Hawaiʻi today is a premier travel destination, a place celebrated not just for its scenery and climate but also for signifying “vacation,” a psychic landscape where no work takes place. By the 1860s, the Hawaiian Islands had already begun to acquire the image of a travel destination to escape the routine of the workaday world. The California Steam Navigation Company, which owned the steamship Ajax in which Sam Clemens would reach Hawaiʻi, advertised its new route to the islands in the San Francisco Alta California by calling it “a most favorable opportunity for invalids and pleasure seekers to enjoy the salubrious climate of the Hawaiian Group.”
In early 1866, the Sacramento Union agreed to pay Clemens for letters from Hawai‘i at a rate equal to what he was receiving from his editor Joe Goodman at the Virginia City Enterprise as the paper’s San Francisco correspondent, his steady job. The Sacramento Union was then considered to be the greatest and most powerful journal in the West. Sam Clemens as its new reporter no doubt registered for the editors as opportune good fortune. After many favorable notices in the eastern press and the particular success of “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” late in 1865, the Mark Twain pseudonym clearly had a sufficient draw for readers to be a worthwhile investment. Moreover, the mere existence of a regular steamship route between San Francisco and Honolulu guaranteed that Hawaiʻi, and more specifically trade with Hawaiʻi, would be a topic of interest. Congress had already voted monies to establish a mail steamer service between the United States and China by way of Honolulu and Japan. Those monies had encouraged interest in Hawaiʻi from the business community, spurring the California Steam Navigation Company to inaugurate a regular steamship run to the islands out of San Francisco. Hiring Clemens to write travel letters on Hawaiʻi signed with the popular Mark Twain nom de plume must have seemed to the Union editors like a double surety for attracting interested readers on a major topic of public concern. Writing about his voyage to and sojourn in Hawai‘i, Clemens combines laughable flânerie with the eccentric behavior his Mark Twain alter ego had shown in Nevada and California writings to produce travel letters unprecedented in their comic quality.
Clemens spent approximately four months in Hawaiʻi, arriving on March 18 and leaving July 30, 1866. He spent most of that time on the island of O‘ahu, but he also visited Maui and made an extensive tour of the Big Island, Hawaiʻi, much of it on horseback. He wrote twenty-five letters to the Union, mostly while in the islands, but a significant portion were also written after returning to San Francisco. The letters represent a watershed in the career of Sam Clemens as Mark Twain because they extended his reputation as both reporter of facts and yarnspinner of comic tales. The pen name Mark Twain today signifies comic writing of differing sorts, but the assignment to cover the islands had an important focus on trade between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i; several letters discuss the whaling and sugar industries without jokes or laughable scenarios.
Moreover, the letters provided the impetus for Clemens to write his first mock lecture as Mark Twain, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands,” which garnered the necessary money to return home to Missouri and then take up residence in New York City. His new situation meant that Sam was able to join the cruise of the Quaker City to Europe and the Holy Land in the summer of 1867 and so produce the travel letters that he revises into The Innocents Abroad, his 1869 bestseller. The experience in Hawai‘i and the travel letters from it functioned as springboard for the national fame from his second book—and for the substantial money that came with it.
Leisure versus work usefully organizes Mark Twain’s travel letters from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i because the opposition clearly indicates the bifurcation in the assignment to report on the islands as well as Clemens’s attitude toward it. The letters partially record a tourist’s holiday, full of jokes and other signs of pleasure, meant, as far as the Sacramento Union editors were concerned, to convey to their readers an exotic place in Mark Twain’s breezy style. The travel letters from Hawai‘i also partially record a veteran reporter’s awareness that the establishment of a regular steamship run between San Francisco and Honolulu represented a potential step forward in binding the Hawaiian and United States economies, a process well established by 1866 because of the long-standing whaling trade and the burgeoning sugar industry. The opposition also provides a way to understand the Americans living in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1866, so that Mark Twain becomes a vehicle for Sam Clemens to describe his own culture as much as a means to describe an exotic society. Thus Mark Twain for the first time explores a cultural comparison, one that examines the hybrid society that had been created in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, but one that also includes satiric critiques of assumptions underlying Sam Clemens’s own culture.
A significant tactic in these letters involves the use of a low-brow comic sidekick, Mr. Brown, who behaves playfully, irreverently, and irascibly. Clemens casts Mark Twain as the civilized gentleman who must constantly admonish the selfish and ill-mannered Brown. The comic phrasing and description, raillery, and lampooning that Clemens employs throughout the letters from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i spotlight the sharp-tongued aspect of Mark Twain already known from his writings while working in Nevada and California. The comic scenes Clemens invents for Mark Twain and Mr. Brown contribute the most to enlivening the letters and to creating a reading experience markedly different from standard travel letters.
Though the twenty-five letters from Hawai‘i were the single largest series Clemens had written to date and contained his biggest effort yet to write comic scenes and to elaborate Mark Twain as a comic character, they were written for a daily newspaper and without a conscious comic design. Inform was their first imperative: inform especially about the commerce and industry of the islands, given the new enterprise that the steamship Ajax represented. After that, the quirkiness of Mark Twain—aided by the outrageousness of Mr. Brown—provided the comic glue to hold the correspondence together. Obviously, the Union counted on those comic features from the pseudonym “Mark Twain”; they had been so conspicuous in the growing fame of Sam Clemens prior to the assignment.
The theme in the letters of leisure versus work shows most conspicuously when Mark Twain describes Hawaiian society and the role of American missionaries in creating the hybrid culture Clemens encountered. From the perspective of the American missionaries, the leisurely and apparently carefree way of life found in Hawaiʻi does not just demonstrate literal laziness but signifies moral sloth too. In order to attain salvation, Hawaiians clearly needed to be converted not just to a belief in Christ but also to a faith in the Protestant work ethic.
This attitude meshed with the Western expectation, derived from the myth of Polynesia as a paradise, that no work takes place in Hawaiʻi, even though plenty of hard work was obviously required to build the infrastructure for living in traditional Hawaiian society. In a subsistence economy such as existed in pre-contact Hawaiʻi, a strict rhythm of hard work and holiday would have been the norm for the commoner, and much of that work would be maintaining the basics: fishing, tending taro fields, repairing fishponds and houses, making clothes, cooking meals. Work in the modern Western sense, i.e. within a market economy to accumulate wealth, could appear to Americans to be virtually non-existent.
Despite Clemens’s efforts to comprehend Hawaiʻi through his reading and his powers of observation, misinterpretations were all too easy for him to make or repeat. His own cultural perspective, reinforced and elaborated by his informants in the American community in Hawaiʻi, not only effectively deprived him of crucial facts, but more importantly also created a misleading framework for understanding what he saw and heard. Thus Mark Twain will wonder how a road or a stone edifice can possibly be built by any Hawaiian society, either an ancient version or the one he is experiencing. In fact, the irrigation systems, terracing, and fishpond complexes Clemens would have seen were all clear evidence of the engineering skills and intensive work of pre-contact Hawaiian society.
Sam Clemens speaking as Mark Twain understandably misreads important aspects of the Hawaiian society, for example, the cultural and political significance of hula. By the mid-1850s, well before Clemens arrived in the islands, society had radically changed, mostly because of the American whaling fleet. Significant traditional cultural practices nevertheless remained, giving Hawaiian society in 1866 a distinctively hybrid quality.
The misadventures of Mark Twain and Mr. Brown provided Clemens with opportunities to create broadly comic, even slapstick scenarios. His focus on the influence of American missionaries provided the opportunity to express in comic phrasing his deep ambivalence about that influence. Here is the key passage showing that Clemens understood the ambiguity of their work:
. . . the Sandwich Island missionaries are pious; hard-working; hard-praying; self-sacrificing; hospitable; devoted to the well-being of this people and the interests of Protestantism; bigoted; puritanical; slow; ignorant of all white human nature and natural ways of men, except the remnant of these things that are left in their own class or profession; old fogy—fifty years behind the age; uncharitable toward the weaknesses of the flesh; considering all shortcomings, faults, and failings in the light of crimes, and having no mercy and no forgiveness for such.The Sacramento Daily Union, July 16, 1866
When the Union letters re-circulated back to the islands, the American community was less than pleased, even though Clemens in nearly every other instance supported their views and backed them in their ongoing struggle to maintain influence against the Church of England and its inroads into the royal family.
This satiric swipe at the American community, descendants of the missionaries and important businessmen both in whaling and sugar, can also be found in the several extent versions of the first mock lecture Clemens wrote, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.” During the lecture, Mark Twain uses Hawaiian culture as the main butt of laughter, but he also inverts the assumed inferiority of the island culture in order to score points against American culture. A long litany of how the Hawaiians exhibit supposedly backwards habits becomes not just a comment against annexing the islands but also a comic jab at commercial and political corruption in the United States. “Now you see what kind of voters you will have if you take these islands away from these people as we are pretty sure to do some day. They will do everything wrong end first. They will make a deal of trouble here too. Instead of fostering and encouraging a judicious system of railroad speculation, and all that sort of thing, they will elect the most incorruptible men to Congress. Yes, they will turn everything upside down.”
Clemens jokes about the United State annexing the islands because some folks in the American community in 1866 were agitating for that outcome in the midst of the uncertainty of securing a reciprocity treaty for sugar. Given a letter years later from the American minister Edward McCook to President Grant amid continuing speculation about the treaty, such uncertainty guaranteed that annexation had remained a topic for the United States government too.
The success of “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands” was considerable, and Clemens delivered it in three subsequent lecture tours. In each one, he reprised and even elaborated his ironic satire about the advantages of becoming part of the United States. Here is the 1869-70 version:
When these islands were discovered, the population was about 400,000, but the white man came and brought various complicated diseases, and education, and civilization, and all sorts of calamities, and consequently the population began to drop off with commendable activity. Forty years ago, they were reduced to 200,000, and the educational and civilizing facilities being increased they dwindled down to 55,000, and it is proposed to send a few more missionaries and finish them. It isn’t the education or civilization that has settled them; it is the imported diseases, and they have all got the consumption and other reliable distempers, and to speak figuratively, they are retiring from business pretty fast. When they pick up and leave, we will take possession as lawful heirs.from “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Island” lecture tour, 1869-70
While evidence exists that audiences laughed at these sarcastic remarks, one might wonder what sort of laughter it was, and who or what exactly they were laughing at.
Some readers may recognize the ironic tactic here as the same one Mark Twain will deploy in the famous anti-imperialist essay, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901). Indeed, Clemens consistently maintained his negative attitude about imperialist designs, writing letters to the New York Tribune in 1873 decrying the continued talk about turning the Kingdom of Hawai‘i into a colony. The occasion was the death of the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha V, and the subsequent speculation about a successor. Clemens as Mark Twain imagined an even more enthusiastic mock approval of taking over the island nation. After noting that “We must annex those people. We can afflict them with our wise and beneficent governments,” a list of benefits is given, which includes:
We can make them ashamed of their simple and primitive justice . . . and let them have Judge Pratt to save imperiled Avery-assassins to society. . . . We can give them juries composed entirely of the most simple and charming leatherheads. We can give them railway corporations who will buy their Legislature like old clothes, and run over their best citizens and complain of the corpses for smearing their unpleasant juices on the track. . . . [W]e can furnish them some Jay Goulds who will do away with their old-time notion that stealing is not respectable. . . . We can give them lecturers! I will go myself.“The Sandwich Islands: Views of Mark Twain.” The New York Tribune. January 6, 1873
The specific individuals Clemens includes here to accompany the sarcasms about general issues such as juries, railroads, and elected officials project a voice for Mark Twain found in The Gilded Age, also published in 1873.
The Hawaiian Islands showcased a unique society for Sam Clemens: a mélange mimicking the English monarchy and its Anglican church while countenancing the growing influence of American capitalism, yet maintaining significant aspects of its indigenous culture, especially hula and mele. He never forgot the experience, not only reprising it in his lecture on the island society, but also considering, early and late, writing a novel about it.
During his round-the-world lecture tour in 1895, he stood on the deck of his ship in Honolulu harbor, barred from delivering his latest lecture because of an outbreak of cholera. He later lamented his bad luck in a letter to Henry Whitney, owner and editor of the Honolulu Commercial Advertiser, whom Clemens often visited in his office during his time in Hawai‘i: “I was perishing to get ashore at Honolulu, and talk to you all, and see your enchanted land again, and be welcomed and stirred up. But it was not to be, and I shall regret it a thousand years; for of course I shan’t get another chance to see the islands again.” (SLC to Henry Whitney, November 30, 1895)
The islands called forth his poetic side in 1899, when he concluded a speech in honor of a baseball team that had just returned from the Pacific with a tribute to Hawai‘i:
For me, its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack; I can feel the spirit of its woody solitudes, I hear the splashing of the brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.First published in “Recreation”, May 1899
Readers should compare this passage to what Mark Twain said about the volcano Kilauea in the original letters from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, more purple prose that dazzled audiences and critics when delivered as part of his lecture.
Clemens as Mark Twain in his Hawai‘i letters reinvents the travel letter by merging the antebellum comic tradition of mock travel letters, exemplified by Seba Smith’s Major Jack Downing, with the highbrow style of travel writing represented by Bayard Taylor. The new kind of travel letter accommodated a mixture of the necessary reportage and expected literary description with comic misadventures as likely to be fictional as not. Readable because of Mark Twain’s comic personality, the letters create the most original travel correspondence printed in the United States since N. P. Willis’s Pencillings by the Way, which appeared in 1835. Mark Twain in Hawai‘i represents the most important event in the early career of Sam Clemens.
Caron, James E. “Mark Twain Reports on Commerce with the Hawaiian Kingdom.” The Hawaiian Journal of History 44 (2010): 37-56.
—. “The Blessings of Civilization: Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialism and the Annexation of the Hawaiian Islands.” Mark Twain Annual 6 (2008): 51-63.
—. Mark Twain, Unsanctified Newspaper Writer. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008.
Clemens, Samuel L. Letter to Whitelaw Reid, January 3, 1873. Text available online at “Mark Twain Project”
—. Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawai‘i. Ed. A. Grove Day. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1975.
—. “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands.” Various texts available online at “Mark Twain in His Times.” Ed. Stephen Railton, University of Virginia,
—. “The Sandwich Islands: Views of Mark Twain.” New York Tribune. January 6, 1873. Rpt. in Frear, 489-94.
—. “The Sandwich Islands: Concluding Views of Mark Twain.” New York Tribune. January 9, 1873. Rpt. in Frear, 494-500.
Frear, Walter Francis. Mark Twain and Hawai‘i. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1947.
Lorch, Fred W. The Trouble Begins at Eight: Mark Twain’s Lecture Tours. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1968.
Silva, Noenoe K. “He Kanawai E Ho‘opau I Na Hula Kuolo Hawai‘i: The Political Economy of Banning the Hula.” Hawaiian Journal of History 34 (2000): 29–48.
Sumida, Stephen H. “Reevaluating Mark Twain’s Novel of Hawai‘i.” American Literature 61(4) (1989): 586–609.
Zwick, Jim. “Mark Twain and Hawai‘i.” In Confronting Imperialism: Essays on Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League. West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2007. 65-92.
James E. Caron retired as Professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, where he taught American literature for thirty-six years. He has published articles on satire, the tall tale, antebellum comic writers, laughter and evolution, Mark Twain, George Washington Harris, Frank Norris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Charlie Chaplin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Bill Watterson. In addition, he has published Mark Twain, Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter (2008), co-edited a collection of essays on Charlie Chaplin, entitled Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon in Critical Contexts (2013), and authored Satire as the Comic Public Sphere: Postmodern “Truthiness” and Civic Engagement (2021). His new book is The Modern Feminine in the Medusa Satire of Fanny Fern (January 2024). He is the former president of the American Humor Studies Association and former senior associate editor of its journal, Studies in American Humor. He is the recipient of the 2023 Charlie Award from the American Humor Studies Association, given for lifetime achievement in service to the AHSA and for research in American humor.
James E. Caron has given a number of lectures for the Center for Mark Twain Studies through the years. You can listen to and watch them here:
- James E. Caron, “Mark Twain Lying In Bed” (August 4, 2022 – Elmira College Campus)
- James E. Caron, “Mark Twain’s Rival Washoe Correspondents: William Wright and J.Ross Browne” (October 2, 2021 – Quarry Farm Barn)
- James E. Caron, “Gender Matters: Addison and Steele’s Amiable Satirist as a Regime of Truth in Antebellum America” (October 3, 2020 – Online Video)
- James E. Caron, “Mark Twain, Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter” (May 20, 2009 – Quarry Farm Barn)