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The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California.

The Sagebrush Bohemian:

Mark Twain In California

by Nigey Lennon

203 pages, Paragon House, $10.95

A Literary Adventure

Like the perennial Elvis, Mark Twain continues to pop up here and there. But never has the Tom Sawyer/ Huck Finn creator popped up so graphically as in Nigey Lennon's The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California.

Best known for Alfred Jarry: The Man with the Axe and coauthor of Bread and Hyacinths, author Lennon has blended excerpts from Twain's notebooks. letters, and autobiography with her own good humor to give us a most entertaining literary insight into Samuel Clemens' turbulent time on the Barbary Coast. The 203 pages of warm, anecdotal humor cover 1861 to 1869, years virtually ignored by previous biographers. It was a time not only of hilarious (if errant) misadventure, but also the most formative and influential years in Twain's life as a writer.

You doubtless already know that in the summer of '61 Twain had gone West and in Nevada came down with a case of gold fever. But under author Lennon's skillful hand, the transition from failed miner to the coming of age as humorist and a man of letters makes this a "have-you-read-it?" biography.

You also may know that Twain had been a river boat pilot, that the outbreak of the Civil War and blockade of the Mississippi River had shot down that occupation, and that he joined the "Marion Rangers," a 15member Confederate militia. But did you know that he left the militia because he suffered a sprained ankle when he fell from a hayloft into the barnyard?

You'll laugh all the way to Nevada as Twain travels west with his older brother and a six-pound Oxford dictionary, loses his gold mine because of bad timing, and gets his literary career off the ground as a reporter for the Enterprise, "the best-read newspaper in Nevada." Writing came so easily to Twain that he didn't think it could be worth much. Twenty-five dollars a week was therefore like striking pay dirt. Author Lennon allows the cub reporter to report his own first day on the job:

(After four hours of interviews and his notebook still blank) "a desperado killed a man in a saloon and joy returned once more. I never was so glad over any mere trifle before in my life.

I said to the murderer, 'Sir, you are a stranger to me, but you have done me a kindness this day which I can never forget... Count me your friend from this time forth, for I am not a man to forget a favor.' (I had) but one regret-namely, that they had not hanged my benefactor on the spot so that I could work him up, too."

We soon find Twain, who confessed that his marksmanship "had a few discrepancies," preparing for a duel. Practicing at 5 a.m. on the morning of the affair, he made the painful discovery that in firing at a symbolic effigy of his rival leaning against a barn door, he was unable to hit the barn door broadside from a distance of five feet. We'll leave you to read the outcome.

Twain's life in San Francisco was no less hectic. The mining stock he had hoped to sell for $1,000 a share and live like a millionaire on Nob Hill became worthless overnight. He was obliged to go back to a job as a reporter and rewrite man. "Awful drudgery for a lazy man," he wrote, "and I was born lazy."

Relieved of this drudgery soon after, and not being able to afford "such luxuries as food and lodging," Mark Twain, nee Samuel Clemens, now becomes "the Bohemian from the sagebrush." He makes friends with writer Bret Harte, is published in literary magazines, and in his developing "jocular, loose-jointed style of writing," admits to enjoying the view from his living quarters--"filtered through the bottom of a whiskey glass." Upon one of his several moves, he was spotted leaning against a lamppost with a cigar box under his arm. It contained "a pair of soiled socks, a pipe, and two paper shirt collars," evidently the extent of his worldly goods.

Your reading pace will slow when you hit the chapter entitled "Sex and Suicide: The Secret Life of Samuel Clemens." Secret until now, that is. Author Lennon writes that "after soaking up as much of California's Bohemian atmosphere as he could," Twain then moved to the East Coast, "where he would spend the rest of his life digesting his California experience and changing the face of American literature while mining his experiences for 'pay dirt.'"

Before that move, however, you will feast heartily on "Our Fellow Sages of the Sandwich Islands," and you will sweat out Twain's first lecture in "The Trouble Begins at Eight," in which the enervated Twain was forced back into the grim reality of earning a living. However, he got the jitters so bad, he regretted that he couldn't just "bring a coffin out on the stage and turn the whole thing into a funeral." Planting friends in the audience helped allay his fears that no one would laugh at his jokes.

You will cheer with the sellout crowd at his initial success and groan with his eventual failure.

You will suffer with Twain on his trip abroad with the "Pilgrims" (threefourths of the passengers being Christian), of which he wrote "the pleasure ship was a synagog, and the pleasure trip was a funeral excursion without a corpse..."

But you know Mark Twain. Or thought you did. This much is certain, you'll know him much better after a pleasure trip through Nigey Lennon's The Sagebrush Bohemian.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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