Sunday, November 26, 2023

Cannibalism in the Cars

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Title illustration for “Cannibalism in the Cars” by American artist Truman W. "True" Williams (1839–1897), in the 1875 edition of Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old.
In the spring of 1868, Samuel Clemens, who had begun writing stories and articles as “Mark Twain” five years earlier, went to the West Coast via steamship, taking the usual route across Panama and arriving in San Francisco. In late April he went to Nevada to visit his old haunts and to give a lecture in Carson City, and after he returned to San Francisco on May 5, he wrote to his mother:
I have had the hardest trip over the Sierras. Steamboat to Sacramento (balmy summer weather & peaches all in bloom)—railway to the summit (snow thirty feet deep on level ground & 100 in the drifts)—6-horse sleighs to Donner Lake—mail coaches to Coburn’s—railway to Hunter’s—stage coaches to Virginia—all in the space of 24 hours. Distance 150 miles. Coming back last night in a snowstorm, the two & a half hours’ sleighing (part of the time clear weather & superb moonlight,) was something magnificent. . . .
Although Clemens had made the trip on several previous occasions when he lived in Carson City and Virginia City, any passage across the summit would conjure in the minds of the travelers the tragic Donner Party two decades earlier. Weeks before Clemens arrived in California, 20-year-old Frances Boyd made that same trip from New York, across Panama, and to San Francisco before braving the summit in the middle of winter to join her husband in Nevada. Decades later, she wrote in her memoir:
We had supped at Donner Lake, a beautiful spot in the very heart of the mountains, made famous by the frightful sufferings of the Donner party. . . . It proved an unfortunate prelude to our eventful night; for in the midst of our own suffering we were compelled to think of what might befall us if we, like that ill-fated party, should be left to the mercy of those grand but cruel mountains, which already seemed so relentless in their embrace that although haste meant torture yet we long to see the last of them.
Frances’s husband, Orsemus B. Boyd, was stationed at the Camp Halleck outpost, established to protect the workers constructing the Central Pacific railroad. In June of that year, soon after Frances Boyd and Samuel Clemens made their respective trips, the last section of railway track across Donner Summit was completed, enabling travel between Sacramento and Reno in only ten hours. Few would ever again have to pass over the summit in a stagecoach or sleigh.

In July, Clemens returned to New York, and later that year his farcical story “Cannibalism in the Cars” appeared in the November number of a transatlantic magazine issued by London publisher George Routledge & Sons, which had an office in Manhattan. It’s unknown when that year Clemens began the story or when he finished it, so how his own trek across the summit that year might have inspired the tale is a matter of speculation. Another influence could have been an item that appeared in February 1855 in the Muscatine Journal, the newspaper managed by his brother, who published a number of Clemens’s early pieces from 1853 to 1855. The account, a diary excerpt, described the travails of three hundred people, including a group of state legislators, trapped on a snowbound train between Chicago and Springfield for an entire week. They managed to survive by sharing the scanty provisions found in the freight car and burning train seats to keep warm. One of the more sensational reports published in St. Louis claimed that the passengers “were compelled by the bitter necessities of their Condition to eat dogs to keep from starving”—an unfounded rumor ridiculed by other newspapers.

At the time, Clemens did not think much of the transcontinental railroad. In a dispatch from St. Louis that appeared in the Alta California in 1867, he bemoaned the destruction the railroad left in its wake, both to the towns it bypassed and the towns it went through:
I went up to Hannibal, Quincy and Keokuk, on the Upper Mississippi. The first and the last named are enjoying a season of rest, but not refreshment—the railroads have stricken them dead for a year or two, and I cannot help fearing for Quincy also, now that she is going to build a bridge and let her trade cross the Mississippi, and go through without stopping. St. Louis is doing the same, and somebody has got to suffer for it some day, no doubt. . . . A railroad is like a lie—you have to keep building to it to make it stand. A railroad is a ravenous destroyer of towns, unless those towns are put at the end of it and a sea beyond, so that you can't go further and find another terminus.
As it happens, Clemens was in Washington, D.C., when the act that created the transcontinental railroad was working its way through the Senate. In February 1854, when he was 18 years old, he visited the Capitol and observed the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a bill sponsored by Illinois senator Stephen Douglas that settled the question of where to build the railroad, allowing it to traverse northern states in exchange for permitting new territories to decide through “popular sovereignty” whether to ban slavery or not—thus repealing the Missouri Compromise. In effect, the act built the railroad but hastened the Civil War; or as Mark Twain scholar John H. Davis puts it, “The Transcontinental Railroad, meant to unite the country, geographically and figuratively split it North and South.”

Fourteen years later, from the end of 1867 through the early months of 1868, Clemens served consecutively as a private secretary to each of Nevada’s senators, William M. Stewart and James Nye. As Samuel Clemens, he was an unreliable and mischievous aide who caused some embarrassment for his superiors, but as Mark Twain, he wrote a series of “Letters from Washington” for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, beginning with a dispatch in December that recalled his earlier trip to Washington:
I was here fourteen years ago, and remember what I saw then, perfectly well. I saw in the House Mr. Douglas and a few other great men. The mass of the remainder seemed to be a mob of empty headed whipper-snappers that had come to Congress to make incessant motions, propose eternal amendments, and rise to everlasting points of order. They glanced at the galleries oftener than they looked at the Speaker; they put their feet in their desks as if they were in a beer-mill; they made more racket than a rookery, and let on to know more than any body of men did know or ever could know by any possibility whatsoever.
Another piece, published in The New York Herald in February, decried the boys-club atmosphere that pervaded the Capitol and hinted at activities that would destroy reputations if known to the public:
Congressmen are a somewhat eccentric class of moralists. A large proportion of them prefer to have their families remain at home, that they may better enjoy their freedom here; for in some respects Washington is a free and easy place and never more so than when Congress is in session. A favorite mode of life for the bachelors and temporarily emancipated benedicts is to take apartments, and trust to a first class hotel or restaurant for the sustenance that is essential to the proximity of soul and body. Nothing can exceed this for comfort and convenience, nor is there anything to interrupt the enjoyment save an occasional angry remonstrance from the proprietor of the apartments against some curious discoveries that are calculated to scandalize the establishment.
In “Cannibalism in the Cars,” Mark Twain brings together his contempt for Congress and his misgivings about the railroad, and he sets his satirical story during a wintry trip that evokes the public’s fascination with the Donner Party and similar ill-fated journeys. Mirroring the timing of Clemens’s visits to Washington in 1854 and 1867–68, a stranger tells the narrator his story about a calamity that occurred fourteen years earlier—that is, before and after the Civil War, an event that might itself be described as an act of cannibalism.

Notes: Astute readers at the time of the story’s publication might have realized something was amiss with the stranger’s tale because the town of Weldon, while between St. Louis and Chicago, is not on a railroad line connecting them. Similarly, although the stranger states at the outset that there are only twenty-four passengers on the trip, nearly forty are identified by name.

Clemens’s primary purpose for making the trip to California in 1868 was to secure the rights to his own work from the Alta California newspaper, which controlled the copyright to his dispatches from an American tourist excursion through the Mediterranean on the steamship Quaker City in the fall of 1867. He planned to incorporate some of the pieces in his next book, The Innocents Abroad. Three close friends he made during that voyage appear as characters in “Cannibalism”: his cabin-mate, Daniel Slote; John A. Van Nostrand; and his future brother-in-law, Charles J. Langford. In fact, most of the train’s passengers are named after friends of the author.

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I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way west, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or may be fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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