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Honolulu, Hawaii

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Less than a year after writing The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County which was published and read across America and first put the name Mark Twain into the heads of many Americans Twain set sail onboard the ship Ajax out of San Francisco bound for the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaiian Islands), and in many ways truly launched his literary career in the process.  Mark Twain takes up the story from here in Chapter LXII from Roughing It >


“After a three months’ absence, I found myself in San Francisco again, without a cent. When my credit was about exhausted, (for I had become too mean and lazy, now, to work on a morning paper, and there were no vacancies on the evening journals,) I was created San Francisco correspondent of the Enterprise, and at the end of five months I was out of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being a daily one, without rest or respite, I got unspeakably tired of it. I wanted another change. The vagabond instinct was strong upon me. Fortune favored and I got a new berth and a delightful one. It was to go down to the Sandwich Islands and write some letters for the Sacramento Union, an excellent journal and liberal with employees.

We sailed in the propeller Ajax, in the middle of winter. The almanac called it winter, distinctly enough, but the weather was a compromise between spring and summer. Six days out of port, it became summer altogether. We had some thirty passengers; among them a cheerful soul by the name of Williams, and three sea-worn old whaleship captains going down to join their vessels. These latter played euchre in the smoking room day and night, drank astonishing quantities of raw whisky without being in the least affected by it, and were the happiest people I think I ever saw. And then there was “the old Admiral—” a retired whaleman. He was a roaring, terrific combination of wind and lightning and thunder, and earnest, whole-souled profanity. But nevertheless he was tender-hearted as a girl. He was a raving, deafening, devastating typhoon, laying waste the cowering seas but with an unvexed refuge in the centre where all comers were safe and at rest. Nobody could know the “Admiral” without liking him; and in a sudden and dire emergency I think no friend of his would know which to choose—to be cursed by him or prayed for by a less efficient person.”


As detailed by Kim Steutermann Rogers below in Honolulu Magazine it was this trip to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaiian Islands) that showcased for the first time, perhaps to even Mark Twain himself, that Twain had the ability to write about lots of subjects over many weeks that would keep his readers interested, engaged, and always wanting more >

The Adventures of Mark Twain:  How He Launched A Literary Career in Hawaii, Kim Steutermann Rogers


“When Mark Twain first arrived in Honolulu in 1866, he wasn’t the Mark Twain the world knows and loves today. Heck, he was barely even Mark Twain. A short four months before, Samuel Clemens published a short story about a frog under a fairly new pseudonym, one that harkened back to his riverboat pilot days. The San Francisco Alta took note, writing, “Mark Twain’s story in the Saturday Press of November 18th, called ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,’ has set all New York in a roar, and he may be said to have made his mark …”

Twain fled San Francisco as a 30-year-old bachelor, drinking and cavorting, barely keeping his head above financial disaster. It had been a tumultuous few years for him as a reporter for a string of newspapers, first in Nevada and then California, where he railed against the drudgery of daily deadlines and stodgy editors who, in a growing trend since the Civil War, actually wanted him to report stories that didn’t just ring true but contained the actual facts of things. “I do not know what to write; my life is so uneventful,” Twain moaned in a letter to his mother in Missouri six weeks before departing for Hawai‘i. “I wish I was back there piloting up and down the river again.”

This was all before Tom and Huck and the white suit for which Twain would become famous. But he did possess the wild tangle of hair we’ve seen over the years on dozens of book covers—only it was reddish-brown. He had the gait, too, a shuffle many confused for drunkenness. And cigars. That lifelong habit was well-entrenched when Twain took his first stroll through downtown Honolulu—practically straight for The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, whose publisher, Henry M. Whitney, later reported that, when Twain was around, at least a box of cigars a week disappeared.

Twain was in Hawai‘i stringing for the Sacramento Union, receiving $20 for each travel letter he sent back to the continent by way of ship’s mail, but he made himself perfectly at home in the offices of Whitney, who later wrote, “I became quite attached to the stranger, who proved to be Mark Twain—a nom de plume then hardly known beyond the border of California, as he was just beginning his literary career.” 

In all, the Sacramento Union published 25 of Twain’s dispatches—business reports on the prospects of whaling, sugar, and other commerce; cultural criticisms of Hawai‘i’s government, religion, and funereal practices; and humorous anecdotes about cats and horses and mosquitoes. Newspapers reprinted them up and down the West Coast, and readers relished comments like, “At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen.” 

If Twain’s life was boring just a few weeks before, all that changed in Hawai‘i. He did the usual things one does when visiting Hawai‘i: He climbed Diamond Head. He tried surfing, unsuccessfully. He witnessed the “lascivious hula hula.” He sampled poi. On Maui, he watched the sunrise over Haleakalā. Then, he went to Hawai‘i Island where he fell under Pele’s spell at Kīlauea, of which he later wrote for the Union, “The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky.” 

Twain kept so busy that he wound up bedridden with saddle sores from all the riding he did on mule- and horseback. But he also spent a lot of time just hanging out. He’d arrived in Hawai‘i with a pocketful of introductory letters that he fanned like a royal flush of cards wherever he went. 

Twain’s letters got him stays with prominent families throughout the Islands, including  Samuel G. Wilder at Kualoa Ranch on O‘ahu, where, according to family lore, Twain’s language was so shocking that the ears of then 5-year-old Laura Wilder Wight were stuffed with cotton. While on Hawai‘i Island, Twain and a traveling companion spent a night at Frederick Schwartz Lyman’s home. Later, Lyman wrote, “They enjoyed the supper very much and seemed very grateful for our hospitality. After supper they laid themselves out to entertain us, especially Mr. C with his slow drawling way. He kept us in roars of laughter.”

Whereas Twain’s recent experiences in California and Nevada had included landlords demanding rent money, run-ins with miners and arrests by police, in Hawai‘i, it seems Twain, for all his peculiarities, was well liked. What’s more, Twain had fun. He expected to “ransack the Islands” for one month. He stayed four.”

The four months that Mark Twain spent in the Sandwich Islands did more than provide a nice distraction for the eternal vagabond that was Mark Twain, but it also provided the material that Twain would turn into a speech back in San Francisco that would combine Twain’s ability to engage readers with the written word with the talent of making them laugh when giving them a talk!  Kim Steutermann Rogers picks-up Twain’s story here again >


“But it’s not just what happened to Twain while he was in Hawai‘i that gave the place its favorable sheen. Throughout his life, Hawai‘i trailed Twain like a favorite cat.

Within two months of returning to San Francisco, Twain rented Maguire’s Academy of Music for $50. He printed handbills and ran advertisements in local newspapers for his first-ever lecture, titled, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.” 

At the time, there was a long tradition of the lecture circuit happening on the Mainland. “It was the MTV and radio and movies rolled together,” says James Caron, professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i. He is the author of a book on Twain’s early career, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter.

And Twain killed it. He detailed how the cats in Hawai‘i have no tails. The snakes have no teeth. How the women wear simple dresses. The men wear nothing at all. He called the language of the Islands a “Sunday” one. Good for the Sabbath but no good for the rest of the week, because there were no words for swearing. 

Newspaper reviews the next day hailed his performance a “brilliant success,” and Twain immediately decided to take his show on the road. “In October, 1866, I broke out as a lecturer,” Twain said, “and from that day to this I have always been able to gain my living without doing any work.”

According to Caron, the Hawai‘i lectures set the national stage for Twain’s comic genius. Twain estimated he gave a version of it some 150 times.”

Mark Twain himself described that first speech he gave in San Francisco in October 1866 in his book Roughing It in Chapter LXXIII and one never tires of reading it for it is hilarious!


“I was home again, in San Francisco, without means and without employment. I tortured my brain for a saving scheme of some kind, and at last a public lecture occurred to me! I sat down and wrote one, in a fever of hopeful anticipation. I showed it to several friends, but they all shook their heads. They said nobody would come to hear me, and I would make a humiliating failure of it.

They said that as I had never spoken in public, I would break down in the delivery, anyhow. I was disconsolate now. But at last an editor slapped me on the back and told me to “go ahead.” He said, “Take the largest house in town, and charge a dollar a ticket.” The audacity of the proposition was charming; it seemed fraught with practical worldly wisdom, however. The proprietor of the several theatres endorsed the advice, and said I might have his handsome new opera-house at half price—fifty dollars. In sheer desperation I took it—on credit, for sufficient reasons. In three days I did a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of printing and advertising, and was the most distressed and frightened creature on the Pacific coast. I could not sleep—who could, under such circumstances? For other people there was facetiousness in the last line of my posters, but to me it was plaintive with a pang when I wrote it:

“Doors open at 7 1/2. The trouble will begin at 8.”

That line has done good service since. Showmen have borrowed it frequently. I have even seen it appended to a newspaper advertisement reminding school pupils in vacation what time next term would begin. As those three days of suspense dragged by, I grew more and more unhappy. I had sold two hundred tickets among my personal friends, but I feared they might not come. My lecture, which had seemed “humorous” to me, at first, grew steadily more and more dreary, till not a vestige of fun seemed left, and I grieved that I could not bring a coffin on the stage and turn the thing into a funeral. I was so panic-stricken, at last, that I went to three old friends, giants in stature, cordial by nature, and stormy-voiced, and said:

“This thing is going to be a failure; the jokes in it are so dim that nobody will ever see them; I would like to have you sit in the parquette, and help me through.”

They said they would. Then I went to the wife of a popular citizen, and said that if she was willing to do me a very great kindness, I would be glad if she and her husband would sit prominently in the left-hand stage- box, where the whole house could see them. I explained that I should need help, and would turn toward her and smile, as a signal, when I had been delivered of an obscure joke—“and then,” I added, “don’t wait to investigate, but respond!”

She promised. Down the street I met a man I never had seen before. He had been drinking, and was beaming with smiles and good nature. He said:

“My name’s Sawyer. You don’t know me, but that don’t matter. I haven’t got a cent, but if you knew how bad I wanted to laugh, you’d give me a ticket. Come, now, what do you say?”

“Is your laugh hung on a hair-trigger?—that is, is it critical, or can you get it off easy?”

My drawling infirmity of speech so affected him that he laughed a specimen or two that struck me as being about the article I wanted, and I gave him a ticket, and appointed him to sit in the second circle, in the centre, and be responsible for that division of the house. I gave him minute instructions about how to detect indistinct jokes, and then went away, and left him chuckling placidly over the novelty of the idea.

I ate nothing on the last of the three eventful days—I only suffered. I had advertised that on this third day the box-office would be opened for the sale of reserved seats. I crept down to the theater at four in the afternoon to see if any sales had been made. The ticket seller was gone, the box-office was locked up. I had to swallow suddenly, or my heart would have got out. “No sales,” I said to myself; “I might have known it.” I thought of suicide, pretended illness, flight. I thought of these things in earnest, for I was very miserable and scared. But of course I had to drive them away, and prepare to meet my fate. I could not wait for half-past seven—I wanted to face the horror, and end it—the feeling of many a man doomed to hang, no doubt. I went down back streets at six o’clock, and entered the theatre by the back door. I stumbled my way in the dark among the ranks of canvas scenery, and stood on the stage. The house was gloomy and silent, and its emptiness depressing. I went into the dark among the scenes again, and for an hour and a half gave myself up to the horrors, wholly unconscious of everything else. Then I heard a murmur; it rose higher and higher, and ended in a crash, mingled with cheers. It made my hair raise, it was so close to me, and so loud.

There was a pause, and then another; presently came a third, and before I well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The house was full, aisles and all!

Sawyer, whose hearty countenance was seen looming redly in the centre of the second circle, took it up, and the house was carried handsomely. Inferior jokes never fared so royally before. Presently I delivered a bit of serious matter with impressive unction (it was my pet), and the audience listened with an absorbed hush that gratified me more than any applause; and as I dropped the last word of the clause, I happened to turn and catch Mrs.—’s intent and waiting eye; my conversation with her flashed upon me, and in spite of all I could do I smiled. She took it for the signal, and promptly delivered a mellow laugh that touched off the whole audience; and the explosion that followed was the triumph of the evening. I thought that that honest man Sawyer would choke himself; and as for the bludgeons, they performed like pile-drivers. But my poor little morsel of pathos was ruined. It was taken in good faith as an intentional joke, and the prize one of the entertainment, and I wisely let it go at that.

All the papers were kind in the morning; my appetite returned; I had a abundance of money. All’s well that ends well.”

Certainly Mark Twain would have go on to a literary career of note if had not made a trip to the Sandwich Islands in 1866, but there’s little doubt that Twain discovered a talent in himself in being able to describe places where most never been, and for most would never go, and do it in an informative and entertaining way.  Twain scholar and biographer Everett Emerson on Twain’s time and work in the Sandwich Islands is right on point (Mark Twain’s “Letters from Hawaii”, Alan Bernheimer, Nowheremag.com) >

“The five-month trip was foundational, according to Twain scholar and biographer Everett Emerson: “The experience was pivotal, for it gave him an opportunity for sustained writing. The experience and observations were a combination that would prove fruitful in his travel books and novels.”


Only a few months after Mark Twain’s first speech in San Francisco and a subsequent speaking tour across Northern California and his old stomping grounds in Virginia City and Carson City, Nevada Twain was off to New York City for more adventures and greater fame starting with his trip to Europe with a group of Americans which led to his book Innocents Abroad.  At the end of Roughing It, written in 1872 after Mark Twain’s trip to Europe and Innocents Abroad book but before The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, Twain gave some advice to his readers on the importance of travel and wandering at least some in our lives on Earth >

When I returned to San Francisco I projected a pleasure journey to Japan and thence westward around the world; but a desire to see home again changed my mind, and I took a berth in the steamship, bade good-bye to the friendliest land and livest, heartiest community on our continent, and came by the way of the Isthmus to New York—a trip that was not much of a pic-nic excursion, for the cholera broke out among us on the passage and we buried two or three bodies at sea every day. I found home a dreary place after my long absence; for half the children I had known were now wearing whiskers or waterfalls, and few of the grown people I had been acquainted with remained at their hearthstones prosperous and happy—some of them had wandered to other scenes, some were in jail, and the rest had been hanged. These changes touched me deeply, and I went away and joined the famous Quaker City European Excursion and carried my tears to foreign lands.

Thus, after seven years of vicissitudes, ended a “pleasure trip” to the silver mines of Nevada which had originally been intended to occupy only three months. However, I usually miss my calculations further than that.


If the reader thinks he is done, now, and that this book has no moral to it, he is in error. The moral of it is this: If you are of any account, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are “no account,” go away from home, and then you will have to work, whether you want to or not. Thus you become a blessing to your friends by ceasing to be a nuisance to them—if the people you go among suffer by the operation.


Anyone that would like to see + read the original Mark Twain Letters from the Sandwich Islands to the Sacramento Daily Union you can find them at the terrific website >

UC Riverside – California Digital Newspaper Collection

Just enter “Mark Twain” in parenthesis into the search bar and sort “Date, Oldest First” and on the 4th page of the search result you will find Letter #1 from Mark Twain to the Sacramento Daily Union >

San Francisco to Sandwich Islands – No. 1 – Correspondence of the Union – Monday, April 16, 1866


You can zoom in and read the letter appeared in the Sacramento Daily Union in 1866 and below Letter #1 you will find search results for all 25 letters that Mark Twain wrote from the Sandwich Islands.  Enjoy!