As I mentioned several weeks ago, Mark Twain died in 1910, and for the centennial anniversary of his passing, new books are being published. I enjoyed Man in White, which focused on Twain's final years. Now I have read a book about his early adult years, Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain by Roy Morris, Jr.
Covering the years 1861 to 1867, Morris starts his story when riverboat pilot Samuel Clemens was forced off of the Mississippi River by the struggle for control of river traffic at the outbreak of the Civil War. Within a few short months, Clemens escaped both being drafted as a pilot for the Union and his own volunteering for a Confederate troop that had mostly officers and few privates. A few days of military life was enough for Clemens, who jumped at the chance to accompany his brother to the Neveda Territory, where the latter had been appointed secretary to the territorial governor. Of course, being in the employ of a frontier government in Carson City had few comforts, as there were no government buildings, poor accommodations, and dust storms daily. Clemens spent the next three years trying to find the easiest way to get rich among the gold and silver mines of the territory, eventually landing a job as a newspaper reporter.
Readers quickly learn that truth was not a concern of most of the territorial newspapers, who ran many sensational, fictious stories to sell papers. Clemens could lie with the best of the brotherhood of journalist, but he sometimes went too far, fabricating stories about rivals and politicians. Eventually, he had to flee to California, where he got into much of the same trouble. How he survived his Western years among many rough characters without being assassinated is still a miracle to ponder. He was a young man without any plan for his life; he just stumbled onto his career. Writing and lecturing just let him be himself - an attention-grabbing showoff with a knack for saying outrageous things. He was an early stand-up comic, who took up the Mark Twain name during this period. Twain covers the same period in his humorous, unreliable memoir Roughing It.
Lighting Out for the Territory is not as emotional a read as Man in White, which examines the soul of Twain more deeply. The new book is a lighter read, sympathetic while still revealing how untroubled the humorist was with all his false accounts and unpaid debts. Twain was the happy sinner that we all now love. Readers who want to know how he got our attention will enjoy this new biography.
Morris, Roy, Jr. Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain. Simon and Schuster, 2010. ISBN 9781416598664.