Saturday, August 19, 2006

Mark Twain revisited

While in Reno last week for a training class, I ventured out one evening to Virginia City, the former home of Mark Twain, who, beginning in 1862, worked as a reporter and editor at the Nevada Territorial Enterprise newspaper. It was a step back in time. I walked into the first floor of the brick building, then made my way down the worn stairs to the basement that a century and a half ago housed the dark and dank pressroom. It also once served as a newsroom where Mark Twain worked. His desk is still there, in a corner of the office (see above photo I took while there). Twain spent 28 months as a newsman in Virginia City, once a bustling silver-mining town. That's where Twain -- whose real name was Samuel Clemens -- first began using the pen name "Mark Twain." When he had a slow news day, he and his colleagues would invent stories, then run them in the paper. Twain openly admitted it. "The seemingly tranquil Enterprise office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days," he once wrote. He had a wit that translated well onto paper. He sent a cable from London to the American media stating that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" after his obituary was erroneously published in a newspaper. Then, in an 1863 edition of the Territorial Enterprise, after a day that brought only minor scuffles, Twain wrote, "We pine for murder -- these fistfights are of no consequence to anybody." Still, he was a well-respected journalist, author, American humorist, writer, and lecturer. Fellow author William Faulkner was quoted as saying that his friend Twain was "the first truly American writer, and all of us since are his heirs." And Ernest Hemingway wrote, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. ... All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." Twain was born in Missouri, as was my father, James M. Scott. He had every book Twain ever wrote. He loved talking about the Mississippi and riverboats and quoting passages from Twain's books. My dad too spent time as a child on the river. Twain died in 1910, a year before my father was born. While in the office of the Enterprise, I stood in front of Twain's desk and looked at the journals with the newspaper's name etched onto the leather-bound covers. I stood in front of the lawyers bookcase that had a sign on it that said "Enterprise Morgue," a common newspaper term for newspaper archives. The bookcase was stuffed with yellowed papers. I tried to imagine what Twain's newspapering days must have been like. He didn't have the benefit of a computer. The paper was set in lynotype, painstakingly, letter by letter. Even so, the Enterprise managed to publish the paper on a regular basis. I drove to the cemetery at the end of town, then walked the grounds. Rest in peace, Mark Twain, I thought to myself, even though he's not buried there. I noticed the headstone of James F. Brown, who was originally from Ireland and died in Virginia City in 1882. Brown's epitaph reads, "After a fitful fever, he sleeps well." As does Samuel Clemens, a k a Mark Twain. Novelty shops, candy stores, and restaurants now occupy the storefronts along the wooden sidewalks of Virginia City. But to me, the best place is the historical office of the Territorial Enterprise and the walk down the same steps Twain took to the basement newsroom. Rest in peace, indeed. Story and photo by Cathy Scott
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