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Mark Twain’s Unforgettable Journey To The Hawaiian Islands

Updated on May 18, 2009

Island Inspiration

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens 1835-1910) arrived via the “Ajax” on March 18, 1866 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Twain spent four months and a day on the island as a newspaper correspondent with the Sacramento Union. He was still a neophyte writer at this time and had not yet published a single book. He came to Hawaii eager and excited; afterwards, Mark Twain would go on to become a prominent journalist, author, and lecturer. When he returned to the mainland, Twain spent the better part of the next several years traveling around the United States and England speaking about his travels in the Sandwich Islands (i.e. Hawaiian Islands). Mark Twain presented a lecture on the islands for the first time on October 2, 1866 in San Francisco. A. Grove Day, who edited the 1966 edition of Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii, remarked that a section of the advertisement for his 1866 lecture read, “Doors open at 7 o’clock; the trouble to begin at 8.”


Mark Twain wrote about several important aspects of the islands. He observed in depth the sugar and whaling industries that were of special interest to the western American businessmen. He also wrote about the geography, climate, people, culture, religion, lore, and the government on the islands. He was charged with writing a series of travel letters for the paper that would be printed in both the daily and weekly editions. Twain wrote a total of twenty-five letters for the Union, the last of which was published on November 16, 1866. Although it was published in November, Mark Twain decided to use the date, June 3rd, for which he actually traveled to the famous Volcano House Hotel at the Kilauea Volcano. He kept very detailed records while he was on the islands. This quote from the UC Berkeley’s collection of Mark Twain's Papers offers good insight into his record keeping:

“Clemens kept copious notes on his experiences and observations in the islands, which he used for preparing his travel letters to the Union. Here he records a ‘Honolulu joke by Ed. Burlingame’ (the son of Anson Burlingame, the U.S. minister to China): ‘If a man ask thee to go with him a mile, go with him, Twain.’ Clemens was at first delighted with this joke—a pun on Matthew 5:41, ‘And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain’—and for a time used it in his lectures, but its constant repetition in the newspapers ultimately made him loathe it.”


Haunted By Hawaii

It is truly amazing that in an era where memories from the past could only be saved in one’s mind or notebook and not on a hard disc, compact disc, videocassette, or some other technological device, Mark Twain often vividly looked back at the islands he called, “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.” Later in his life, he toyed with the idea of writing a novel about Hawaii, and spoke to friends and family about a desire to return to the island chain. In 1889, at a dinner to recognize a baseball team that had returned from a tour of the Pacific, which included Hawaii, Mark Twain concluded his speech with these words:

“No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garland crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”



Day, Grove A. (Editor) Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii. Appleton-Century; New York: 1966

Internet: Mark Twain’s Papers
The Bancroft Library at UC - Berkeley

*SPG originally wrote this article in 2005 (edited in 2007) at an ancient history forum/community.

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    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 2 years ago from California

      I really enjoyed reading this hub. After spending some time in the Hawaiian Islands, I have similar sentiments about them. Somehow they keep calling me back.