Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

New Orleans, LA

Shortly after Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) arrived in New Orleans on February 28, 1857, his dream of going to Brazil to become a wealthy trader in cocaine gave way to a plan to pilot Mississippi River wedding-cake paddlewheelers. A river steamboat pilot, Twain said, was “the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived on earth.” During the next four years he traveled to New Orleans possibly fifty times, dining one afternoon with three pilots on a four-hour, $10-luncheon at a French restaurant—“breathe it not unto Ma!” he wrote to his brother Orion. They ate sheepshead fish with mushrooms, shrimp, oyster and game birds, smoked cigars and drank coffee flavored with burnt brandy. Twain reveled in Mardi Gras, where Santa Claus marched with genii “grotesque, hideous & beautiful in turn.” He walked streets that teemed with “men, women, and children of every age, color and nation.” He met not only Germans, Italians and Chinese, Andrew Beahrs writes in Twain’s Feast, but also Natchez, Houma and Chitimacha Indians, rural Cajun from the bayou, French and Spanish Creole planters and blacks from the West Indies as well as the South. Twain was in New Orleans in 1861 when Louisiana seceded from the Union and the Civil War started. He returned with G. W. Cable in 1882 to a New Orleans that he labeled the metropolis of the South—“a wealthy, far-seeing, and energetic city of a quarter of a million inhabitants.”

November 12-November 15

Posts from New Orleans, LA

From the Mekong to the Mississippi

On the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, Vietnamese immigrants and their children gathered alongside Vietnam War veterans to reflect on the dramatic events that forever changed both of their destinies—the siege of South Vietnam’s … Read more >>

Ben Jaffe, heir to Preservation Hall, philosophizes about New Orleans jazz

I am listening to an intense, muscular Ben Jaffe, 40, creative director of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, talk slowly and thoughtfully about his New Orleans, his brow furrowed, his sprouting Jewfro tied behind his head. But … Read more >>

Cooking a Five-Star Twain Dream Meal at an 1831 Mansion

We spend another day driving south, today through three Mississippi river towns famous in part for their connection to the life of Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) as a steamboat pilot—what he called “the only unfettered and … Read more >>

Catching drum fish at Bayou Bienvenue

After visiting the Lower Ninth Ward and seeing for ourselves the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused in the area, we stopped at the Bayou Bienvenue, hoping to find a vantage point from which to film the … Read more >>

The Mississippi ends: A day in the French Quarter

New Orleans on a Saturday afternoon felt like a sacred and salacious holiday. With the weather in complicity, we sinned over hot chocolate and beignets at Café du Monde and I quickly learned that breathing is … Read more >>