Archive for July 4th, 2012

They started more than literary firestorms: Twain, Thoreau meet Smokey the Bear

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012
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Fire and the 4th go hand in hand

Traditional 4th of July celebrations involve fireworks, campfires, sparklers, gunfire and cannons, and all sorts of other incendiary tomfoolery.  What better way to celebrate than with the tale of two inadvertent literary firebugs?

Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin apparently agrees, according to her new post on the Library of America’s “Reader’s Almanac” blog.

Here’s the story:  Through their own naïveté and carelessness, Mark Twain burned 200 acres of forest around Lake Tahoe. He failed to break Henry David Thoreau‘s earlier record of setting 300 acres of his beloved Concord woods aflame.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde.  He might have had Twain in mind, for Twain loved Tahoe with a passion that all later lakes failed to arouse.  Italy’s famous Lake Como was as nothing.  The renowned Sea of Galilee was a downright disappointment.  (I understood this completely when I saw the mud puddle called the Jordan River.  Where was the mighty, rolling river of the spirituals?  It occurred to me as I gazed at the sluggish, fetid waters that the slaves had the Mississippi in mind.)

“Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” wrote the dazzled Twain in Roughing It, “would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.”

America's answer to Como, Galilee

Yet he built a campfire on the shore one autumn day in 1861 and left it unattended while he returned to his boat.  A gust of wind did the rest.

Seventeen years earlier, a stray spark from Thoreau’s campfire started a conflagration.  According to Shelley:

Both writers were struck by the “glorious spectacle” (Thoreau’s words) of the fires they had started; Twain found the “mighty roaring of the conflagration” to be “very impressive.” Neither Thoreau nor Twain showed much remorse for the destruction he had caused. “I have set fire to the forest,” Thoreau wrote in his journal six years later, “but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it.”

Twain, at least, has not been forgiven.

Said Shelley:  ”Last week I asked a firefighter at Fallen Leaf Lake, in the Tahoe Basin just south of Lake Tahoe, whether Mark Twain was still persona non grata in the area. He nodded grimly.”

Having fled my own home with suitcases and pets during two wildfires in that part of the world and stayed at home for a third close call, I can understand the firefighter’s umbrage.

Read the whole cautionary tale here.