Carson City: Newport in the Sierras

Today’s slide show: Images from Carson City. Today’s audio: The camera-shy citizens of Carson City. Today’s video: Sam Clemens’ arrival out west, in Carson City, was the start of Mark Twain’s career.

The old world refuses to die

We arrived in Carson City and, happily ignoring the mess made here in the last hundred years, made straight for the ancient core of the place. Clearly, the 20th century hadn’t been kind to Carson City, but at least it hadn’t ruined the 19th. At the base of the eastern Sierras stood rows of Victorian mansions that would not have looked out of place in New England but seemed more spectacular because they were, against all odds, here. That was one of the funny things about the California gold rush and its sequel, the discovery of Nevada’s Comstock Lode. The men who came west—even those who came from Hannibal, Mo.—left behind lives bound by old rules. They came to this strange new boom town in search of silver and gold and discovered that there were no rules—that there was nothing here that money could not break or buy. And what did they do? They set about trying to create something money could not break or buy: class. Social permanence or, at any rate, the illusion of it. Only a few cities in the Wild West sprung up before the Old World lost its hold on the American imagination, and Carson City, oddly enough, was one of them.

Moments after we’d arrived, we were knocking on the door of one of those quixotic bids for permanence, erected in the 1870s, called the Bliss Mansion. The Bliss Mansion is the only house I’ve ever seen that occupies 10,000 square feet with five bedrooms. Across the street from it squats the Nevada Governor’s Mansion, which anyplace else would appear lovely and grand but beside the Bliss seems low and niggardly. All that saves the governor from social humiliation is that the Bliss is now a bed and breakfast that allows people like us to sleep inside it. Why, they didn’t say.

Our usual fear when we first arrive, en famille, in some charming old hotel is that Tallulah and Dixie will destroy the furnishings and torment the guests. The Bliss Mansion furnishings were all on the gargantuan scale, too heavy for a lumberjack or even a 3-year-old to dent. The other guests, if any existed, could only be reached by overnight courier. Our concern was not the our children might wreak havoc but that they might be lost. Moments after we arrived, Dixie took off on a rapid crawl through what I assumed was the grand ballroom but was in fact the dining room, and it took the better part of 10 minutes to find her and stick her up on some Brobdignagian piece of furniture where she could be closely watched. Mark Twain never stayed in the Bliss Mansion, but he would have approved of the place. The Bliss Mansion was exactly what Twain was after—or claimed he was after—when he went digging for gold.

A Lilliputian on Gulliver’s divan

One of the things that has always interested me about Twain is his obsession with money. In Roughing It, he tells the story of his feckless 20s, but from the point of view of the aloofness of his prosperous 30s, after he’d married money and published his first best seller, Innocents Abroad. Maybe he could have mustered the same ironic detachment about his youthful scramble for dough had he written about it as it happened, before he knew the ending, but I doubt it. Even with the cover of Twain’s masterful self-deprecation, Roughing It is very much the story of a young man frantically in pursuit of a pile of loot—and handicapped by an almost physical inability to seize it. Soon after he arrives, Clemens stakes a timber claim on the shores of Lake Tahoe—then burns down the forest by mistake. He then races away from Carson City, where he’s meant to be working for his brother, to search for gold and silver:

I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the mountain summits. I said nothing about this, for some instinct told me that I might possibly have an exaggerated idea about it, and so if I betrayed my thought I might bring derision upon myself. Yet I was as perfectly satisfied in my own mind as I could be of anything, that I was going to gather up, in a day or two, or at furthest a week or two, silver enough to make me satisfactorily wealthy. … I crawled about on the ground, seizing and examining bits of stone.

Satisfactorily wealthy. After a great many pathetic attempts to find money first on and then in the ground, Clemens abandons mining for stock speculation—but holds on to his shares too long and is left with worthless paper. Finally, he becomes a kind of arbitrageur of amusing anecdotes, buying them cheaply in the mining camps and selling them dearly on the lecture circuit. The writing career seems to come almost as an afterthought. And yet when he dies, 40 years later, Twain’s public imagines that his experience was always secondary to his desire to write about it. That all along he was aflame with his art, his irrepressible urge to tell, and thus destined to be a great and famous writer. But anyone today who reads Roughing It and remembers the effect on the human mind of the Wall Street boom of the 1980s and the Internet boom of the 1990s has to be thankful that Clemens didn’t find his silver. For if he had, he most certainly wouldn’t have bothered writing up the experience—or any other—for publication. All of it would have been entombed by his money.

The high literary complaint about Mark Twain is that the huckster was forever stepping on the toes of the artist. That if he hadn’t been so concerned with financial success, if he hadn’t always gone whoring after an audience, he might have been a much greater writer than he ended up being. This complaint must sound bizarre to the vast audience that has fallen in love with Mark Twain’s work. It sounds strange to me. I think that without his need for money, he would have been a far lesser writer. Had he not been infected by the fever of his day, he wouldn’t have been on the scene to bear witness to it and certainly never would have captured the spirit of the thing as well as he did.

In their annotated edition of Roughing It, the diligent editors of Twain’s papers kept at the University of California, Berkeley have dug out a wonderful testimonial from the editor of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, a man named Goodman, who gave Samuel Clemens his first regular paying job out West, as a newspaper reporter. Many years later, Goodman reflected on the differing fates of his two star writers, Twain and a once equally famous Western humorist named William Wright, who published under the pseudonym Dan De Quille. The old editor said:

Isn’t it so singular that Mark Twain should live and Dan De Quille fade out? If anyone had asked me in 1863 which was to be an immortal name, I should unhesitatingly have said Dan De Quille. They had about equal talent and sense of humor, but the difference was the way in which they used their gifts. One shrank from the world; the other braved it, and it recognized his audacity.

But here I run ahead of my story. We’re not due in Virginia City for two days. We’re leaving Carson City today for the mines. We’ve been told there’s still gold in the hills, 70 miles south of here, in a ghost town named Bodie. Tallulah’s agitated by the prospect of ghosts, Tabitha’s agitated by the prospect of more snow on the road, and I’m agitated by the prospect of gold. Dixie alone remains calm.

Things to know before you go on the Mark Twain Trail.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica, Scandinavia, and Montreal.