My Year of Tracking Twain

For four months now, I’ve been tracking Mark Twain’s movements around Hawai‘i. Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of his departure from these Islands.

During Twain’s time in Hawai‘i, I made visits to the same islands as he during the same weeks he visited. Just 150 years later. I went to O`ahu, Maui, and Hawai`i Island. I tweeted about it. I texted about it. Blogged. Facebooked. Instagrammed.

And when I wasn’t on those islands but at home on Kaua‘i, I still tracked his movements, relying mostly from his entries in the two extant notebooks of his visit and in his personal letters to family and friends on the mainland.

A couple weeks before his departure, on July 4, 2016, Mark Twain wrote in his notebook:

Honolulu—went to ball 8:30 PM—danced till 12:30—went home with MC—stopped at Gen. Van Valkenburgh’s room & talked with him and Mr. Burlingame, Col Ramsey, & Ed Burlingame until 3 AM the 5th.

This entry gives us a glimpse into Twain’s time in Hawai‘i and how it changed him.

Later, after arriving back in San Francisco, Twain would write a friend, Will Bowen, about his time in Hawai‘i. “While I was there, the American Ministers to China & Japan—Mr. Burlingame & Gen. Van Valkenburg came along, & we just made Honolulu howl. I only got tight once, though. I know better than to get tight oftener than once in 3 months. It sets a man back in the esteem of people whose opinions are worth having.”

Interestingly enough, Honolulu of the 1860s was known as more civilized place than the American West, and whereas in Nevada, Twain hung out with scrabbling silver miners and in San Francisco he was arrested for public drunkenness, in Hawai‘i, Twain stayed up late jawing with missionaries, plantation owners, and government dignitaries. He only got drunk once. Or so he says.

Mr. Burlingame, who invited Twain to stay with him in China, went out of his way to ensure Twain got the scoop on a breaking story that many years later, Twain would call “his debut as a literary person.”

Clipper_ship_Hornet_sailing_cardThat story covered the wild tale of 15 men whose ship, the Hornet, burned near the equator. The crew escaped in three open, longboats, only one of which ever turned up. The 15 survivors drifted over 4,300 miles for 43 days on rations of only 10 days before washing ashore on Hawai‘i Island. Twain interviewed several of them once they’d recovered enough to make the journey from Hilo to Honolulu. When Twain left Hawai‘i for San Francisco on the Smyrniote, three of the survivors were also on board, and he convinced them to allow him to copy their journals of their ordeal. It was this he used as source material for his first publication in Harper’s. Unfortunately, his byline read, “Mark Swain.”

I recently wrote about the Hornet survivor’s ordeal for the July issue of Honolulu magazine.

Experts in the environmental psychology concept of place attachment point to events that happen to us in a place that influence how we feel about it. No surprise there.

When Twain left San Francisco for Hawaii, he was restless. He’d been writing for newspapers and doing reasonably well, but he didn’t yearn to be a journalist. Journalism wasn’t his end goal. His dream was more literary. Interestingly, it was a very journalistic story–that of the Hornet shipwreck–that gained him entrée into the literary world.

Sure Hawai‘i has much going for it. There’s no denying the climate, the beaches, the aloha. And maybe awe for Hawai‘i’s beauty had a part in breaking open Twain to a new way of being. Nature can do that. But what made Hawai‘i more than just a fond vacation destination for Twain was that it also represented the place where the seed of his writerly dreams sprouted, and for the rest of his life he wrote and spoke fondly of the place.

At a dinner in New York in 1889, Twain would speak of Hawai‘i. “For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack; I can feel the spirit of its woody solitudes, I hear the plashing of the brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”

According to research, the average American moves 11.3 times in their life. Visitors often ask me why I moved here.

When I say, “Because we like it here. We chose to live here,” I’ll hear. “Was it your job?

No.

“Your husband’s job?”

No.

“Are you in the military?”

Again, no.

Here’s what I’m learning. People may make their vacation choices based on place but not their homes. Not so much.

A little digging through the U.S. Census Bureau website reveals that at forty-eight percent, the most popular reason people give for moving is housing-related. As in, they bought a new house, got evicted, wanted cheaper rent, a better neighborhood, etc. At thirty percent, family-related reasons were the second most common reason for moving. That includes things such as marriage and divorce. Coming in third at nineteen percent were job-related reasons.

I’m guessing my husband and I would fall in the 2.3 percent of respondents who make up the “other” category.

But here’s the thing. I think place is pretty darn important. In fact, I think choosing where you live based on place is overlooked in our society. And that perhaps as important as finding love and doing good work in life there is a third component—connecting with a place. The lack of such an attachment may be the reason many of us feel ungrounded in life. Because we aren’t matched with the place in which we live. Because if all of us were in love with the places where we lived, I’d bet we’d take better care of this big world in which we all live and move and breathe, this place called Earth.

What do you think? Is it possible?

Just because Mark Twain’s time in Hawaii was coming to a close that didn’t mean his relationship with the place was over. In ways, it was only just beginning. Just like my relationship with Twain. That bastard.

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