In Mark Twain and Life: It’s Who Your Friends Know.

Preparing a Thanksgiving meal on Kaua‘i goes something like this: You spend days selecting the dishes you will make. You compile a long list of necessary ingredients. You hit your favorite grocer and find only half the items on your list. So, you stop at a second and third store and tick off a few more things, say, sweet potatoes, shitake mushrooms, and a frozen piecrust—frozen, because you’re into making things from scratch but not that scratch.

Inevitably, you don’t find everything on your list, no matter how many stops you make, so while standing in the produce section of Papaya’s or Hoku Foods natural markets, you improvise. You select yams instead of sweet potatoes, cremini for shitake mushrooms, and you compliment your husband on his amazing ability at making pumpkin pie with a homemade crust, because the last frozen pie crust—available anywhere on the island—left the store in a bag that wasn’t yours.

And, thus, your Thanksgiving meal plan morphs into an entirely new one.

hawaii state archives
Entering the Hawaii State Archives.

Why am I writing about Thanksgiving in June? Because that’s how I described a recent research trip to my husband. I was on O‘ahu, meeting with people, digging through historical files, and re-tracing a few of the steps that Mark Twain took when he visited Hawai‘i in 1866.

“So, it’s not going well?” he’d asked. For 10 years now, my husband has watched my ups and downs with this project, not once hinting that my obsession had turned me into a stalker, as a wall of books has climbed to the ceiling in my office, each book’s cover featuring a variation of the same man—unkempt hair; eagle eyes shaded with a massive awning of eyebrows; sharp, aquiline nose; unshorn mustache; sometimes wearing a white suit; often holding a cigar.

“No,” I said. “It’s going great.”

I’d spent the past six months re-reading books on Mark Twain’s early writing career—pre Huck, pre-Tom. I’d scoured online letters and writings at the Mark Twain Project & Papers. I’d emailed historians, scholars, and descendants of those with whom Twain stayed in Hawai‘i. And I made lists. I had one that identified the places Twain had visited. Another of those people he had befriended. I had a plan, an itinerary, and it was lengthy.

I’d be exaggerating if I said I’d checked off half the items on my list. One person—one of those descendants—with whom I had been emailing suddenly went silent, not returning my messages. Were they ignoring me? Traveling? Had they changed their email address? Another person I met with would only relay half the story of a possible Twain notebook discovery. Too, my research stalled every evening, because I tried something new on this trip.

Inspired by Twain—and the fact that I’d quit my J-O-B a year earlier and had few funds to support a lavish research trip—I asked friends if I could stay with them. Usually, I’d stay at a hotel or B&B or campsite, because I don’t like to impose on my friends. That and I like to process the day’s research and plan for the next. But Twain stayed with friends and friends of friends and non-friends with whom he made friends. Of course, he didn’t have the thousands of lodging options in Waikiki that I have today, but he didn’t hesitate to impose himself on others—going so far as to request warm water every morning when he stayed at Kualoa Sugar Plantation on O‘ahu and all but forcing himself on the Lyman family on Big Island when he got lost and came up shy of his planned destination.

So, I pushed myself outside my comfort zone and asked friends if I could stay with them—but only one night each—and wouldn’t you know it, that’s when I got my best research done—through my friends.

diamond head, waikiki, oahu, hawaii
View from Rim of Diamond Head Crater.

One evening, I sat aft on the deck of my friend’s sailboat, watching night bring out the lights of Waikiki while Diamond Head faded into a silhouette in the distance. We were a bottle of wine and a couple hours into our visit when Pat said a name that made my head snap in her direction.

When Twain visited Hawai‘i in 1866, he continually ran into people he knew. On the ocean journey down aboard the Ajax, Twain led the choir while his friend Rev. Franklin S. Rising, whom Twain knew from both his Nevada and California days, led Sunday services. In Honolulu, Twain bumped into fellow newspaperman Col. James J. Ayers. On Maui, he stayed with the family of his good friend Charles Warren Stoddard, the poet. But he also made new friends, and one of his closest was Samuel. C. Damon.

“Did you say Damon?” I asked. She had been talking about training her horse with a friend and getting roped into attending her friend’s charity fundraiser.

Pat nodded or said yes or in some way indicated an affirmation.

“As in Samuel Chennery Damon?”

Again, the affirmation.

I couldn’t help myself. I was with friends, after all. I was safe. Surely, Pat—herself an author—would understand my rabid interest, my fixation, my stalker-ness. So, I launched in, tipping forward in my seat, perhaps, raising my voice a little with each question.

“The chaplain?” I asked. “Of the Seaman’s Chapel? Editor of The Friend? Librarian of the Reading Room?” And maybe I exaggerated but only slightly here, my voice reaching its crescendo. “Twain’s best friend while he was in Hawaii? That Damon?”

“I suppose,” she said.

For part of his time on O’ahu, Twain stayed next door to Father Damon and pawed through many books in Damon’s extensive library. In one of Twain’s extant journals, he wrote of Father Damon as, “Beloved by all—he and his wife always collecting and caring for the poor. Old whalers like him.” When Twain left the Islands, he gave Father Damon a metal lamp he had been using. Perhaps it was a “guilt” gift in exchange for pilfering James J. Jarves’ History of the Sandwich Islands that Twain took back to San Francisco. When Twain published his first book in 1867, he sent an autographed copy to Father Damon.

And, so, the next day I drove and hour-and-a-half to stand outside a corral amidst dust kicked up by trotting horses to meet a woman who was the great, great granddaughter of the man from whom Twain stole the book that was his most important source material on Hawai‘i.

Like Thanksgiving dinners on Kauai, my research trip was not quite what I’d planned, but it offered some tasty morsels, anyway—some very tasty morsels. Thanks to friends.

6 thoughts on “In Mark Twain and Life: It’s Who Your Friends Know.

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