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Tara Penry

An essay by Tara Penry appears in the spring issue of the Mark Twain Journal, the leading journal on the 19th century humorist, his associates and his era.

Penry’s article, “Mark Twain and Robert B. Swain of San Francisco,” recovers from archival documents the life of a figure in the background of Twain’s life whose biography answers some questions about Twain’s final visit to California in 1868.

Born in Nantucket, Robert B. Swain was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to direct the U.S. Branch Mint in San Francisco in 1863. He also helped persuade the New England orator Thomas Starr King to accept the First Unitarian pulpit in the Bay City. As some historians have claimed, Starr King “saved California for the Union” by lecturing tirelessly on behalf of Lincoln’s cause in the early years of the Civil War. Swain was at his bedside when Starr King died in 1864.

Swain met Samuel Clemens around the same time, but they belonged to different social classes and had only a passing acquaintance. A few years later, when the Missourian began to distinguish himself as a humorist and a lecturer, Swain encouraged Clemens, helping him to pitch his irreverent humor to a genteel audience and become “Mark Twain.”