Mark Twain's more humble beginnings as a writer

Stories written by Twain when he was a 29-year-old journalist in San Francisco are the product of a man still unsure of his calling. .

Jeff Chiu/AP
Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project, holds a magnifying glass to show the very first Mark Twain signature to appear anywhere in the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nev.

We know him today as the "father of American literature," the "the first truly American writer," the "Lincoln of literature." 

But Mark Twain's eventual success belied his more humble beginnings, according to a recently-discovered cache of his stories.

Scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, have tracked down about 110 stories Twain wrote when he was a 29-year-old journalist in San Francisco. Written between 1865 and 1866, the stories are 150-years old.

The stories, described by researchers at the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, which unearthed the articles, like "opening a box of candy," give Twain scholars and fans a glimpse into the author's early years.

That's because the stories were written, at a time of great uncertainty in the author’s life, when he was trying to decide in which direction to take his career, project editor Bob Hirst told the UK's Guardian.

“It’s really a crisis time for him,” Hirst said. “He’s going to be 30 on 30 November 1865, and for someone not to have chosen a career by that time in this period was quite unusual.”

In fact, it was a time of particular anguish for the now-celebrated writer.

“He was in the middle of an identity crisis,” Mr. Hirst told SFGate. “He was facing debt and had not embraced his talent. He was tormented by it. He was drinking too much and didn’t know what to do with himself. He thought humor was literature of a low order.”

Among the recovered works was a letter Twain wrote to his brother in 1865 that read: “If I do not get out of debt in three months — pistols or poison for one — exit me.”

His writing, however, was replete with Twain's characteristic dry wit and reflected both his style and the place and era in which he was living.

San Francisco in the 1860s was taken up by gold rush mania, and Twain's sharp commentary honed in on the stories of gold spectators, miners, and police officers, offering a glimpse into the corruption of life on the American frontier.

“Blackmail, corruption and bribery is the rule, and not the exception, among the municipal body, all of whom are … like so many shoplifters or highwaymen,” he wrote, as SFGate noted. “The correspondent suggests the necessity of hanging half the policemen.”

Twain fans can hopefully pore over more early examples of the author's famous wit soon. The Mark Twain Project plans to publish a book with the newly discovered articles in roughly 18 months.

“We’ve reached the point where we’re willing to say, ‘We’ve done our homework, we’re ready to put this into a book,'” Hirst told The Washington Post.

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