Tahoe author speaks of its history at Twain Center
Mark Twain hated Lake Tahoe.
Not the physical body of water or its surroundings which he wrote could “restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor.”
It was, instead, the word “Tahoe” that stuck in the craw of the humorist whose legendary writing career found firm roots in Nevada and California.
As a young man, Twain, whose true name was Samuel Clemens, wrote of himself as being “a callow fool, a self-sufficient ass and a mere human tumble-bug.” Noticeable character changes began after his arrival in the West, and particularly in this area.
Twain’s Tahoe transformation is the topic of author Scott Lankford’s talk tonight at Incline Village’s Mark Twain Cultural Center.
Lankford, a professor of American literature at Foothills College in Santa Clara County, will bring new facts and theories to intrigue local history lovers in addition to fans of Twain.
Armed with an accompanying slide presentation, Lankford’s lecture was born from the research he gathered in the writing of his 2010 book “Tahoe Beneath the Surface.” The writer-historian spent time in the Lake Tahoe Basin discovering literary greats who received inspiration from the setting like Nobel Prize winning writers John Steinbeck and Bertrand Russell.
“When it came to the Twain chapter, I thought I had an easy ride,” he said. “Everyone knew he loved Lake Tahoe.”
His exploration, though, opened several doors to mysterious information that over a decade snowballed into a warren of unknown facts and discoveries not only about Clemens, but America as well. He recalls the journey of finding hidden written codes and deciphering their interpretation a thrill, and a bit frustrating.
“Every time I thought I was done I would find something else,” he said.
Clemens arrived in the Nevada Territory in 1861 as the Civil War began its vast and lingering division of the nation. The tendrils of turmoil spread far from eastern conflicts and battlefields like Fort Sumter or Bull Run.
One’s alliance for the North or South was tested even in the mining camps and towns of the Comstoke Lode. Clemens, a recent deserter of a volunteer Confederate militia was no exception to the emotional divisions.
“I am not calling him a racist,” Lankford said. “Just consider where he came from.”
Missouri was a slave state where since birth Clemens had been immersed in the belief of a division of the races.
The man, who first used “Mark Twain” as his pen name in 1863, was not alone in his convictions notes Lankford. California, too, was a hotbed of Southern sympathizers, including one-time governor, John Bigler.
To honor Bigler, the country’s largest lake west of the Rockies, received his name in 1853. Less than a decade later “Tahoe” replaced it. Its new name wrote Clemens disparagingly meant “grasshopper soup”.
The events leading to this declaration are part of what Lankford will discuss. He will also focus on the transformation from the young Clemens to the revered white haired creator of Huckleberry Finn 30 years later. Among the character’s dramatic reversals is from having a pro slavery stance to embracing abolitionism.
According to Lankford the altering of Clemens’ opinions began in the West.
“His time here affected not only his writing, but also his life.”
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