In his four months in Hawaii he wrote twenty-five letters for the Union, watched a volcano erupt, saw native girls skinny-dip in the sea, ate horrifying amounts of tropical fruit, and tried and failed to surf.
The contrast with San Francisco exhilarated him: here he walked on coral, not cobblestone, and smelled jasmine and oleander instead of offal and sewage.
Like Stoddard, he found the balmy, beautiful setting deeply relaxing: during five weeks in Maui, he took a much-needed holiday. “I have not written a single line, and have not once thought of business, or care, or human toil or trouble or sorrow or weariness,” he wrote to his sister‑in‑law.
But Hawaii wasn’t purely a vacation: it also gave Twain invaluable training in travel writing, the genre that would produce his first major book, “The Innocents Abroad.”
He took Union readers on a galloping tour of a kingdom rife with lurid customs and costumes, rich with sugar and whales, infested with British, French, and American interlopers, and governed by the last of the great Hawaiian kings, Kamehameha V.
In the midst of this came Twain’s first big scoop: a journalistic coup that amply repaid the Union’s investment in him.
On May 3, 1866, the USS Hornet sank off the coast of South America on its way to San Francisco. On June 15, fifteen survivors washed ashore on Hawaii’s Big Island.
They had spent the last forty-three days in a longboat, subsisting on dwindling rations of salt pork and sea biscuits and the occasional dolphin. At the time, Twain was in bed, recovering from a bad case of saddle sores.
But when eleven of the Hornet’s sailors arrived at the Honolulu hospital, he arranged for a friend to carry him there on a stretcher. One invalid to another, he interviewed the men about their ordeal and wove their answers into a suspenseful tale.
The Union published it on July 19, 1866. The first account of the shipwreck to appear in the American press, it caused a sensation.