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Go west, young man
Change your name, change your country (Moments that Made America)
“Here he comes!” the stage driver shouted.
“Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider,” wrote one of the passengers, who had been awaiting a sighting of the Pony Express. “Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so! In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—sweeping toward us nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined—nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear—another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!
“So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all, maybe.”
The passenger was Samuel Clemens, a young man of Missouri dodging military service in the Civil War. Although his sympathies lay with the Confederacy, his brother Orion had been appointed secretary of the Union’s Nevada Territory, and Sam took the opportunity to put the war and his old life behind. He and Orion headed west, traveling by overland stage.
Sam Clemens dreamed of making his fortune in Nevada, where the Comstock Lode poured out silver by the ton. “I was smitten with the silver fever,” he recounted. “Prospecting parties were leaving for the mountains every day, and discovering and taking possession of rich silver-bearing lodes and ledges of quartz. Plainly this was the road to fortune.” Everyone knew of someone who had made a killing. “Tom So-and-So had sold out of the Amanda Smith”—a silver mine—“for $40,000; hadn’t a cent when he took up the ledge six months ago. John Jones had sold his half-interest in the Bald Eagle & Mary Ann for $65,000. . . . Johnny Morgan, a common loafer, had gone to sleep in the gutter and waked up worth a hundred thousand dollars in consequence of the decision in the Lady Franklin and Rough and Ready lawsuit.” The material evidence of all the wealth was before his eyes. “Cart-loads of solid silver bricks, as large as pigs of lead, were arriving from the mills every day.” Clemens couldn’t resist. “I would have been more or less than human if I had not gone mad like the rest.”
He went mad, and then he went broke. He discovered he didn’t like the manual labor prospecting required, and his fliers in silver speculation crashed to earth. Yet he had a fallback: a talent for spinning yarns from the threads of reality he witnessed around him. He wrote stories for the Territorial Enterprise, the leading newspaper of Nevada. In a place where the best stories—about the silver said to be just beneath the surface of this claim or that—summoned tens or hundreds of thousands of speculative dollars, Clemens’s stories netted him $25 a week. But readers liked his mix of fact and fiction, his good-humored appreciation of the absurd in the lives they all lived.
At first he wrote under the pen name “Josh,” cluing readers not to take him too seriously. But soon he switched another persona, “Mark Twain.” He’d heard the term as an apprentice pilot on Mississippi steamboats before the Civil War; called out by the boat’s leadsman, it signified a channel depth of two fathoms.
As Mark Twain, Clemens discovered he could actually make a living by his pen. He wouldn’t be as wealthy as the tycoons of the Comstock, but in time his writing would support a handsome lifestyle. He would become most famous for books rooted in his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri. He would introduce Americans to Tom Sawyer, a scamp envied by generations of American boys, and Huckleberry Finn, a precociously unwitting philosopher who learned more about life from fellow fugitive Jim, a black man fleeing slavery, than he could ever have learned in the school from which he played hooky.
The books made Mark Twain a teacher to Americans for many decades. He was hailed as the native genius of American letters, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was called the great American novel. He served as a conscience to American democracy; when the Senate weighed the colonial annexation of the Philippines in the late 1890s, he satirically savaged the idea as utterly un-American.
And he traveled the world. In fact his first foreign excursion extended his Nevada trip. He talked a Sacramento editor into sponsoring him on a voyage to the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was then called. The travel agreed with him, and the stories he sent back, about the islands’ distinctive amalgam of East and West, old and new, appealed to the editor and the editor’s readers. He projected a longer trip, to Japan, then emerging from self-imposed isolation.
“But a desire to see home again changed my mind,” he recalled. Further journeys would have to wait. He booked a return to Missouri via the isthmus of Panama and then New York. His old haunts weren’t the same. “I found home a dreary place after my long absence, for half the children I had known were now wearing whiskers or waterfalls”―flowing beards―“and few of the grown people I had been acquainted with remained at their hearthstones prosperous and happy. Some of them had wandered to other scenes, some were in jail, and the rest had been hanged.”
Mark Twain—or was it Sam Clemens?—drew a moral from the experience: “If you are of any account, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are no account, go away from home, and then you will have to work, whether you want to or not. Thus you become a blessing to your friends by ceasing to be a nuisance to them.”