This work is the initial volume of Mark Twain’s letters but the eighteenth volume in the comprehensive and scholarly edition of Twain’s works and papers which the University of California Press has been systematically publishing since 1967. This first volume contains every known letter that Twain wrote from the ages of seventeen to thirty-one, and half the letters here have never been published before. The Berkeley Twain Project is a vast and ambitious one, and the letters alone will take many more volumes, for Twain wrote more than ten thousand letters in his seventy-five years (two-thirds never before published), and only about 125 appear here.
Less than half of the volume contains Twain’s letters; the rest is the scholarly apparatus necessary in such an exhaustive undertaking: a long introductory “Guide to Editorial Practice,” pages of notes to the letters, maps, facsimiles of actual letters, photographs and a genealogical chart of the Clemens family, textual commentaries, and even a “Steamboat Calendar” of Twain’s piloting assignments on the Mississippi River in the late 1850’s. Many of these early letters are missing sections, some rather substantial. Periods of months or even years pass where there are no letters extant; the editors provide useful sketches of what Twain was doing during these silent years.
The casual reader may thus have some difficulty navigating the waters of this imposing volume, and little reason to begin such a voyage. There is only one work of Twain’s from this period—“Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” which later became “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”—that most readers will recognize. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) did not appear for nearly twenty years after the last of these letters. Still, for the Twain scholar, or for the general reader willing to examine the notes and commentaries, this volume offers substantial rewards. The letters provide detailed descriptions of numerous crucial experiences that Twain had in these formative years, experiences that were to become the foundations of some of his more famous books. Many of Twain’s adventures during this early period, for example, were to be transformed into his second book, Roughing It (1872).
The volume opens when Twain leaves his modest Hannibal, Missouri, home at age seventeen to seek his fortune in the world and writes to his mother from New York to explain his departure, asking her not to be angry but to remember that “I was always the best boy you had.” These first letters follow Twain’s career as an itinerant printer working his way through the East and the Midwest, New York and St. Louis especially. For several crucial years, he is a pilot on the Mississippi River, until the Civil War blockades the river and that profession. (His experiences in these years, described sparely in the letters, were the basis for his wonderfully detailed Life on the Mississippi in 1880, which in turn laid much of the groundwork for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn four years later.) In 1861, Twain heads west to Carson City, Nevada, to become a clerk for his brother Orion, who has a political appointment as “Secretary” of what was then the Nevada Territory, and the brothers are soon caught up in the gold fever and working madly to strike it rich.
Throughout these early adventures, Twain is writing letters—to his mother, sister, and brother—and, first through Orion (who published several small Mid-western papers in the 1850’s), he is printing letters and articles in papers in Iowa, Nevada, San Francisco, and finally New York. When the reader last sees Twain, he is a celebrity: His story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” of 1865 is now known nationwide, and he has just launched himself on a lecture tour of the Western states, giving talks based on his recent four months in “the Sandwich Islands” (Hawaii). He is also about to depart for Europe, a trip which provided the foundation for his first book, Innocents Abroad (1871).
In essence, the reader can witness Twain, the callow seventeen-year-old, becoming a man of the world during the thirteen years of these letters. The young man who complains in Philadelphia that “I never before saw so many whisky-swilling, God-despising heathens as I find in this part of the country,” within a decade is living high in San Francisco, dining out at every meal and going on what he calls “a yachting excursion.” There are also some significant shifts in these years—in racial attitudes, for example. In New York in 1853, he...
(The entire section is 1894 words.)