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Taking One Risk Is Enough to Change a Life: Mark Twain’s Unbeatable Example


Mark Twain did not hesitate to sacrifice his potential literary reputation in exchange for something he had never tried before: lecturing. And without realizing it, this gamble changed his life forever.

Literature has a double nature which at times is hard to reconcile. On the one hand, it is made of the personal and subjective creations of their authors, women and men who find that literature is the vessel for their restlessness and their need to express themselves, who throw themselves into this technique until they dominate it, marking it with their personal and unique style. On the other, a world that receives these creations, that adds them to preexistent systems where publishing, distribution or promotions are made using fixed values, which are not always literary and frequently belong to a completely different order. As a matter of fact, there is often an opposition between one trend and the other, as if they were pulling in opposite directions, and they coincide solely because of an improbable casualty.

There are plenty examples of this, in many senses. Examples of writers who were underestimated at the time but praised posthumously. Examples of writers who came close to this fate but then fortune, their lucky star, chance or serendipity led them to another part of the spectrum where, without harm to their talent, they were able to enjoy fame and recognition. This was the case of Mark Twain.

Twain’s life as a writer took a surprising turn, which was unexpected even to him, in 1866. Before that moment his situation was uncertain, and in way, almost unbearable. “I am tired of being a beggar”, he wrote to his brother in March that year, when he was living in California and prepared to go to Hawaii, where he was hoping he’d find different circumstances.

In an odd combination of idleness and discovery, seasoned by his failed projects, the American author decided to take advantage of the USS Hornet’s shipwreck which took place on May 3rd on South America’s shores. As chance would have it, eleven of the surviving sailors arrived at the Honolulu hospital and without giving it much thought, Twain decided to interview them and incorporated their testimonies in a story that The Union published the 11th of July. The success was completely unexpected. Betting on a temperament he had barely experimented with, drama, had worked to his advantage.

Twain realized that it was his only chance: now or never. He returned to San Francisco in August and from there he moved on to Sacramento to visit the paper’s main offices and to demand an additional payment. He wrote a full-version of the story and sold it to Harper’s Monthly. But, what was more important, as Ben Tarnoff writes in Salon, is that this sudden fame led him to give a series of conferences, a fundamental decision that made him one of the most important writers of the American canon.

One day, Twain went to see his old boss, George Barnes, editor of the Morning Call. He wasn’t entirely sure. Some of his friends had told him that giving conferences would hinder his literary career. “Which do you need most at present, money or literary reputation?” Barnes asked him. “Money!” Twain answered immediately. “Then go to Maguire, hire the Academy of Music on Pine street, and there deliver the lecture. With the prestige of your recent letters from the Hawaiian islands, you will crowd the theater.” The dice had been rolled.

drawing of Mark Twain speaking to a crowd

The forecast was correct. With a pompous billboard that promised masses and polemic, Twain took on his risky decision on October 2, 1866, only a year and half after he’d been tired of living like a beggar. The Academy of Music Theatre sold out its seats and still more people wanted to go in. The press had baptized Twain as “The King of Hawaii” and even the wife of the governor of California attended the conference.

At 8pm the writer appeared on stage. The standing ovations he received only made Twain more afraid, however he did not hesitate and putting his fear aside, began to speak and dominated the crowd with his speech.

75 minutes were enough to extoll the author. Journals praised his looseness, his sense of humor, the eloquence of his speech when it came to exploring different perspectives of Hawaii. But above all, the audience was grateful for his willingness to dialogue. Twain was there as a friend and as a teacher, as someone whom we can enjoy having a conversation with. And there, among that combination of charisma and lightness lays his key to success. “He captured not only the patterns of everyday speech but their spirit: not only how Americans talked but how they thought”, states Tarnoff.

The formula was repeated in several places and other days, particularly in the cities of California and Nevada. By the end of the month, Twain was the superstar of his time. Curiously, he still lacked money, but in turn, he had a huge audience who acclaimed him and editors who recognized his skills.

Eventually his financial situation changed and by December of that very year, Twain travelled to New York. There was no turning back. Twain was already on the path to become the “Abraham Lincoln” of American Literature, as William Dean Howells described it.

And it was all because he knew how to take advantage of the situation. He took a risk, a wager, he made a decision.

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