Who knew that Mark Twain, beloved American author and humorist, creator of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, spent seven wild years in California on the way toward becoming an international literary rock star? These were crucial, formative years in which young Sam Clemens found his voice and emerged as Mark Twain, writer, lecturer and humorist. In those days staying out of jail was likely as much on his mind as writing a good story.
As described in Part 2 of this series, Twain signed a $500 bail bond to get his friend Steve Gillis out of jail with money he did not have. Gillis had defended a weaker man in a barroom brawl busting Big Jim Casey, a popular San Francisco barkeep, over the head with a beer pitcher. When they discovered Casey was in worse shape than anyone imagined, they threw Gillis in jail until Twain bailed him out. A year before the pair had fled Virginia City Nevada for San Francisco after Twain had challenged a rival newspaper editor to a duel. (Duelling was illegal in Nevada.) Now even San Francisco had turned against them, so they decided to lay low until the heat died down.
Steve Gillis’ brother Jim had been visiting, and it was decided that Twain could bunk at Angels Camp in the Sierra foothills while Steve headed back to Virginia City. The 88 days Twain spent in the ramshackle mining cabin, almost a short vacation really, would turn out to be transformational in his writing and lecturing career.
The squalid mining cabin was located on a mound of earth known as Jackass Hill eight miles outside of Sonora. The name comes from the fact that Mexican freighters used to rest their mules there, hundreds at a time, on the way to Sacramento. There was a time the area was flush with gold, but by the time Twain made it there the gold was all but gone and most miners had long past moved on. There was no gold, no irate police officers and no pressure. What Twain found (and obviously needed) was some peace and quiet. Yet the cabin provided much that Twain didn’t even know he needed desperately.
There were women in the neighborhood, but the cabin itself was a quintessential bachelor pad. It was unique from others only in that it’s long-time resident Jim Gillis was something of an English scholar. Not only did Gillis speak both Greek and Latin, but the cabin even had its own humble library containing the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Dickens to name a few. While it’s not known if Twain availed himself of the fine reading available, it is certain that his cabin mates were rather distinctive. Jim Gillis in particular was regarded as a gifted “yarner.
Imagine staying in a cabin without electricity or running water, no Internet, TV or cell phone reception in the dead of winter. There might have been a light snowfall once or twice while Twain was there, but most days were just gray, cool and rainy. Besides reading by candlelight and a few meager attempts at pocket mining, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. The boys did walk to other nearby camps a few times, but the main source of entertainment was telling stories, or “yarning” as they called it in those days. Besides Twain and Jim Gillis, Jim’s partner Dick Stoker also lived there most of the time. Billy Gillis, Steve and Jim’s younger brother visited from time to time.
The men entertained each other by telling outrageous stories “impromptu lying” as Twain later called it. Some of these tall tales were no doubt original, but it also perfectly acceptable to “borrow” a story heard someplace else, embellish it and tell it over and over again. Each storyteller added their own twists and turns, accents, funny voices, gestures, etc. Recall too that the year before Twain had become fast friends with Artemus Ward, the most popular “lecturer” (ie: humorist) in the country, and cabin mate Jim Gillis was almost as good. Twain later referred to Gillis as, “a born humorist, and a very competent one.” Ward had been very impressed with Twain’s storytelling ability, and dropped the hint that “lecturing” paid a whole lot more than writing in those days.
All the while Twain was passing the time in the gray, wet Sierra foothills he kept journals; not really dairies, but far more and just notebooks. He wrote about the food, the weather, what he did most days. He also recorded elements of stories he’d heard and things he might like to write about someday. One of the stories he’d heard had to do with a jumping frog.
Whose Frog Was It?
When he finally wrote The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, the story that put Mark Twain on the map, it was not the first time the story had been told. Ten years earlier Jim Townsend had written a version of the story for the Sonora Herald, and it’s very likely that he did not make it up either. It was merely one of the hundreds of yarns that were told and retold, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, in saloons, mining camps and parlors all over the West. The first time Twain heard it, he later wrote, it was poorly told. Yet he recognized that if he could write the story as if Artemus Ward or Jim Gillis might have told it, it could become something special.
One renowned aspect of Twain’s writing was that he was especially good with dialects, capturing the ways different sorts of people actually talked; the slang, the expressions, the common jokes and phrases and preserving them for history. Students often struggle trying to read the words of Jim, the escaped slave in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but Twain had actually worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River where he would have had ample exposure to how real slaves expressed talked. When he did finally write the frog story, he knew the way common people in Calaveras County expressed themselves, and this was something entirely new and different for New York City audiences.
From Jackass Hill to Paris of the West
After 88 days on Jackass Hill, Twain was refreshed and convinced that he could go back to work in San Francisco and pay back the $500 bail bond he still owed for getting Steve Gillis released from jail. Twain was soon writing for The Californian once again and things were looking up. He had absorbed far more on Jackass Hill than he knew at the time, things that were destined to turn up in numerous novels he had not yet written.
Still his enthusiastic supporter, friend Artemus Ward was back in New York City by this time begging Twain to write something for his upcoming book. In the meantime it was back to work. Twain had to make a living.
Next (final) installment: Swatting that mosquito, the Sandwich Islands, taking to the stage, traveling the world and growing into “Mark Twain.”
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.