Virginia City: Twain’s First Great Foil

Today’s slide show: Images from Virginia City. Today’s video: Samuel Clemens finds his calling as a reporter in Virginia City. Today’s video:Gold miner Lamar “Buckeye” Baxla takes us deep into Virginia City’s Belcher Mine.

He still tells a good story

About halfway into Roughing It, Twain abandons his mad scramble to take money from the earth to become a newspaper reporter. He never really explains why he does this—he tells a funny anecdote about how, when the dirt he was trying to hurl out of some hole just north of Mono Lake landed on his head, he quit in disgust—but just ups and walks the 90 miles from his Aurora mining claim to Virginia City. There, for the first time in his life, from September of 1862 to May of 1864, he made his living as a writer. (In February 1863, he signed his first piece “Mark Twain.”) There is a strange gap in Twain’s notebooks of that period, relatively few of his letters from Virginia City survive, and the articles he wrote for his employer, the Territorial Enterprise, were lost when the newspaper’s morgue went up in flames in the 1870s. When he sat down to write Roughing It, Twain had to ask his older brother for his notes and journals to help him recall what he’d seen and done. This may have been lucky for him, for his papers might have betrayed the character he created in Roughing It. But their absence creates a mystery: What was he like, before he knew he would become a famous writer? Why did he give up digging for gold?

That is the problem with famous authors. Unless their mothers planned for them to become objects of study for centuries to come, no one ever thinks to record their early tracks. And they are unusually good at covering them up.

The 20-minute journey to Virginia City from Carson City is not just physical but moral. We leave a county where prostitution is illegal and enter one where it is an honest industry. We leave a small city only dimly aware of the value of the nostalgia it is selling and enter one that knows the price of every scrap of the Old West. The town itself is almost too well-preserved, at least on the outside, as though it’s been cleaned up to earn a PG rating. All the bars are still called saloons; the brothels are celebratory museums of prostitution. The blacksmiths’ shops are T-shirt stores, and the surveyor’s office is now a studio where you can get your photo taken in authentic 19th-century Western costume. Every other building is for sale, advertised as a place of “historic interest.” And it is Mark Twain’s apt fate here to have become a marketing device. There’s a Mark Twain gambling house, a Mark Twain bookshop, Mark Twain T-shirts. Everywhere you turn you find Mark Twain’s aphorisms and Mark Twain’s picture. Decay is here arrested, perhaps, but a bit too willfully. Still, it’s nice that there are buildings and mines and tailings that were on the scene with Samuel Clemens.

Nearly a decade after he left it, Twain described Virginia City as “a city which has afforded me the most vigorous enjoyment of life I have ever experienced.” Much of the pleasure obviously came from his association with Nevada’s first newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. The building is closed for repairs, but I bang on the door and find the owner, whose name is Tim Yater, and on the principle that lying doesn’t count against you on the Mark Twain trail, I lie and tell him I’m writing something about Mark Twain for the New York Times Magazine. And he lets me in! If it strikes him as suspicious when I leave and return with wife, nanny, and two small children, he does not say.

The ground floor of the newspaper was destroyed in the same fire that destroyed Twain’s old pieces, but the cellar survived unscathed. In its damp brick cellar sits Twains old pine desk and a lot of blackened and monstrous printing machinery—publishing, like everything else, used to be less intellectual and more physical. Here, except for a week when he replaced the vacationing editor, Twain reported on local events. He saw nothing remarkable in his ability to take these and make them sing, but that is because the gift came so naturally to him. His response to the one week in which he stopped reporting, became the editor, and was required to express the newspaper’s opinion daily, tells you something about that gift:

It destroyed me. The first day, I wrote my “leader” in the forenoon. The second day, I had no subject and put it off till the afternoon. The third day I put it off till evening, and then copied an elaborate editorial out of the “American Cyclopedia,” that steadfast friend of the editor, all over this land. The fourth day I “fooled around” till midnight, and then fell back on the Cyclopedia again. The fifth day I cudgeled my brain till midnight, and then kept the press waiting while I penned some bitter personalities on six different people. The sixth day I labored in anguish till far into the night and brought forth—nothing. The paper went to press without an editorial. The seventh day I resigned. On the eighth, Mr. Goodman returned and found six duels on his hands—my personalities had borne fruit.

He couldn’t get the words directly from his head to the paper without at least a detour into the world. (“It is easy to string out a correspondence from any locality; but it is an unspeakable hardship to write an editorial.”) Virginia City, and its game of finders keepers, was his first great foil.

We cross the street from Twain’s old office to grab a drink in a saloon. We find a drink—and also a silver mine. An ancient man with a great long white beard stands beside a long dark tunnel at the rear of the saloon. He seems to think it is normal for a mine to begin inside a building—after all, so many of the mines do. In their quest for riches, the Virginia City miners dug 750 miles of tunnels directly beneath the town itself, and many of the shafts begin inside homes and shops. The man with the long white beard doesn’t say much, but he leads us, along with a dozen other curiosity seekers, down the tunnel. Along the way he points out the curiosities: the deep shafts that go down more than 2,000 feet, the closets where they kept the dynamite, the rusted picks and sledge hammers and axes that have been left behind. The deeper we get, the creepier and more claustrophobic the place becomes.

This isn’t the kind of mining Mark Twain would have wanted to write about; this isn’t wandering around streams picking up golden nuggets. This is an arduous, tedious, highly mechanized process. The Virginia City silver mine is an anti-romantic place that would seem to defy literature or even extended description. Fifteen minutes into it, I’ve had enough and want to leave, but I don’t want to be the first in the family to complain. Tallulah saves me. She steps forward boldly through the crowd of a dozen grown-up tourists and tells the man in the white beard she has a question. “Is there any gold we can keep in this mine?” she asks. The man mollifies her with a painted gilded rock, but she knows it’s not real and soon wants out.

It tells you how hard it is to make other people’s experience interesting that Twain alone walked into this fantastically telescoped, world-changing event and emerged with something the world wanted to read. He did this by making it better than it was in real life—by describing the reality in the language of a dream. I’ll bet he wouldn’t have done this so well if he hadn’t learned, by digging for silver, the single most important thing to know about Nevada silver mining: It’s boring. The people who came west in the 1860s and 1870s to escape the tedium of farming found waiting for them even duller manual labor. How much joy can there be in going down into a dark hole with a bunch of sweaty men for 12 hours a day with the sole purpose of making it deeper? The job could be even secretly attractive only to a man who was gay. Yet Twain made it all as raucous and immoral and thrilling as the men who left their families behind in a dash for California hoped it would be. The boring bits he simply left out.

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.