Newly discovered newspaper articles by Mark Twain reveal 'identity crisis'

Over 100 stories and letters from America's famous humorist have been discovered by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

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., at The Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., Monday, May 4, 2015. Scholars at the University of California, Berkeley have pieced together a collection of dispatches written by Mark Twain when the author was a young newsman in San Francisco.

A team of University of California, Berkeley scholars working on the Mark Twain Project have discovered a cache of Mark Twain stories from his early days as a newspaper man in San Francisco. Many of these stories and letters, which are 150 years old, reveal a darker side of the author who eventually came to be known as America’s first modern celebrity.

When Twain was 29 years old, he worked in San Francisco as a correspondent for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nev., filing 2,000-word columns six days a week, for $100 per month.

These early works contain the signature wit and stinging criticism that would later define Twain's writing. He frequently used his columns to mock the corrupt San Francisco police department, which tried to sue him once for comparing the chief to a dog chasing its tail to impress its mistress.

“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,” Twain wrote. “The correspondent suggests the necessity of hanging half the policemen.”

While the confident and controversial Twain would go on to write the American classics “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the letters and columns uncovered by the Berkeley scholars show a very different side of him.

“He was in the middle of an identity crisis,” Bob Hirst, editor of the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, 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 many recovered works included 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.” 

Twain eventually left San Francisco for Hawaii, and journalism for fiction. By all accounts, he was much happier for it.

The Territorial Enterprise ceased publishing in the 19th century and all its files have since been destroyed, so scholars have had to find reprints of his work in other sources. The digitization of archives has helped in this process, allowing the team to work much more quickly than they ever could when historical documents were primarily on microfilm.

So far, the Mark Twain Project scholars have uncovered 110 documents. All have been verified as authentic Mark Twain pieces, either by his byline or his signature writing style.

“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, estimating that a volume would appear in about a year and a half.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.