Reinventing American Literature

By the time Twain became a typesetter, America’s love affair with newsprint was growing fast. In 1776, the country had 37 newspapers. By 1830, it counted 715. By 1840, that number had doubled. Steam-powered machines made printing cheaper and faster; rising literacy fueled demand. A complex ecology emerged, with high-circulation city papers at the top, one-editor sheets at the bottom, and a diverse spectrum of typographical wildlife in between. Gardening tips shared space with sensationalized crime reports; serialized romances appeared alongside partisan hack jobs. “Story papers” delivered cheap thrills in the form adventure tales; illustrated weeklies used detailed engravings to visualize the news.

The newspaper revolution recreated America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground. Newspapers helped colonize the Pacific coast. They stoked the gold rush by publishing letters from the mines and endorsements from powerful editors like Horace Greeley, and they carried ads for California-bound ships and stagecoaches. Since the price of a ticket was prohibitive to the very poor. The emigrants mostly came from literate backgrounds, and they began printing newspapers and books when they reached the Far West. By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7.3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t’ write, compared with 20 percent national-wide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury—it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.

The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff
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