Twain honed speaking skills in Nevada County
The recently aired two-part public television presentation of “Mark Twain” by Ken Burns acknowledged but gave little information regarding Twain’s first two lecture tours – tours that established him as an accomplished platform speaker. Nevada County, particularly Grass Valley and Nevada City, were among the first towns to hear and encourage the man who rightfully has become a pre-eminent American, if not an international legend. Today and on Feb. 9, Bob Wyckoff recounts Twain’s two visits to our area.
1866 was a banner year for entertainment in Grass Valley and Nevada City. Both the Nevada Theatre, which had opened its doors the previous year, and Grass Valley’s Hamilton Hall had booked the best talent then on the road.
The high point of the year came in October, when audiences in both towns were treated to a humorous, informative lecture on the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands by a 30-year-old newspaper writer turned platform lecturer named Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
Three years earlier Clemens, who for a short time had been a Mississippi River boat pilot, took the pen name “Mark Twain,” which means two fathoms, or 12 feet, in river jargon.
Let’s go back some 135 years to San Francisco – August 1886, the eve of Twain’s very first lecture tour.
He had recently landed in the bay city fresh from a five-month stay in the Sandwich Islands, where he had been on assignment for The Sacramento Union. His 25 descriptive and humorous travel letters to The Union were widely copied and quoted by other newspapers, an accepted practice common in the days before wire services and feature syndicates.
Twain’s reputation was made some 10 months earlier when the New York Saturday Press published his first short story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” which became the humorous American literary classic, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
Prior to his island trip, Twain had spent almost two years as a member of San Francisco’s “working press.” Upon his return, he was more than ready for the conviviality offered by his cronies. He soon found himself, however, in “impecunious straights.” This condition turned out to be a lucky break for worldwide theater audiences for the next 30 years.
His newspaper buddies prevailed upon him to schedule a lecture on the islands with an admission price of “one whole dollar.” Twain said he was dubious of his ability to interest an audience and was fearful of failure. His lecture was a smash!
The humorist was firmly launched on an auxiliary career and left San Francisco for the mining regions of California and Nevada. On Oct. 17, 1866, Twain landed in Grass Valley, where The Union reported: “This humorous lecturer … will (relate) his experience as a missionary in the Sandwich Islands … in Hamilton Hall (on Church Street, present site of Bank of America) next Saturday evening … he will perform … wonderful feats enumerated in his advertisement.”
The reference to “missionary” was done jokingly. Twain poked good- natured fun at the clergy; his closest friend for 40 years was the Rev. Joseph Twitchell.
Once again, his lecture was a hit. The Union reported that the hall was full “… and that those who heard him were well satisfied.”
After a three-day rest and some sightseeing, Twain was ready to again “norrate” (to narrate a story), this time on the boards of the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, where The Transcript told its readers that: “A rich literary treat is in store for our citizens.” And it was; he filled the theater.
The Transcript was lavish in its praise: “‘Mark Twain’ spoke his piece, or in his own language got over ‘his trohble’ (sic) before a large audience … Everybody was delighted with (his) amusing incidents and laughable accounts of his experience in the Sandwich Islands. His description of the volcanic eruption was a masterful piece of word painting … as a lecturer (he) is far superior to ‘Artemus Ward’ (a noted platform comic) … the lecturer ‘norrated’ at Red Dog last night. We bespeak for him large audiences wherever he goes.”
Twain then headed east to his old stomping grounds in Virginia City, Nev., where, in the early 1860s, he began his newspaper career with the Territorial Enterprise. Before he finished his lecture tour, he was offered the assignment of special traveling correspondent for the Daily Alta California, California’s leading newspaper of the day. He would then travel to Europe, the Holy Land, Africa and other areas in the Mediterranean and the Near East. He delivered his last speech and then headed for San Francisco, where on Dec. 15, 1866, he sailed for New York via Nicaragua.
Twain returned to San Francisco a year and a half later far better known from his 53 travel letters to the Alta. He now began his second tour that would include Grass Valley and Nevada City.
NEXT: Mark Twain in Nevada County Part II – Feb. 9.
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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