Dispelling myth of Twain as Examiner writer 

click to enlarge Mark Twain's death was announced on the front page of the April 22, 1910 edition of The Examiner.
  • Mark Twain's death was announced on the front page of the April 22, 1910 edition of The Examiner.

In the same manner that there is no evidence Mark Twain ever said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco," it's a misconception that he was a reporter for The San Francisco Examiner around the newspaper's establishment in 1865.

The journalist-humorist worked for the San Francisco Daily Morning Call, but was not given much editorial freedom and ultimately was let go. Shortly after, his writings began appearing in The Examiner, which reprinted excerpts of his letters to the Nevada-based Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, for which he became the San Francisco correspondent.

Though Twain later earned renown for authoring the Great American Novel, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," his editor at the Territorial Enterprise, Joseph Goodman, said his pieces from San Francisco to Nevada mining towns were among the best works he ever penned.

Twain's letters were unforgivingly honest and bolder than what most newspapers published from their own staff writers. Goodman "talks about the fact that he never cut a line, as he didn't want to censor Mark Twain. He risked whatever risk it was," said Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

The Examiner reprinted an excerpt from a letter in which Twain compared San Francisco Police Chief Martin Burke to a lapdog — he wasn't interested in his police work, only in pleasing his mistress.

That, not surprisingly, raised many eyebrows and prompted Twain to write a letter directly to The Examiner to clarify — within repeated parenthesis — where he was referring to the police chief versus the dog. Published on Feb. 7, 1866, the "Explanation of a Mysterious Sentence" is the only Twain piece that originally appeared in The Examiner that has been found to this day.

click to enlarge Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project, holds a photo of Twain at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. - JEFF CHIU/AP PHOTO
  • Jeff Chiu/AP Photo
  • Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project, holds a photo of Twain at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

"I have written hard things about Chief Burke, in his official capacity, and I have no doubt I shall do it again; but I have not the remotest idea of meddling with his private affairs. Even if he kept a mistress, I would hardly parade it in the public prints," writes Twain, ending by putting the chief on notice: "Chief Burke don't keep a mistress. On second thoughts, I only wish he did. I would call it malfeasance in office and publish it in a minute!"

The Territorial Enterprise was threatened with a lawsuit — for which no court records have ever been found — for Twain's criticism of Burke. While not all of Twain's letters drew that level of reaction from city officials, they were nothing short of hard-hitting.

In "Bob Roach's Plan For Circumventing a Democrat," reprinted in The Examiner on Nov. 30, 1865, Twain uses a grotesque example to make fun of voter fraud that presumably took place using the names of the deceased.

"I always plant them foreign Democrats in that manner, sir, because, damn their souls, if you plant 'em any other way they'll dig out and vote the first time there's an election — but look at that fellow, now — you put 'em in head first and face down and the more they dig the deeper they'll go into the hill," Twain states.

It was through such humor that Twain made a much bigger name for himself as an American novelist than as a journalist. But his contributions to newspapers have also drawn much interest — so much so that the Mark Twain Project is deep in a laborious effort to publish by 2017 his writings in San Francisco from 1865 to 1866.

The Examiner, among other California newspapers, did not need to print Twain's often-inflammatory pieces, but, Hirst said, "I think they recognized that this was a public service and we're certainly glad they did it because we wouldn't have them otherwise."

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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