The First Dispatch

Maud Newton

In honor of Mark Twain’s birthday, assuming you’ve already read his biography of Satan, I recommend taking a look at the original version of “43 Days in an Open Boat,” his 1866 Sacramento Daily Union piece about “a boat containing fifteen men, in a helpless and starving condition,” that drifted on the ocean for a month and a half after its mother ship went up in flames.

Twain was so unknown at the time that when an expanded version of the dispatch was published in Harper’s that December, it appeared under the accidental byline “Mark Swain.” He later said, in “My Debut as a Literary Person,” that “43 Days” launched his career.

Though more halting than his later work, the piece crackles in places with Twain’s plain-spoken wit and ability to evoke the surprising detail. Among other things: the men ate dolphins, “a bird about as large as a duck, but all bone and feathers,” “four little flying fish, the size of sardines of these latter days,” and “a small green turtle, fast asleep.”  And what with all the back-and-forth over truth in nonfiction these days, it’s interesting to see how he dispenses upfront with matters of veracity and economy in what is purportedly, but not exactly, a nonfiction account:

 I have talked with the seamen and with John S. Thomas, third mate, but their accounts are so nearly alike in all substantial points, that I will merely give the officer’s statement and weave it into such matters as the men mentioned in the way of incidents, experiences, emotions, etc. Thomas is very intelligent and a cool and self-possessed young man, and seems to have kept a pretty accurate log of his remarkable voyage in his head. He told his story, of three hours length, in a plain, straightforward way, and with no attempt at display and no straining after effect. Wherever any incident may be noted in this paper where any individual has betrayed any emotion, or enthusiasm, or has departed from strict, stoical self-possession, or had a solitary thought that was not an utterly unpoetical and essentially practical one, remember that Thomas, the third mate, was not that person.

Twain has been accused of playing up the possibility of cannibalism, but even most of his accusers concede that two passengers’ diaries “verify that cannibalism was a distinct possibility.” Between this, and the disclaimer at the beginning, if he invented that part where the men “solemnly drew lots of determine who of their number should die to furnish for his comrades,” maybe we can grant him a little poetic license on his birthday?

Maud Newton is a writer, critic, and blogger living in Brooklyn.