The Apocryphal Twain: “America is built on a tilt and everything loose slides to California.” (Plus Things Mark Twain Really Said About California!)

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of social media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

This bit of apocrypha comes to me from my friend and colleague, Jocelyn Chadwick, director of our Summer Teachers Institute and author of The Jim Dilemma (1998).

Mark Twain once said “America is built on a tilt and everything loose slides to California.” Almost. I just read a new…

Posted by Robert Reich on Saturday, May 24, 2014

That Dr. Chadwick was not confident about whether or not this aphorism is apocryphal indicates that, unlike many of the quotes I have debunked over the years, it does not circulate that widely, and the sentiment it expresses coheres with many things Twain actually wrote, most famously his memoir of Westward emigration. Roughing It (1871) was the first book Twain wrote in Elmira. Later this year we will be celebrating the sesquicentennial of its publication with a symposium at Quarry Farm.

Here is an exemplary description of the “curious population” Twain found in California, after he moved there in 1864:

But, while Twain was definitely among his generation’s foremost evangelists of the West (Huckleberry Finn concludes Twain’s most famous novel by expressing his intention to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest”), the “America is built on a tilt” quote was not attributed to him until almost a century after his death.

Before it was associated with Twain, it had been attributed to many others and, most commonly, to nobody at all.

The earliest iteration of the aphorism I have been able to track down comes from a May 1976 profile of Ronald Reagan for Argosy magazine. The profile was written by Peter McCabe, a popular magazine writer of the 1970s and 1980s best known for his writing about popular music and broadcast news organizations. McCabe credits not Twain, but America’s most notable architect: “Frank Lloyd Wright once said that this country is built on a tilt, and that sooner or later, everything that isn’t nailed down ends up in California.”

UPDATE: I initially suspected that McCabe’s attribution to Wright might be nearly as specious as attribution to Twain, though it was, at least, half a century older. But after this posted, the always-dependable Barbara Schmidt of drew my attention to a newspaper that also cited Wright, though with slightly different phrasing.

From that, I was led to a relatively obscure 1963 examination of Pacific Coast culture by a San Diego based columnist named Neil Morgan. The book is titled, auspiciously, Westward Tilt: The American West Today. In the book, Morgan’s attribution of what he calls Wright’s “puckish theory” is paraphrased, but during the promotional campaign that preceded Westward Tilt‘s release, newspapers all over the country offered versions of the above aphorism, most commonly as “America is being tilted and everything loose is sliding into Southern California.”

It is possible that Morgan’s paraphrase, misrepresented as a direct quotation, came from an earlier book with a similar premise. John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A. (1947) begins in California, and Gunther writes, in Chapter 3, “Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, is supposed to have said once, ‘If you tilt the whole country sideways, Los Angeles is the place where everything loose will fall.”

Gunther had much higher standards for attribution than either Morgan or McCabe. Inside U.S.A. is a liberally-footnoted work. So, Gunther’s “supposed to have said once” indicates quite strongly that he has doubts about the authenticity of this quotation. However, he also clearly finds the sentiment too compelling to dismiss it entirely. It matches too cleanly with the story Gunther is telling about California, and America more generally. Note how the opening paragraph of Inside U.S.A. resembles not only the specious Wright quotation, but invokes a series of cliches about California which have been circulating since Twain resided there.

Gunther’s Inside U.S.A. was a massive hit. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 57 weeks, beginning in mid-June of 1947. It reached #1 two weeks later and remained there for more than four months. This is certainly the kind of popular work that can generate a viral misattribution.

So, where did Gunther get the quote, the authenticity of which he doubts? So far I’m still coming up empty.

Union Colonel (1861), U.S. Congressman (1861-1865), & Minister to Japan (1866-1869) Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh

Twain’s first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, reports that when Twain prepared to depart California in 1866, Robert Bruce Van Valkenburgh, then the U.S. Minister to Japan, met with him and said, “California is proud of Mark Twain, and some day the American people will be, too, no doubt.”

Paine appreciates this as “good prophecy,” but does not identify another bit of kismet. The compliment came from somebody with deep ties to another locale which would have as much to do with securing the pride of the American people as California did.

Van Valkenburgh was born in Prattsburgh, New York (about fifty miles northwest of Elmira), set up his law practice in Bath (about ten miles closer), and in 1860 he was elected to Congress, where he joined Elmira native, Alexander Diven, the personal lawyer and often business partner of Jervis Langdon, who would become Twain’s father-in-law.

Both Diven and Van Valkenburgh would volunteer for the Union Army in 1861. They were appointed Colonels of the 107th New York Infantry Regiment, and immediately began recruiting out of an office set up in Elmira. Colonel Van Valkenburgh was in command of the 107th during the Battle of Antietam, and Diven was during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Both returned to Congress in 1863.

Roughly a year after his meeting with Colonel Van Valkenburgh, Samuel Clemens would meet Charley Langdon and, soon thereafter, his sister, Olivia Langdon, who would, in 1869, become Mrs. Clemens. During the first of many Summers spent with Olivia’s family in Elmira, he wrote Roughing It.

In doing this research, I was reminded that Twain said some pretty incisive and comical things about California. I will leave you with few:

How I hate everything that looks, or tastes, or smells like California! – and how I hate everybody that loves the cursed State! Californians hate Missourians, – consequently I take great pains to let the public know that “Mark Twain” hails from there. I never let an opportunity slip to blow my horn for Missouri – you bet – as these rotten, lop-eared, whopper-jawed, jack-legged California abscesses say – blast them! But I have struck it now – I can show Pamela something cheerful, in reality, which she comes out: we hang one of these scabby, putrefied Californians every now and then – she shall see one of them get his neck stretched.

Letter to Jane L. Clemens & Pamela A. Moffett (April 11 & 12, 1863)

Over slumbering California is stealing the dawn of a radiant future!…California is Crown Princess of the new dispensation! She stands at the center of the grand highway of nations; she stands midway between the Old World and the New, and both shall pay her tribute. From the Far East and from Europe, multitudes of stout hearts and willing hands are preparing to flock hither; to throng her hamlets and villages; to till her fruitful soil; to unveil the riches of her countless mines; to build up an empire on these distant shores that shall shame the bravest dreams of her visionaries.

Concluding Remarks at Congress Hall in San Francisco (December 10, 1866)

I have seen it so hot in California that greenbacks went up to 142 in the shade.

“Sandwich Islands Lecture” (1866)

California had a population then that ‘inflicted’ justice after a fashion that was simplicity and primitiveness itself, and could therefore admire appreciatively when the same fashion was followed elsewhere.

Roughing It (1871)

Round about California in that day was scattered a host of these living dead men – pride-smitten poor fellows, grizzled and old at forty, whose secret thoughts were made all of regrets and longings – regrets for their wasted lives, and longings to be out of the struggle and done with it all. It was a lonesome land!

“The Californian’s Tale” (1893)

It was at Yreka and Jackass Gulch that [Bret] Harte learned to accurately observe and put with photographic exactness on paper the woodland scenery of California and the general style of the surface-miner, the gambler, and their women; and it was in those places that he learned, without the trouble of observing, all that he didn’t know about mining, and how to make it read as if an expert were behind the pen. It was in those places that he also learned how to fascinate Europe and America with the quaint dialect of the miner – a dialect which no man in heaven or earth has ever used until Harte invented it.

Autobiography Volume 2 (June 23, 1906)