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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
LIII. Anson Burlingame and the "Hornet" Disaster
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|It was near the end of June when he returned to Honolulu from a tour of
all the islands, fairly worn out and prostrated with saddle boils. He
expected only to rest and be quiet for a season, but all unknown to him
startling and historic things were taking place in which he was to have a
part--events that would mark another forward stride in his career.
The Ajax had just come in, bringing his Excellency Anson Burlingame, then
returning to his post as minister to China; also General Van Valkenburg,
minister to Japan; Colonel Rumsey and Minister Burlingame's son, Edward,
--[Edward L. Burlingame, now for many years editor of Scribner's
Magazine.]--then a lively boy of eighteen. Young Burlingame had read
"The Jumping Frog," and was enthusiastic about Mark Twain and his work.
Learning that he was in Honolulu, laid up at his hotel, the party sent
word that they would call on him next morning.
Clemens felt that he must not accept this honor, sick or well. He
crawled out of bed, dressed and shaved himself as quickly as possible,
and drove to the American minister's, where the party was staying. They
had a hilariously good time. When he returned to his hotel he sent them,
by request, whatever he had on hand of his work. General Van Valkenburg
had said to him:
"California is proud of Mark Twain, and some day the American people will
be, too, no doubt."
There has seldom been a more accurate prophecy.
But a still greater event was imminent. On that very day (June 21, 1866)
there came word of the arrival at Sanpahoe, on the island of Hawaii, of
an open boat containing fifteen starving wretches, who on short, ten-day
rations had been buffeting a stormy sea for forty-three days! A vessel,
the Hornet, from New York, had taken fire and burned "on the line," and
since early in May, on that meager sustenance, they had been battling
with hundreds of leagues of adverse billows, seeking for land.
A few days following the first report, eleven of the rescued men were
brought to Honolulu and placed in the hospital. Mark Twain recognized
the great news importance of the event. It would be a splendid beat if
he could interview the castaways and be the first to get their story to
his paper. There was no cable in those days; a vessel for San Francisco
would sail next morning. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he
must not miss it. Bedridden as he was, the undertaking seemed beyond his
But just at this time the Burlingame party descended on him, and almost
before he knew it he was on the way to the hospital on a cot, escorted by
the heads of the joint legations of China and Japan. Once there, Anson
Burlingame, with his splendid human sympathy and handsome, courtly
presence, drew from those enfeebled castaways all the story of their long
privation and struggle, that had stretched across forty-three distempered
days and four thousand miles of sea. All that Mark Twain had to do was
to listen and make the notes.
He put in the night-writing against time. Next morning, just as the
vessel for the States was drifting away from her dock, a strong hand
flung his bulky envelope of manuscript aboard, and if the vessel arrived
his great beat was sure. It did arrive, and the three-column story on
the front page of the Sacramento Union, in its issue of July 19th, gave
the public the first detailed history of the terrible Hornet disaster and
the rescue of those starving men. Such a story occupied a wider place in
the public interest than it would in these crowded days. The telegraph
carried it everywhere, and it was featured as a sensation.
Mark Twain always adored the name and memory of Anson Burlingame. In his
letter home he tells of Burlingame's magnanimity in "throwing away an
invitation to dine with princes and foreign dignitaries" to help him.
"You know I appreciate that kind of thing," he says; which was a true
statement, and in future years he never missed an opportunity of paying
an instalment on his debt of gratitude. It was proper that he should do
so, for the obligation was a far greater one than that contracted in
obtaining the tale of the Hornet disaster. It was the debt which one
owes to a man who, from the deep measure of his understanding, gives
encouragement and exactly needed and convincing advice. Anson Burlingame
said to Samuel Clemens:
"You have great ability; I believe you have genius. What you need now is
the refinement of association. Seek companionship among men of superior
intellect and character. Refine yourself and your work. Never affiliate
with inferiors; always climb."
Clemens never forgot that advice. He did not always observe it, but he
rarely failed to realize its gospel. Burlingame urged him to travel.
"Come to Pekin next winter," he said, "and visit me. Make my house your
home. I will give you letters and introduce you. You will have
facilities for acquiring information about China."
It is not surprising then that Mark Twain never felt his debt to Anson
Burlingame entirely paid. Burlingame came more than once to the hotel,
for Clemens was really ill now, and they discussed plans for his future
He promised, of course, to visit China, and when he was alone put in a
good deal of time planning a trip around the world which would include
the great capitals. When not otherwise employed he read; though there
was only one book in the hotel, a "blue and gold" edition of Dr.
Holmes's Songs in Many Keys, and this he soon knew almost by heart, from
title-page to finis.
He was soon up and about. No one could remain ill long in those happy
islands. Young Burlingame came, and suggested walks. Once, when Clemens
hesitated, the young man said:
"But there is a Scriptural command for you to go."
"If you can quote one I'll obey it," said Clemens.
"Very well. The Bible says, 'If any man require thee to walk a mile, go
with him, Twain.'"
The command was regarded as sufficient. Clemens quoted the witticism
later (in his first lecture), and it was often repeated in after-years,
ascribed to Warner, Ward, and a dozen others. Its origin was as here set
Under date of July 4 (1866), Mark Twain's Sandwich Island note-book says:
Went to a ball 8.30 P.M.--danced till 12.30; stopped at General Van
Valkenburg's room and talked with him and Mr. Burlingame and Ed
Burlingame until 3 A.M.
From which we may conclude that he had altogether recovered. A few days
later. the legation party had sailed for China and Japan, and on the
19th Clemens himself set out by a slow sailing-vessel to San Francisco.
They were becalmed and were twenty-five days making the voyage. Captain
Mitchell and others of the wrecked Hornet were aboard, and he put in a
good deal of time copying their diaries and preparing a magazine article
which, he believed, would prove his real entrance to the literary world.
The vessel lay almost perfectly still, day after day, and became a
regular playground at sea. Sundays they had services and Mark Twain led
"I hope they will have a better opinion of our music in heaven than I
have down here," he says in his notes. "If they don't, a thunderbolt
will knock this vessel endways." It is perhaps worthy of mention that on
the night of the 27th of July he records having seen another "splendidly
colored, lunar rainbow." That he regarded this as an indication of
future good-fortune is not surprising, considering the events of the
It was August 13th when he reached San Francisco, and the note-book entry
of that day says:
Home again. No--not home again--in prison again, end all the wild
sense of freedom gone. The city seems so cramped and so dreary with
toil and care and business anxiety. God help me, I wish I were at
There were compensations, however. He went over to Sacramento, and was
abundantly welcomed. It was agreed that, in addition to the twenty
dollars allowed for each letter, a special bill should be made for the
"How much do you think it ought to be, Mark?" James Anthony asked.
"Oh, I'm a modest man; I don't want the whole Union office. Call it $100
There was a general laugh. The bill was made out at that figure, and he
took it to the business office for payment.
"The cashier didn't faint," he wrote, many years later, "but he came
rather near it. He sent for the proprietors, and they only laughed in
their jolly fashion, and said it was a robbery, but 'no matter, pay it.
It's all right.' The best men that ever owned a newspaper."--["My Debut
as a Literary Person."--Collected works.]--
Though inferior to the descriptive writing which a year later would give
him a world-wide fame, the Sandwich Island letters added greatly to his
prestige on the Pacific coast. They were convincing, informing; tersely
--even eloquently--descriptive, with a vein of humor adapted to their
audience. Yet to read them now, in the fine nonpareil type in which they
were set, is such a wearying task that one can only marvel at their
popularity. They were not brilliant literature, by our standards to-day.
Their humor is usually of a muscular kind, varied with grotesque
exaggerations; the literary quality is pretty attenuated. Here and there
are attempts at verse. He had a fashion in those days of combining two
or more poems with distracting, sometimes amusing, effect. Examples of
these dislocations occur in the Union letters; a single stanza will
present the general idea:
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
The turf with their bayonets turning,
And his cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold,
And our lanterns dimly burning.
Only a trifling portion of the letters found their way into his Sandwich
Island chapters of 'Roughing It', five years later. They do, however,
reveal a sort of transition stage between the riotous florescence of the
Comstock and the mellowness of his later style. He was learning to see
things with better eyes, from a better point of view. It is not
difficult to believe that this literary change of heart was in no small
measure due to the influence of Anson Burlingame.