The Last Voyage of the Hornet: The Story that Made Mark Twain Famous
by Kristin Krause
Royal Fireworks Press
In June of 1866, a young Samuel Clemens was hiding out in Honolulu after a dust-up in San Francisco. The law was after him for inflammatory remarks he’d published in the Chronicle against a rival newspaper publisher. Clemens was essentially living in exile in Hawaii, an ocean apart from the country whose attention he craved for fame and fortune as a writer. And then he heard about a boat of castaways that had fetched up on the north shore of the Big Island. The men had supposedly lived on three days’ rations in an open boat for 43 days. They were delirious, starving, emaciated and nearly dead, but they had a hell of a story to tell.
Clemens called in a favor from a diplomat then visiting Hawaii, and together they interviewed the crew of the boat. He learned that the men had taken to the boat — along with their shipmates in two other open boats — after their vessel, the square-rigged clipper Hornet, laden with 20,000 gallons of kerosene and 6,700 boxes of paraffin, had caught fire and sunk in the middle of the Pacific. They were thousands of miles from the nearest atoll and subsequently sailed 4,300 miles to fetch up on Hawaii. In the meantime, the two other boats had disappeared without a trace; these men were the sole survivors.
Clemens recognized the story for the scoop it was and took assiduous notes of their conversations over the course of a single day. He then stayed up all that night, dashing off a story of the men’s harrowing adventure. The following morning, he sent the manuscript back to San Francisco on a mail ship, where it was quickly published in the Sacramento Daily Union, and then around the country and around the world. The celebrity of Mark Twain was launched with this story.
While the story of survival in the open boat is gripping at times, much of the background regarding nautical practice and history is somewhat basic and readers who are more experienced mariners may find their attention going adrift in certain scenes. Nonetheless, perseverance will be rewarded by a truly well-written account of the adventure and Mark Twain’s subsequent escapades.
Last Voyage of the Hornet by Kristin Krause is a fantastic tale, both for its narrative of the hapless sailors in the open boat, and also for the circumstances that led Clemens to capitalize on his good fortune and launch his career as a teller of tales.