The image above is from a four-page brochure, published by the Hawaii Promotion Committee in Honolulu. The Hawaii Promotion Committee was a tourism organization formed in 1902 and replaced by the Hawaii Tourist Bureau in 1919. So, the brochure stands a good chance of being over 100 years old, but Twain’s writing of the glories of Hawaii is much older than that.
Twain spent four months in the islands in 1866 as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, not long after his 31st birthday. This brochure excerpts one of Twain’s 25 “Letters from the Sandwich Islands” published in the Union, devoured by California readers hungry to read of such far-off, exotic lands.
My mini-history lesson has a literary point, which I’ll arrive at after a bit more throat-clearing. The letters were collected into a book called Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, and it’s a mongrel dog—not without a dog’s charm—of reading, with occasionally a mongrel scent.
Mark Twain, Hack
I almost feel like a traitor with this one: Twain is my favorite writer (and I think the greatest of American writers), but the jumbled, episodic nature of this work—something I so often love in Twain—didn’t sit that well with me. I had read some of these letters before, but never in a collection, and they way they jumped from wry anecdote to ledger-detail commercial appraisals of Hawaiian business opportunities for the US marred any continuity.
And there’s a bit too much of “the savages are restless” language too. Twain wrote these when he was in his early thirties, still making a name for himself, and his broad views on racial justice—which he expressed eloquently in many other later pieces—aren’t to be found here.
Some of his descriptions of Hawaiian vistas and charms are manna indeed, with inventive prose and perspective. But, being a travel writer myself, and having succumbed to the temptation to write about cloud-capped vistas and purple majesties more than once, I know the road-often-traveled mechanism of it. Sometimes you stitch in a lovely view here with a savory sandwich there and a glance from a fetching lass there and voila: a travel story!
Working Words with Multiple Coats of Polish
It’s not that Twain phoned it in (and not just because phone service was lousy then), but that he wasn’t inspired in the way that later travel works, like Innocents Abroad (published just three years later) demonstrated: a man in full command of his word-roping powers, who could ride backwards on a galloping horse of words, have his hat fall off and snare it with his literary lariat while with his other he lit a weedy cigar.
And now, that promised point: some of the Twain’s writing of this period was mundane, or unexceptional. The boon for writers here is to know that Twain, the pen behind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the pilot of Life on the Mississippi, was writing serviceable material, not deathless prose. The key is that Twain kept writing. He kept wrasslin’ words, no matter if they were wiggling in short stories, essays, lectures, speeches, travelogues or novels.
He kept pumping them out. His work got better and better. Even though I’m many burnt biscuits past Twain’s callow 31, and undoubtedly have more forgettable, throwaway lines in my future, I’m heartened to think that there’s fair evidence if you keep at it, keep writing, your writing will get better. (Of course, you might become an evil weasel too, but you’ll have good company among other writers.)
Damn, it’s almost worth it.
PS By the way, Twain was an unheralded surfer. Before many mainlanders had any sense that water-sprite Hawaiians were riding gigantic, impossibly heavy wooden boards on the waves, Twain saw it first-hand, and decided to try it himself. He set down his cigar long enough to paddle out to wait, as he had seen naked locals do, “for a particularly prodigious billow to come along,” upon which billow he prodigiously wiped out. “None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly,” he wrote.
Yeah, but Twain’s punctuation was better. Keep writing, my friends.