Submitted by scott on Sun, 04/19/2020 - 18:00

In concluding his book, Roughing It, Mark Twain remarked on his journey back to New York City:

“When I returned to San Francisco I projected a pleasure journey to Japan and thence westward around the world; but a desire to see home again changed my mind, and I took a berth in the steamship, bade good-bye to the friendliest land and livest, heartiest community on our continent, and came by the way of the Isthmus to New York—a trip that was not much of a picnic excursion, for the cholera broke out among us on the passage and we buried two or three bodies at sea every day.”

He departed San Francisco aboard the steamship America commanded by Edgar "Ned" Wakeman, December 15, 1866 The America belonged to the North American Steamship Company, which offered passage to the East via Nicaragua. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company offered the older Panama route.

The first night out from San Francisco a violent storm nearly swamped the America, terrifying the passengers in steerage and making virtually everyone seasick. “Happily I escaped,” Clemens observed, “had something worse.” This unnamed illness kept him confined, though not completely solitary, both before and during the voyage.

The ship arrived at San Juan del Sur,, on the west coast of Nicaragua, December 28, 1866. Then a 3 day trek across the Isthmus: stage to Virgin Bay, Lake Nicaragua; steamer across the lake and down the San Juan River, to San Juan del Norte (Greytown).

Before the Panama Canal was built the San Juan River was frequently used as a major part of the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Many people, including African slaves and people hoping to find gold in California, were transported via this route. . Tens of thousands took a steamboat that was operated by the Accessory Transit Company, directed by Cornelius Vanderbilt. The boat traveled up the San Juan River and across Lake Nicaragua; a stagecoach completed the connection to the Pacific coast.

At Greytown Twain boarded the steamer San Francisco, January 1, 1867. The ship suffered mechanical problems and on 2 January, one day out of Greytown, cholera struck. By 5 January three were dead and a fourth mortally ill.

The San Francisco was in port at Key West for a day and a night, departing January 7, 1867 and arriving in New York, January 12, 1867 By then seven had died (four from cholera), and there had probably been more deaths among the twenty-one passengers who fled the ship at Key West.

Mark Twain described his arrival in New York for the Alta:
We swore the ship through at quarantine, which was right—she hadn’t had any real cholera on board since we left Greytown—and at 8 o’clock this morning we stood in the biting air of the upper deck and sailed by the snow-covered, wintry looking residences on Staten Island—recognized Castle Garden [in the Battery]—beheld the vast city spread out beyond, encircled with its palisade of masts, and adorned with its hundred steeples—saw the steam-tug and ferryboats swarming through the floating ice, instinct with a frenzied energy, as we passed the [East] river—and in a little while we were ashore and safe housed at the Metropolitan.

On the point of departing San Francisco and a return to New York, Twain in his farewell to the west coast offered an image of what he thought the future would bring. It also provides a window on his view of the industrialization occurring in the world around him.  From his impromptu farewell address to San Francisco:

Mark Twain described his arrival for the Alta:

We swore the ship through at quarantine, which was right—she hadn’t had any real cholera on board since we left Greytown—and at 8 o’clock this morning we stood in the biting air of the upper deck and sailed by the snow-covered, wintry looking residences on Staten Island—recognized Castle Garden [in the Battery]—beheld the vast city spread out beyond, encircled with its palisade of masts, and adorned with its hundred steeples—saw the steam-tug and ferryboats swarming through the floating ice, instinct with a frenzied energy, as we passed the [East] river—and in a little while we were ashore and safe housed at the Metropolitan. (SLC 1867 [MT00522])

 Clemens sailed on the first leg of the trip to the East Coast on 15 December aboard the America, captained by Edgar Wakeman (1818–75). The America belonged to the North American Steamship Company, which offered passage to the East via Nicaragua, in “opposition” to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s older Panama route. 

There has recently been some discussion of Twain's poem "Genius", written on this voyage, on Twain-L much of which involved the cholera Twain encountered on the journey between San Francisco and New York.  This letter is part of that discussion:

The Surgeon General officially declared a cholera epidemic in San Francisco the same month the *America *departed from the city's port. Then, as now, it is probably reasonable to suspect the outbreak was extensive well before it was officially registered, and San Francisco was one of the last U.S. metropoles to declare the outbreak which spread from coast to coast in 1866, which turned out to be the peak year for cholera in the U.S. during the prolonged midcentury pandemic (which began, if I'm remembering correctly, in Russia).

So, I don't think it is at all unlikely that cholera was introduced from the outset, although it definitely worsened as the voyage progressed, and both ships - the *San Francisco *and the *America - *returned to their origins (NYC & SF) with numerous casualties. There are conflicting totals, but at least twenty deaths aboard each vessel.

Now, I'll admit, it's hard to know exactly how the disease progressed through the ships and passengers, who transferred between vessels at Nicaragua. Cholera is, of course, bacterial, and it would've been incredibly difficult to remove it from ships, even after infected passengers disembarked, as there would've been limited capacity for deep cleaning and numerous crewmembers were afflicted as well. And the ships Twain traveled on were making continuous cycles between the isthmus and U.S. ports.

Predictably (and xenophobically), newspaper reports treated cholera as an exotic South American disease even after there were ongoing outbreaks across US, including in NYC and SF. These accounts frequently blame, specifically, a group of soldiers from which many casualties came for the sorry conditions aboard the *America *and *San Francisco*.

But, many crew and passengers, including Sam himself, had extreme symptoms (up to and including death) before the *America *reached Nicaragua (or took aboard said soldiers). As he wrote in his notebook early in the trip, "Nearly everybody seasick. Happily I escaped - had something worse." Shortly thereafter, presumably during what he describes as "a long, long night," he makes a note about a reported influenza epidemic in Hawaii, perhaps wondering whether that was what was causing the *America*'s distress.

My Occam's Razor assumption is that cholera was pretty much everywhere Twain traveled during the year 1866 and particularly in confined conditions, it spread rapidly and caused much distress, whether or not it was officially diagnosed or proved extremely deadly.

I can't pretend to have a reliable account of the fluctuations of Sam's emotional states. He was certainly capable, during these years, of moving from euphoric to suicidal, with considerable aid from alcohol, as has been well established. I don't think he was particularly prone, at 31-years-old, to consider himself "early in his career," though in retrospect that is the case. He had been a professional writer for more than four years, and despite some recent strikes, I suspect he feared that if he died aboard the *America *his self-proclaimed "call to literature" would be forgettable indeed. More importantly, as he was quick to remind people, he had been a working man for more than half his life.

Reading "Genius" as self-reflective is not to deny the potential allusions to Poe. Indeed, I think of Dennis Eddings's conclusion to "Sam Clemens Reads Edgar Poe," in which he links the two authors expressly through the themes of self-deception and distrust, including "suspicion of reading itself." "Genius" is a poem which encourages distrust, even disdain for the poet. Twain's sometimes disdain for Poe was perhaps in keeping with his sometimes disdain for himself.

*Matt Seybold, PhD*

Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies