Twain gets paper to pay for account of overseas trip
Society moved at a slower pace and living was less costly in 1867, when Mark Twain sailed from New York aboard the steamer Quaker City, bound for a five-month excursion that would include Europe, Mediterranean ports and the Holy Land.
The trip was unique and was billed as “the first pleasure cruise from America to the old country.” It was the forerunner of that phenomenon that continues unabated today – the all-expense-paid tour.
Twain’s popularity as a humorous writer had been established, and he had no difficulty persuading the Daily Alta California, a leading San Francisco newspaper, to pay his $1,250 passage plus $20 per “travel letter” he sent back. The Quaker City departed New York City June 8, 1867, with 67 passengers on what Twain called “a picnic on a gigantic scale.”
No traveler was ever busier: To the Alta he sent 53 letters; to the New York Herald, three; and to the New York Tribune, six. During the trip he wrote no less than a quarter million words about what he saw and did.
The tour ended in New York on Nov. 19 the same year, and they immediately called for “one more story, an obituary of the voyage.” Twain dashed off a 1,000-word account that was a masterpiece of humor and was included in “The Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrim’s Progress,” published some 20 months after his return.
In order to negotiate with the Alta for use of his travel letters in the book, Twain went to San Francisco in March 1868, where he once again succumbed to the lure of the lecture circuit. A nine-performance tour was quickly arranged, and on April 19, he arrived once again in Nevada City and checked into the National Hotel.
The Nevada City Daily Transcript reported: “‘Mark Twain,’ who has a reputation of being the first wit in his line in the United States, will give our people a humorous sketch of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land … to-morrow evening he has ‘norated in the Eastern cities … his production is spoken of in the highest terms.”
The Grass Valley Union noted: “Mark Twain – a lecture to-night by this unrivaled humorist traveler, is announced, and judging by the talk (we) hear on the streets, the house will be crowded. At Nevada (City), last night, Mark had a brilliant audience, and everyone in attendance was more than pleased …”
The Union’s review of his lecture glowed: ” ‘Mark’ arose … got behind his mustache and started in … he told about a man who was 24,992 miles from Marysville the way he was going, and only eight miles if he turned around … the mummy yarn brought down the house; but it being a small one, nobody was hurt. The inconveniences of polygamy were (cited) in the case of the Sultan of Turkey with his 800 wives who … (needed) a bedstead six feet long and 1,300 feet wide, taken all in all, the lecture was an excellent one … superior … to the one he previously delivered on the Sandwich Islands (Oct. 20, 1866).”
Yes, society did move at a slower pace back then: There were no radios, movies, television, freeways, automobiles, airplanes – no rapid transportation or mass communication. Nevada County was self-sufficient.
There were local breweries and bakeries and blacksmith shops and foundries; the horse, buggy, wagon and stagecoach were the only links with the “outside world” via the Central Pacific Railroad at Colfax and riverboats at Marysville, the head of navigation on the Feather River some 40 miles from Sacramento. The Nevada County Narrow Gauge was some 10 years off.
People here and in small towns everywhere depended on “live” entertainment, depended on those glamorous touring performers who brought worldly experience and superb talent into their ordinary lives.
Mark Twain became a legend, and that legend continues to grow even now, more than 90 years after his death. Grass Valley and Nevada City played a small role in the development of that legend; they were among the first towns to hear, accept, praise, applaud and encourage the efforts of that then-young talent who became one of America’s and the world’s truly great men of letters.
Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. He writes history stories twice a month. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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