Friday, March 1, 2013

When Is a Turning Point Not a Turning Point?

     The next few years marked the real turning point in Twain's life, Paine's charming claim about Joan of Arc asideActually, they marked two turning points, first from a steamboat pilot to a gold miner and then from a gold miner to a journalist.  I don't know much about marching orders but I'd say that's two 90-degree turns for a complete about face.
    Twain himself disagreed with the whole idea of turning points.  We know that because he said so in his essay,  "The Turning Point in My Life." True to form, he used the term to dispute the term--an approach so appealing that I'm stealing it here.  "We have a fashion of saying 'such and such an event was the turning-point in my life,' but we shouldn't say it," he wrote. "We should merely grant that its place as the LAST link in the chain makes it the most CONSPICUOUS link."
     He was also honest about the role of dumb luck: "A man may PLAN as much as he wants to, but nothing of consequence is likely to come of it until the magician CIRCUMSTANCE steps in and takes the matter off his hands."  The way Twain saw it, circumstance combined with temperament--a person's "natural disposition"--determines the course of a life.
      Call it a link in a chain or call it a turning point, one important circumstance that surely helped Sam Clemens morph into Mark Twain was the Civil War.  It closed the Mississippi River to steamboat traffic and left him unable to earn his livelihood as a pilotAs a result, he followed his older brother Orion out west, where--through a political connection that itself seems a magical circumstance--Orion had become Secretary of what was then the Territory of Nevada.  After failing as a miner, Sam turned to writing for newspapers, something he'd done briefly before when Orion bought The Hannibal Journal to help support the family after their father died.  It was as a western journalist that Sam took what may still be the world's best-known pen name, Mark Twain.  I think it's still just the best, too. 
     But I'm going to skip quickly over those days.  Together with his childhood and his steamboating, they've left Twain stuck like a bug in amber for too many people. These people think of him as an iconic Westerner when the truth is he moved to New York and lived in the Northeast or traveled abroad for the rest of his life.  Twain became an Easterner whose best material was his past in the West and on the MississippiBut an Easterner nonetheless.
     Before he left the West, though, he wrote a story about it-- "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"--that got his name known even in the East where he would soon be heading. If you've never read it, it's short, funny, and a sign of the irreverance to come [click bookcover]
       The story was published in The Saturday Press in New York on November 18, 1865, as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." It was a hit in a way that magazine stories could be then; think of it as a meme today.  Across the country, and even in other countries where "Jumping Frog" was translated, people apparently took to repeating its catch phrase, "I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog." It's hard to imagine now how that line struck a chord in so many folks then.  On the other hand, what are people going to make of "gangnam style" in 150 years?  
     It was less than two years from the publication of "Jumping Frog" until Twain first set foot in France.  He used that time to parlay the story's success into work as a travel correspondent to the Sandwich Islands--now Hawaii--for The Sacramento Union.  Then he parlayed that job into his first lecture tour.  Twain was a great parlayer.
    Spring of 1867 found him visiting his family in Missouri, where he saw an ad in St. Louis for passengers to join the world's first tourist cruise.  The Quaker City, a side-wheel steamship, would leave New York with about 75 passengers aboard, most well-heeled, crossing the Atlantic to Morocco, then going across the Mediterranean to France, Italy, Greece, the Middle East, and Egypt, and coming back again by way of Bermuda    
     "For months, the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America and discussed at countless firesides," Twain writes in the opening sentence of The Innocents Abroad. "Its like had not been thought of before...It was to be a picnic on a gigantic scale." Or, as Paine's purple prose put it, "No such argossy had ever set out before in pursuit of the golden fleece of happiness." 
     It turned out that Twain himself, with his budding fame, was about the only celebrity on board; the rest had backed out for one reason or another.  But no matterTwain, still on a lecture tour, made his way back to New YorkOne more parlay, and he'd persuaded the Alta California back West to spring for his fare as a travel correspondent. He was already almost 32.
     So there you have it: a perfect moment when circumstance met temperament.  A turning point, if you'll excuse the term.

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