Twain's time in Virginia City subject of lecture

Although much has been written about Mark Twain's life and work, Ron James believes information on the years he spent in Virginia City often seem to get left out.

The humorist spent several years in Virginia City in the 1860s, writing for the Territorial Enterprise reportedly spending a lot of time bending his elbow in various Comstock watering holes. Eventually, Twain was said to have been forced out of town after word got around he planned to engage in an illegal pistol duel, which would have resulted in his arrest, if not his death.

"It was very easy then, (and) hard now to get angry with Mark Twain," said James, the State historic preservation officer, who will give a lecture on Mark Twain's time in Virginia City at the Gold Hill Hotel on Tuesday.

"It's about his Virginia City experience," James said. "Of all the various things done on Mark Twain, they tend to give brief and misunderstood attention to Virginia City. I think it's fair to say it's the least understood chapter of his life."

He said he thinks Twain's time at the Territorial Enterprise was the second- most important period in his life, after Hannibal, Mo. and Mississippi.

There are several versions of how Samuel Clemens, as the writer was born, picked up the name Mark Twain. One version said he took it from a phrase used by Mississippi riverboat workers, and another said he picked it up at John Piper's Old Corner Bar, asking the barkeep to "mark twain" on his tab, for two drinks.

"Since it's Mark Twain, we can say whatever we want to, and people do," James said jokingly.

In any event, it's well documented that his writing for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper is the first place he used the name Mark Twain, regardless of where he picked up the term.

"He wasn't Mark Twain until he came to Virginia City," James said. "But there's no question that he felt it was a reference to the Mississippi, at least as much as you can have no question about Mark Twain."

James served as a guest editor and wrote an introduction for a special issue on Twain set to be published in late summer by the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. The introduction was critical of two pieces on Twain, one a biography by Ron Powers and the other the Ken Burns film.

He said Burns did the documentary on Twain and claimed to going to all the important places in Twain's life; Hannibal, Elmira, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., but he never came to Virginia City.

"He didn't use any photos of Virginia City in the documentary and totally misunderstood Twain's Nevada experience," James said. "He treated Virginia City like Jesus going into the wilderness, like he went to the wilderness of Nevada, sat and contemplated himself and came out Mark Twain.

"He came here and learned how to be Mark Twain," James added.

Powers' so-called definitive biography "Mark Twain" was based on a 1930s novel called "The Comstock Saga," James said, that he described as "half novel, half history."

"The upshot of it all is that Mark Twain's Virginia City and the effect of Virginia City on Mark Twain is extraordinarily poorly understood," he said. "So my presentation is an attempt to shed some light on that period and its relationship to Mark Twain."

• Contact Karen Woodmansee at kwoodmansee@nevadaappeal.com or 881-7351.

If you go

WHAT: "Mark Twain in Virginia City" lecture and PowerPoint presentation by State Historic Preservation Officer Ron James.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; dinner from 5 to 7 p.m.

WHERE: Gold Hill Hotel, 1540 Main St., Gold Hill

COST: $15 dinner and lecture; $5 lecture only.

CALL: 847-0111.

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