An American Classic, Or A Classic American?

It was on 6 July 1862 that Samuel Clemens published his first writing in Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise. He soon followed the custom of journalists of that era and subsequently published under the pen-name “Mark Twain.” “Mark Twain” is a term taken from Clemens’ four years on Mississippi river steamboats: the channels in the ever-shifting, muddy waters of the Mississippi, required navigators to frequently gauge the river’s depth by sounding, the dropping of a weighted line with fathom markings into the water; one fathom was “mark an,” two fathoms – safely navigable – was “mark twain,” and so on.

Clemens had left his job on the Mississippi to join his brother, Orion Clemens, to travel to Nevada Territory where Samuel hoped to strike it rich prospecting for silver in the Comstock Lode. That hope failing to bear fruit, Samuel took a job at the Virginia City paper to earn enough money to travel home. In one of those fortunate unplanned circumstances that seem so frequent in history, Clemens proved to have a natural aptitude for writing: he had a keen eye for the vivid details of life on the frontier, and he had a knack for spinning the humorous twist in his narrative. By 1865 he had moved on to San Francisco where he published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County,” which became a national sensation and made Clemens a celebrity.

Writing as Mark Twain, Clemens continued to write and publish until his death in 1910. His contribution to American literature is almost impossible to over-estimate. William Faulkner and Ernest Hemmingway both acknowledged their personal debt to Twain’s influence, and both described him as the founder of a truly American literature. Though he is most noted for “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” his works range from light, humorous pieces to serious political polemics. Some of his most controversial work, especially regarding religion, was not published until long after his death. Letters From The Earth was finally published in 1962, and just last November, the University of California published the first volume of a comprehensive three-volume edition of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain.

So well-known is Twain as the author of hundreds of oft-quoted epigrams and one-liners that many quotations that did not originate with him are frequently attributed to him (Ben Franklin enjoys the same reputation.) A small sampling shows the range of his interest and the keen edge of his wit: “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” “Truth is our most valuable commodity, so let us economize.” “Few things are harder to put up with than a good example.” “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” “Respect your superiors, if you have any.” “Suppose you were a congressman, and suppose you were an idiot. But I repeat myself.” “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

And though it may be by a rather indirect route, we can thank President Abraham Lincoln for giving the world Mark Twain. Lincoln appointed James Warren Nye governor of the Nevada Territory, and Orion Clemens as Territorial Secretary. With Mississippi River traffic being much reduced by the outbreak of the Civil War, Orion invited his younger brother Samuel to accompany him out West. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

 

Never learn to do anything. If you don’t learn, you’ll always find someone else to do it.

— Twain

An Enduring Mystery

It was on 2 July 1937 that famed aviatrix* Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, made their final radio contact during their attempt to circumnavigate the globe along the Equator. Earhart and Noonan had departed from Lae, New Guinea on their way to tiny Howland Island, just north of the Equator (it lies at at 0 degrees 48 minutes North, 176 degrees 38 minutes West, almost exactly halfway between Lae and Honolulu, Hawaii.) Their aircraft was a Lockheed L-10E Electra, a twin-engine plane and Lockheed’s first to feature all-metal construction.

Amelia Earhart had a number of aviation firsts to her credit: she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (a year after Charles Lindbergh’s renowned solo crossing) and later became the first woman to make the crossing as a solo flight, a feat for which she was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross. Garbed in heavy, unisex flight gear, Earhart bore an uncanny resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, and the popular press gave her the nickname “The Lady Lindy,” which enhanced her image. She was also the first person to make a solo flight from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California, and she held several aviation speed records. By 1937 Amelia Earhart was not only a celebrity but a genuine national hero. Her attempt to circle the globe was eagerly followed in the international press.

The round-the-world flight was not to be the first. That had been accomplished earlier, but it was to have been the first equatorial circumnavigation of the globe. Though it was promoted as a scientific mission, little hard science was actually performed during the journey, and it seems that it was designed to create publicity as much as anything else. Earhart had taken a position at Purdue University in 1935 as a counselor on careers for women, and it was Purdue which funded the purchase of her L-10E.

Earhart and Noonan’s final transmission indicated that they were low on fuel and that they believed they were at the charted position for Howland Island. The United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland Island in support of a tiny settlement that had been established there, was monitoring communications from the Electra, but there were several difficulties, including Earhart’s tactic of changing transmission frequencies periodically. Other radio posts along Earhart’s flightline may have received additional transmissions as well. But Earhart and Noonan never made it to Howland Island and safety.

The disappearance sparked what was then the largest and costliest search and rescue mission in history, but no trace of the Electra nor of Earhart or Noonan has ever been positively identified. As is inevitable in the case of a celebrity vanishing, many speculations, legends, rumors, and fictions have sprung up to explain Earhart’s disappearance: some claim she and Noonan were captured by the Japanese who were fearful of American espionage attempts, others offer the theory that Earhart engineered her disappearance so that she and Noonan could start a new life together under new identities. No tale is too fanciful or too far-fetched to be posited. Yet there is to this day considerable serious and scholarly inquiry as well.

The sudden and complete disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Frank Noonan remains fascinating because it remains unexplained and unresolved. Surely it cannot help matters that U.S. government documents concerning Earhart and her disappearance remain classified.

Jamie Rawson
Dallas, Texas

Adventure is worthwhile in itself.

— Amelia Earhart

*”Aviatrix,” the feminine form of “aviator,” is no longer used these days, but it somehow seems just the right word to invoke the image and impact of Amelia Earhart in her times: girded in a streaming silk scarf and flying goggles, staking her claim in the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of flight.

Happy Canada Day!

Today marks 144 years of Canadian Autonomy!

On 1 July 1867, the British North America Act went into effect, granting Canada its virtual independence (with a few strings attached.)

The Brits, having learned from the bitter pill of American independence, decided that their other North American holdings would be better managed from within as an autonomous part of the British Empire and Commonwealth (in large part, they didn’t want the trauma of being forcibly deprived of another of their North American holdings, either by internal revolt, or by outright conquest by the US, who had a very large, very experienced, and very well-equipped military machine at hand in the wake of the ending of the Civil War.) Throughout the early 1860’s, there had been growing sentiment and agitation within Canada for greater autonomy, and for once such a radical result was achieved without revoltion or warfare.

It is worth noting that what constituted Canada in 1867 was not completely what we know as Canada today; not all of Britain’s colonial holdings in North America joined in at the start. The West and some of the maritimes joined in during the 1870’s and 1880’s. In fact, the last part of Canada to join in, Labrador, did so in 1949!

So Happy Canada Day to our northern neighbors. Sometimes great things can be accomplished reasonably peacefully!

Jamie Rawson

There already is a kinder, gentler America. It’s called Canada.

– Margaret Atwood