I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below leads to the website of the independent book seller nearest you. Read on…

I spent a few evenings this week re-reading Sam Clemens’ rough and ready review of his early experiences in the Wild West, just to see how it would hold up to my memories of it. And to tell you the truth, I enjoyed it even more.

The beauty of this book is two-fold: it’s a work in which you can see the voice of the glimpse of life on the frontier written by a man who experienced it as a wide-eyed and enthusiastic youth — but also a work in which one sees the development of an authentic American voice.

The memoir — for that’s more or less what it is — covers the years between 1861, when young Sam joins his brother on a journey to his appointment as the secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory, to his eventual voyage to the recently subdued Hawaiian islands in 1866. During this span young Sam meets bandits, Pony Express riders, indians and Mormons; tries his hand and fails at dozens of occupations; becomes the untutored editor of a newspaper, burns down half a mountain range; is nearly drowned, crushed, and frozen to death; throws himself into mining and even becomes a millionaire, though only for two weeks — and does not miss an opportunity to poke fun at the “new western man” and his own callow youth.

It’s a novelistic account, by which I don’t mean that it’s organized and disciplined into some kind of strict and narrow structure — it is in fact sprawling and haphazardly organized — but that it isn’t, per se, a “factual account” of Sam Clemens experiences in the West. He’s created a fictionalized version of himself to deliver these reminiscinces, and though Sam was in all these places and met all (or most) of the characters involved, he exaggerates, embroiders and inflates from the opening pages to the final period. Not that there’s any intent of trickery — he’s writing with a broad wink. In fact, when he wants to impress upon the reader the actual truth of a thing, he pulls aside the veil of exaggeration and tells him so.

I can’t say that the entire work is a success; some of Sam’s digressions (he has no fear of stepping out of the timeline to recite an anecdote about a camel he met in the Holy Land, or to deliver a screed about the failings of the jury system) are distracting; some of the humourous set pieces fail to gel, but I often laughed out loud, and found many passages so deliciously composed, so gorgeous or hilarious that I discovered myself constantly interrupting my lady friend and reading aloud.

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that all modern American literature was inspired by Clemen’s writing, and the dry wit, droll rhythms and sheer enjoyment of the new American vernacular spring fresh from every page. I may be prejudiced in favor of anything Sam writes, and even more likely when it has to do with his life in the West. Where the mention of his pseudonym “Mark Twain” automatically evokes the Mississippi, riverboats and Huck Finn in others, for me it’s the wild west — I’m convinced that the authentic voice of the man was forged out here, and the opportunity to peek over his shoulder and live it along with him is absolutely priceless.

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