Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
(A champion of common sense and nonsense casually delivers his colorful yarns, witty satires, and twisty dramas.)
Sitting with Mark Twain when he’s in a storytelling mood, we get to know the man—or at least he leads us to believe we get to know him. He lets us in on private jokes; he talks to us freely and without affected polish, perhaps puffing on his pipe in the middle of a sentence; and he doesn’t mind making clever offhand remarks about even the touchiest of matters. And, to reciprocate the casual friendship, we allow him to wander on tangents, even if it prevents him from ever getting to his point; and we don’t let on that we mind when he decides not to tell us the end of a story, or when he makes fun of something that we happen to like; and, especially, we just don’t get too critical with him in general. Since Twain’s favorite literary pastime is to smirk at people who take themselves too seriously, when we take him too seriously the joke is on us! Besides, the path of his narrative, though unpredictable, is as organic and spontaneous as a stream– who can criticize a stream?
The late Charles Neider, our most devoted compiler and editor of Twain’s short works, determined that Twain wrote 60 stories, as distinct from essays and bits of description or recollection that one might call “sketches”. The first 36 of his stories, written in the first 25 years of his career, are covered in this post. This was the era of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, of local color and humor; but this period also saw the flowering of his trademark pointed satire. I figure we can group his stories into three categories:
(I) Tall tales and local yarns: Often Twain takes half of the story to get to the story (“Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”), or perhaps never gets to it (“Story of the Old Ram”). What we do get, though, is earthy, often rural dialogue full of humor and character, and idiosyncratic actions and events that promise to induce a chuckle. Something as minor as difficult handwriting (“The Trials of Simon Erickson”) or as staid as a funeral (“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral”) can easily become opportunities for Twain’s craft.
(II) Poking fun: Twain’s satire is always witty, often justified, and sometimes downright hilarious. Nothing is spared the humorist’s pen:
- Home life: The three McWilliamses stories (“…Membranous Croup”, “…Lightning”, and “…Burglar Alarm”), are among the funniest of his stories, and hit close to home. Here the joke is on all of us.
- Science: Twain, the consummate skeptic, is not ready to accept pronouncements from ivory towers. Of course, he’s also not about to try to figure out the facts himself either; so he levels his wit against science with all the suspicion we might expect from someone who would rather that we “be content with the knowledge that nature had made free to all creatures” (“Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls”; also “Science vs. Luck”, “What Stumped the Blue-Jays”). He sees science as almost superstitious “top of the head” extemporizing, together with conceited (and therefore suspect) jargon that only pretends to express complexity of thought. His tirades perhaps contain a good moral on the danger of the lack of falsification in science; but as a whole they (especially the “Some Learned Fables…”) show that Twain doesn’t really know how science works, and admittedly doesn’t care either. I believe it not unfair to suggest that his interpretation of rural, democratic, practical, “common-man” sensibilities, prejudices him against the very idea of knowledge that is complex, difficult to attain, and requires a great deal of study.
- Morality and religion: Being good doesn’t necessarily bring rewards (“The Story of the Good Little Boy”), and being bad doesn’t necessarily bring punishments (“The Story of the Bad Little Boy”). “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” is about a sucker (“good guy”) and a leech (“bad guy”). Each kind of person is destroyed by the other; the sympathy and goodness of some make life easy for the bad, whereas the cruelty and lack of principle of others make life difficult for the kind and honest. The upshot is a poignant satire on society and the simplistic promises of Sunday School books. “Go ahead, Ben Franklin, with your quippy rules for living,” one can almost hear Twain mutter, “roll over in your grave!”. Whether true or not in general or on average, Twain at least raises doubt about the assurances and encouragements we perhaps received when we were young, about what kinds of things happen to what kinds of people.
- Professionals: Journalists are faulted for their ignorance of the topics they cover (“How I Edited an Agricultural Paper”), and fierce infighting (“Journalism in Tennessee”). Salesmen tend to be ridiculous, unrelenting, and unnecessary (“The Canvasser’s Tale”; “Political Economy”). Repair shops are the best way to guarantee failure of your appliance (“My Watch”). Detectives are perhaps more self-aggrandizing than they are perceptive and intuitive (“The Stolen White Elephant”). The work of artists is often overvalued (“Legend of the Capitoline Venus”). And, of course, the government is notoriously slow at accomplishing anything (“The Facts in the Great Beef Contract”; “The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s”).
Perhaps we’ll cheer at these and have our own anecdotes at the ready to validate each and every stereotype; or perhaps we’ll find them a bit too cynical. Even if they are, remember that this is Twain we’re talking about, and his medicine is bearable on account of that sweetening spoonful of lightheartedness he administers with it. His eye is sharp, but always ready to wink.
(III) Dramatic plots: O.Henry does not have a monopoly among favorite American authors on concealing the destination of a story from his readers. Twain loves twists, often amusing or ironic ones. In fact, Twain’s way of wrenching plots around and manipulating the expectations of his reader can be nothing short of ingenious. We might be led to think we know someone, and then they turn out to be the opposite (“The Professor’s Yarn”, “A Burning Brand”). Or, we might believe we can anticipate Twain’s twist, in which case he might just twist it right back again (“A Curious Experience”). In some cases we find ourselves in the dark, trying to figure something out that the characters already understand perfectly (“The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton”); other times we are granted knowledge that allows us to sit back and enjoy the difficulties of the ignorant characters (“The Invalid’s Story”); in still other situations neither we nor the character understand what’s going on until we are both simultaneously enlightened (“A Dying Man’s Confession”, “A Ghost Story”). He is also fond of embedding stories within stories (occasionally again within stories), and can sometimes derive an almost sadistic pleasure in either leaving us hanging (“A Medieval Romance”), or closing the story with a dramatic anticlimax. Such effects work because they are so deliberate, and are somehow fitting even when frustrating.
Sure, Tom Sawyer is probably the most famous kid in all of literature, at least in the U.S.; and yes, Huckleberry Finn gets more votes than any other book for being the greatest American novel. But what if you want just a one-sitting jolt of Twain? That’s what stories are for. Read one before you go to bed; read one on the train; read one to somebody aloud; read one and smirk.
(My votes for the best go to the ones with asterisks. These are in order of when they first appeared, either by themselves, in collections, or even embedded within a novel.)
“The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865)
-a meandering tale of cheating in a frog race, with lots of character and hilarity. [Twain’s most famous story.]
“The Story of the Bad Little Boy” (1865)
-Someone is a bad boy– but unlike in the Sunday School books, nothing bad happens to him!
“Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868)
-Snowbound train passengers end up eating each other by democratic process.
“A Day at Niagara” (1869)
-A tour of the Falls gets a wiseacre into a scrape with some Irishmen he mistakes for Indians. [Funny!]
“Legend of the Capitoline Venus” (1869)
-An instance of art fraud suggests that we overvalue “great” works of art.
“Journalism in Tennessee” (1869)
-a funny burlesque of merciless infighting among journalists.
“A Curious Dream” (1870)
-a chat with a skeleton about dilapidated cemeteries.
“The Facts in the Great Beef Contract” (1870)
-a witty tale revolving around the inefficiency and red tape of the government: Many men die, having spent years trying to get a single account settled by the government.
*”How I Edited an Agricultural Paper” (1870)
-scathing wit on the ignorance of journalists: Someone abysmally ignorant of agriculture edits an agricultural magazine.
“A Medieval Romance” (1870)
-Twain ingeniously puts a cross-dressed “duke” in a pickle to rival Shakespearean dilemma– and then promptly ends the story.
“My Watch” (1870)
-a poignant illustration of the fact that anything will work best if you never take it to be repaired– for then you’re assured of failure!
“Political Economy” (1870)
-hilarious story of a persistent salesman of lightning rods bothering a householder.
“Science vs. Luck” (1870)
-A trial finds a card game “science”, not “chance”, and thus excusable.
“The Story of the Good Little Boy” (1870)
-The good boy’s life isn’t so peachy as Sunday School books claim it to be!
“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” (from Roughing It, 1872)
-colorful dialogue riddled with inscrutable slang between a rough Nevadan and a preacher.
“The Story of the Old Ram” (from Roughing It, 1872)
-perfect example of a tall tale: One thing humorously leads to another, and we never get to hear about the ram.
“Tom Quartz” (from Roughing It, 1872)
-A miner thinks his cat’s a genius, and brags about him being “prejudiced against quartz mining”… after having been blown out of a hole with a charge!
“A Trial” (from Roughing It, 1872)
-A captain wants personally to hang a bully overseas for shooting his black mate; he reluctantly submits to a trial first which is mere formality, and then hangs him without qualm or hesitation.
“The Trials of Simon Erickson” (from Roughing It, 1872)
-A poorly handwritten answer to a question about turnips drives a man crazy with (amusing) attempts to interpret it.
*”A True Story” (1874)
-a touching narrative, written in imitation of dialect, of a simple, goodhearted ex-slave woman who finally reunites with her son.
*”Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup” (1875)
-funny, satirical story of a proud and willful wife inordinately fearful of her child’s health and crazily pestering of her husband.
“Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls” (1875)
-a satire on science, from astronomy and exploration through geology, biology, evolution, anthropology, and archaeology. A group of small forest creatures embark on a scientific expedition. Heedless of the lowly Tumble-Bug’s sense and skepticism, they make ridiculous and pedantic suppositions on the nature of everything they find, especially human constructions. The only check to their theorizing is the usually equally loony countersuppositions and challenges of each other. Their theories lead them, among other things, to infer an old earth, and man’s lowly place in the evolved order, beneath the forest creatures (except for the even lower Tumble-Bugs and certain others).
“The Canvasser’s Tale” (1876)
-A rich man has gone broke collecting echoes, and now his nephew heir is trying to sell them to people on the street.
“The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton” (1878)
-an ingeniously narrated love story between two people by telephone, whose prospects together are almost destroyed by a third party who mimics the man’s voice on the phone. Eventually the lovers are married by telephone.
“Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” (1880)
-Contrary to their foster parents’ moralistic motto, Edward Mills is “pure, honest, sober, industrious, and considerate”, and lives a life of hardship; whereas George Benton is the opposite and, thanks to charity and pity and social organizations, has friends and fame!
“The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s” (from A Tramp Abroad, 1880)
-poking a little fun at the slowness of government.
“Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning” (1880)
-superstitious fear of lightning is ironically supported.
“What Stumped the Bluejays” (from A Tramp Abroad, 1880)
-a Dr. Dolittle approach to blue jay behavior.
*”A Curious Experience” (1881)
-A suspenseful, twisty story of a rebel plot to take over a Connecticut fort, made possible by the espionage of a fourteen year old boy!… well, not really…
“The Invalid’s Story” (1882)
-Mistaking the smell of limburger cheese for a rotting corpse on a train, a couple of men go to great lengths to avoid it, resulting in one of them completely losing his health: “Imagination had done its work”.
“The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm” (1882)
-a tale with some very funny parts, about a fiasco of modern technology. A man tries to get a burglar alarm installed and functioning, and its kinks continually outwit and exasperate him.
“The Stolen White Elephant” (1882)
-an amusing yarn about a slew of detectives under a melodramatic chief who try to locate a missing elephant on a rampage through New York. In the end the detectives swindle the elephant keeper for $150,000 and he never realizes it.
“A Burning Brand” (from Life on the Mississippi, 1883)
-A tear-jerking letter from a supposed co-inmate of a man Williams who repented and converted, proves to be a fraud written by Williams himself.
“A Dying Man’s Confession” (from Life on the Mississippi, 1883)
-a story within a story within a story: The narrator journeys to a town on the Mississippi, the scene of the murder of a German’s wife and child 18 years before. One of the two ruffians had later aided the German in finding the other, the murderer; but by mistake the German then killed the helpful ruffian instead of his buddy. The German remained ignorant of this for years until he met the killer in a morgue, who had revived after being thought dead. The German ensures that the murderer dies for good. Upon meeting the narrator, the German wishes him to go to the town in Mississippi where the murders happened to bring a fortune to light. The German wished to give this money to the son of the other ruffian to atone for having killed the man by accident. The narrator and his two friends, however, as they approach the town, rationalize themselves into believing that the more kind and friendly thing to do would be to keep the money. Their subsequent fight over the money comes to an end, as does the story, when they find that the town is long gone, having been swept away by the Mississippi River long ago.
“The Professor’s Yarn” (from Life on the Mississippi, 1883)
-Just when a levelheaded cattle rancher seems about to lose all of his money in his first gambling experience, he proves to be a pro gambler and wins it all.
“A Ghost Story” (1888)
-A meeting with a ghost who, in a typically amusing Twainish twist, ends up finding to his dismay that he is haunting the wrong house.
Tidbits of Significance
“I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”
-the challenger of Smiley, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
…that majestic presence whose ministering spirits are the rainbows, whose voice is the thunder, whose awful front is veiled in clouds, who was monarch here dead and forgotten ages before this hackful of small reptiles was deemed temporarily necessary to fill a crack in the world’s unnoted myriads, and will still be monarch here ages and decades of ages after they shall have gathered themselves to their blood-relations, the other worms, and been mingled with the unremembering dust.
-of Niagara Falls and humanity, “A Day at Niagara”.
“I tell you I have been in the editorial business going on fourteen years, and it is the first time I ever heard of a man’s having to know anything in order to edit a newspaper.”
-narrator, “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper”.
“I have been through it from Alpha to Omega, and I tell you that the less a man knows the bigger the noise he makes and the higher the salary he commands.”
-narrator, “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper”.
The sentiment which he felt toward the turnip was akin to adoration. He could not think of the turnip without emotion; he could not speak of it calmly; he could not contemplate it without exaltation; he could not eat it without shedding tears. All the poetry in his sensitive nature was in sympathy with the gracious vegetable.
-”The Trials of Simon Erickson”.
…women cannot receive even the most palpably judicious suggestion without arguing it; that is, married women.
-”Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup”.
He said that all he had learned by his travels was that science only needed a spoonful of supposition to build a mountain of demonstrated fact out of; and that for the future he meant to be content with the knowledge that nature had made free to all creatures and not go prying into the august secrets of the Deity.
-of the Tumble-Bug, “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls”.
A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. The sacredness of an obligation is a thing which you can’t cram into no bluejay’s head.
-”What Stumped the Bluejays”.
I will explain that whenever I want a thing, and Mrs. McWilliams wants another thing, and we decide upon the thing that Mrs. McWilliams wants– as we always do– she calls that a compromise.
-”The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”.
…mind you, when that thing wakes you, it doesn’t merely wake you in spots; it wakes you all over, conscience and all, and you are good for eighteen hours of wide-awakeness subsequently– eighteen hours of the very most inconceivable wide-awakeness that you ever experienced in your life.
-“The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”.
Now there is the history of that burglar alarm– everything just as it happened; nothing extenuated, and naught set down in malice. Yes, sir,– and when I had slept nine years with burglars, and maintained an expensive burglar alarm the whole time, for their protection, not mine, and at my sole cost– for not a d–d cent could I ever get them to contribute– I just said to Mrs. McWilliams that I had had enough of that kind of pie; so with her full consent I took the whole thing out and traded it off for a dog, and shot the dog.
-“The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”.
…when you come to internal evidence, it’s a big field and a game that two can play at.
-“A Burning Brand”.
READ THIS WHEN…
…you want a good fun read, not taking life too seriously, and looking at the world with a satirical eye and a quick wit.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’D ALSO LIKE:
(for the listener to the witty storyteller on the front porch or the village square:)
- Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” (1820).
- O.Henry, stories (1904-1910).
- Sholom Aleichem, Tevye’s Daughters (d.1916).
- Herman Charles Bosman, Mafeking Road and Other Stories (1947).
(for the Twainiac:)
- Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869).
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).
- Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (1882).
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
- Mark Twain, The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900).
Both of these editions have all 60 of Twain’s stories as originally compiled by Charles Neider, whose own edition is no longer in print.