Infernal regions, excellent strawberries, weary wastes, opera-glasses, cataracts of fire, the Sandwich Islands & gouts of blood and snowflakes.
W hen thirty-year-old Samuel Clemens first visited the Sandwich Islands—as Hawaii was known to haoles starting with Captain James Cook—in 1866, he had not yet published a book and had been writing under his Mark Twain pen name for only three years. Bored with daily reporting for the Territorial Enterprise in boomtown Virginia City, Nevada, he sought broader horizons in travel writing. The Sacramento Union agreed to run his letters from the islands, at $20 apiece. The newspaper published twenty-five dispatches, which Twain subsequently edited into book form, but the young author was not able to interest a publisher.
The five-month trip was foundational, according to Twain scholar and biographer Everett Emerson: “The experience was pivotal, for it gave him an opportunity for sustained writing. The experience and observations were a combination that would prove fruitful in his travel books and novels.”
Innocents Abroad, Twain’s first travel book, came three years later, followed in another three by Roughing It, which incorporated some of the Hawaii material in several chapters. The letters from Hawaii would not be collected in book form until 1937, twenty-seven years after his death.
For Twain, as for many mainlanders since, the islands were love at first sight. They formed the setting for a lost, unpublished novel (written just after his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and he celebrated them in his famous prose poem in 1889.
As a correspondent for California’s most influential newspaper, Twain took pains to promote trade with the islands, and this strain of business boosterism in his dispatches is noticeable. But his flair for anecdote, character and humor stands out more, even in this early work. Still more impressive are his descriptive powers, exemplified in his account of viewing the Kilauea crater at night in his final letter, included here. Who would think to compare a simmering volcano to a Massachusetts railroad map, and so effectively? The shifting scale of perception, initial appearance versus dawning reality, the happy notion of “eternity made tangible” and the bubbling lava’s sonic similarity to a riverboat boiler are all signal moments in an increasingly awesome tour de force.
To complicate the point of view and provide some dynamic tension, there is even an invented traveling companion named Mr. Brown, who “has a generous heart and a fervent imagination, and a capacity for creating impossible facts…one of those men who always looks at the unpleasant side of everything, which I seldom do.”
The Sacramento Daily Union, November 16, 1866
THE GREAT VOLCANO OF KILAUEA
I suppose no man ever saw Niagara for the first time without feeling disappointed. I suppose no man ever saw it the fifth time without wondering how he could ever have been so blind and stupid as to find any excuse for disappointment in the first place. I suppose that any one of nature’s most celebrated wonders will always look rather insignificant to a visitor at first, but on a better acquaintance will swell and stretch out and spread abroad, until it finally grows clear beyond his grasp—becomes too stupendous for his comprehension. I know that a large house will seem to grow larger the longer one lives in it, and I also know that a woman who looks criminally homely at a first glance will often so improve upon acquaintance as to become really beautiful before the month is out.
I was disappointed when I saw the great volcano of Kilauea (Ke-low way-ah) to-day for the first time. It is a comfort to me to know that I fully expected to be disappointed, however, and so, in one sense at least, I was not disappointed.
As we “raised’’ the summit of the mountain and began to canter along the edge of the crater, I heard Brown exclaim, “There’s smoke, by George!” (poor infant—as if it were the most surprising thing in the world to see smoke issuing from a volcano), and I turned my head in the opposite direction and began to crowd my imagination down. When I thought I had got it reduced to about the proper degree, I resolutely faced about and came to a dead halt. “Disappointed, anyhow!” I said to myself. “Only a considerable hole in the ground—nothing to Haleakala—a wide, level, black plain in the bottom of it, and a few little sputtering jets of fire occupying a place about as large as an ordinary potato-patch, up in one corner—no smoke to amount to anything. And these ‘tremendous’ perpendicular walls they talk about, that inclose the crater! They don’t amount to a great deal, either; it is a large cellar—nothing more—and precious little fire in it, too.” So I soliloquized. But as I gazed, the “cellar” insensibly grew. I was glad of that, albeit I expected it. I am passably good at judging of heights and distances, and I fell to measuring the diameter of the crater. After considerable deliberation I was obliged to confess that it was rather over three miles, though it was hard to believe it at first. It was growing on me, and tolerably fast. And when I came to guess at the clean, solid, perpendicular walls that fenced in the basin, I had to acknowledge that they were from 600 to 800 feet high, and in one or two places even a thousand, though at a careless glance they did not seem more than two or three hundred. The reason the walls looked so low is because the basin inclosed is so large. The place looked a little larger and a little deeper every five minutes, by the watch. And still it was unquestionably small; there was no getting around that. About this time I saw an object which helped to increase the size of the crater. It was a house perched on the extreme edge of the wall, at the far end of the basin, two miles and a half away; it looked like a martin box under the eaves of a cathedral! That wall appeared immensely higher after that than it did before.
The place below looked like the infernal regions and these men like half-cooled devils just come up on a furlough.
I reflected that night was the proper time to view a volcano, and Brown, with one of those eruptions of homely wisdom which rouse the admiration of strangers, but which custom has enabled me to contemplate calmly, said five o’clock was the proper time for dinner, and therefore we spurred up the animals and trotted along the brink of the crater for about the distance it is from the Lick House, in San Francisco, to the Mission, and then found ourselves at the Volcano House.
On the way we passed close to fissures several feet wide and about as deep as the sea, no doubt, and out of some of them steam was issuing. It would be suicidal to attempt to travel about there at night. As we approached the lookout house I have before spoken of as being perched on the wall, we saw some objects ahead which I took for the brilliant white plant called the “silver sword,” but they proved to be “buoys”—pyramids of stones painted white, so as to be visible at night, and set up at intervals to mark the path to the lookout house and guard unaccustomed feet from wandering into the abundant chasms that line the way.
By the path it is half a mile from the Volcano House to the lookout house. After a hearty supper we waited until it was thoroughly dark and then started to the crater. The first glance in that direction revealed a scene of wild beauty. There was a heavy fog over the crater and it was splendidly illuminated by the glare from the fires below. The illumination was two miles wide and a mile high, perhaps; and if you ever, on a dark night and at a distance beheld the light from thirty or forty blocks of distant buildings all on fire at once, reflected strongly against overhanging clouds, you can form a fair idea of what this looked like.
THE VISION OF HELL AND ITS ANGELS
Arrived at the little thatched lookout house, we rested our elbows on the railing in front and looked abroad over the wide crater and down over the sheer precipice at the seething fires beneath us. The view was a startling improvement on my daylight experience. I turned to see the effect on the balance of the company and found the reddest-faced set of men I almost ever saw. In the strong light every countenance glowed like red-hot iron, every shoulder was suffused with crimson and shaded rearward into dingy, shapeless obscurity! The place below looked like the infernal regions and these men like half-cooled devils just come up on a furlough.
I turned my eyes upon the volcano again. The “cellar” was tolerably well lighted up. For a mile and a half in front of us and half a mile on either side, the floor of the abyss was magnificently illuminated; beyond these limits the mists hung down their gauzy curtains and cast a deceptive gloom over all that made the twinkling fires in the remote corners of the crater seem countless leagues removed—made them seem like the camp-fires of a great army far away. Here was room for the imagination to work! You could imagine those lights the width of a continent away—and that hidden under the intervening darkness were hills, and winding rivers, and weary wastes of plain and desert—and even then the tremendous vista stretched on, and on, and on!—to the fires and far beyond! You could not compass it—it was the idea, of eternity made tangible—and the longest end of it made visible to the naked eye!
The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it—imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire!
Here and there were gleaming holes twenty feet in diameter, broken in the dark crust, and in them the melted lava—the color a dazzling white just tinged with yellow—was boiling and surging furiously; and from these holes branched numberless bright torrents in many directions, like the “spokes” of a lady’s fan, and kept a tolerably straight course for a while and then swept round in huge rainbow curves, or made a long succession of sharp worm-fence angles, which looked precisely like the fiercest jagged lightning. These streams met other streams, and they mingled with and crossed and recrossed each other in every conceivable direction, like skate tracks on a popular skating ground. Sometimes streams twenty or thirty feet wide flowed from the holes to some distance without dividing—and through the opera-glasses we could see that they ran down small, steep hills and were genuine cataracts of fire, white at their source but soon cooling and turning to the richest red, grained with alternate lines of black and gold. Every now and then masses of the dark crust broke away and floated slowly down these streams like rafts down a river. Occasionally the molten lava flowing under the superincumbent crust broke through—split a dazzling streak, from five hundred to a thousand feet long, like a sudden flash of lightning, and then acre after acre of the cold lava parted into fragments, turned up edgewise like cakes of ice when a great river breaks up, plunged downward and were swallowed in the crimson cauldron. Then the wide expanse of the “thaw” maintained a ruddy glow for a while, but shortly cooled and became black and level again. During a “thaw,” every dismembered cake was marked by a glittering white border which was superbly shaded inwards by aurora borealis rays, which were a flaming yellow where they joined the white border, and from thence toward their points tapered into glowing crimson, then into a rich, pale carmine, and finally into a faint blush that held its own a moment and then dimmed and turned black. Some of the streams preferred to mingle together in a tangle of fantastic circles, and then they looked something like the confusion of ropes one sees on a ship’s deck when she had just taken in sail and dropped anchor—provided one can imagine those ropes on fire.
Through the glasses, the little fountains scattered about looked very beautiful. They boiled, and coughed, and spluttered, and discharged sprays of stringy red fire—of about the consistency of mush, for instance—from ten to fifteen feet into the air, along with a shower of brilliant white sparks—a quaint and unnatural mingling of gouts of blood and snow flakes!
We had circles and serpents and streaks of lightning all twined and wreathed and tied together, without a break throughout an area more than a mile square (that amount of ground was covered, though it was not strictly “square”), and it was with a feeling of placid exultation that we reflected that many years had elapsed since any visitor had seen such a splendid display—since any visitor had seen anything more than the now snubbed and insignificant “North” and “South” lakes in action. We had been reading old files of Hawaiian newspapers and the “Record Book” at the Volcano House, and were posted.
Occasionally the molten lava flowing under the superincumbent crust broke through—split a dazzling streak, from five hundred to a thousand feet long, like a sudden flash of lightning, and then acre after acre of the cold lava parted into fragments, turned up edgewise like cakes of ice when a great river breaks up, plunged downward and were swallowed in the crimson cauldron.
I could see the North Lake lying out on the black floor away off in the outer edge of our panorama, and knitted to it by a webwork of lava streams. In its individual capacity it looked very little more respectable than a schoolhouse on fire. True, it was about nine hundred feet long and two or three hundred wide, but then, under the present circumstances, it necessarily appeared rather insignificant, and besides it was so distant from us. We heard a week ago that the volcano was getting on a heavier spree than it had indulged in for many years, and I am glad we arrived just at the right moment to see it under full blast.
I forgot to say that the noise made by the bubbling lava is not great, heard as we heard it from our lofty perch. It makes three distinct sounds—a rushing, a hissing, and a coughing or puffing sound; and if you stand on the brink and close your eyes it is no trick at all to imagine that you are sweeping down a river on a large low pressure steamer, and that you hear the hissing of the steam about her boilers, the puffing from her escape pipes and the churning rush of the water abaft her wheels. The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.
THE PILLAR OF FIRE
W e left the lookout house at ten o’clock in a half cooked condition because of the heat from Pele’s furnaces, and wrapping up in blankets (for the night was cold) returned to the hotel. After we got out in the dark we had another fine spectacle. A colossal column of cloud towered to a great height in the air immediately above the crater, and the outer swell of every one of its vast folds was dyed with a rich crimson luster, which was subdued to a pale rose tint in the depressions between. It glowed like a muffled torch and stretched upward to a dizzy height toward the zenith. I thought it just possible that its like had not been seen since the children of Israel wandered on their long march through the desert so many centuries ago over a path illuminated by the mysterious “pillar of fire.” And I was sure that I now had a vivid conception of what the majestic “pillar of fire” was like, which almost amounted to a revelation.
ACCOMMODATIONS FOR MAN AND BEAST
It is only at very long intervals that I mention in a letter matters which properly pertain to the advertising columns, but in this case it seems to me that to leave out the fact that there is a neat, roomy, well furnished and well kept hotel at the volcano would be to remain silent upon a point of the very highest importance to anyone who may desire to visit the place. The surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did. The house is new—built three or four months ago—and the table is good. One could not easily starve here even if the meats and groceries were to give out, for large tracts of land in the vicinity are well paved with excellent strawberries. One can have as abundant a supply as he chooses to call for. There has never heretofore been anything in this locality for the accommodation of travellers but a crazy old native grass hut, scanty fare, hard beds of matting and a Chinese cook.
- Everett Emerson, Mark Twain, a Literary Life, Philadelphia, 2000 ↑
- The Lick House, considered the finest hotel west of the Mississippi, was located in what is now the city’s financial district, about two and half miles from Mission Dolores. The hotel burned down in the fire following the 1906 earthquake. ↑
Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.
Lead image: Mandy Beerley
Text: Mark Twain’s letters as published in the Sacramento Union are online at twainquotes.com/sduindex.htm
1871 Samuel Clemens portrait by Mathew Brady: United States Library of Congress
Hawaii prose poem: Mercantile Press, ca. 1920, Beinecke Library, Yale University
1891 Kilauea eruption painting: Dr. Adolf Markuze, published in 1916