay in luminous blue water; shoreward the water was green-green and brilliant; at the shore itself it broke in a long white ruffle, and with no crash, no sound that we could hear. The town was buried under a mat of foliage that looked like a cushion of moss. The silky mountains were clothed in soft, rich splendors of melting color, and some of the cliffs were veiled in slanting mists. I recognized it all. It was just as I had seen it long before, with nothing of its beauty lost, nothing of its charm wanting.”


[Note: How Hawaii Charmed Mark Twain first published in Honolulu Magazine, April 2016.]