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“For a long time the DeVoto Portable was the handiest single-volume collection for the general reader. This one is even better. It’s an indispensable anthology of America’s indispensable author.”
“If this isn’t the thoughtfulest and usefulest hand-tooled gilt-edged one-volume Twain, I am a horned toad.”
“Bernard DeVoto would have agreed loudest of all that it’s time to redo The Portable Mark Twain, time for a fresh look at basic materials and for building in new materials that have turned up since 1946. Though a tough judge of literary critics, he would also have agreed, I feel, that Tom Quirk was the best choice to put state-of-the art wheels, styling, and accessories on this pacesetter for Mark Twain anthologies.”
—Louis J. Budd, James B. Duke Professor of English (Emeritus), Duke University, author of Our Mark Twain
“Mark Twain is back amongst us (and not a moment too soon), trailing rainbows and thunderbolts of the American language that he invented, mostly. His escort and great good friend on this visit, Tom Quirk, offers an introduction that reminds us why Twain will never not be necessary to a true understanding of our country. And Mark takes it—and us—from there.”
—Ron Powers, author of Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain
“Trying to put your arms around Mark Twain is like trying to embrace the Mississippi. He is endless. This Portable, however, should open his richness to the new reader and remind the older ones of the wealth they may have forgotten. Reading him again is like biting into fresh bread.”
THE PORTABLE MARK TWAIN
SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, about forty miles southwest of Hannibal, the Mississippi River town Clemens was to celebrate as Mark Twain. He left home in 1853, earning a living as an itinerant typesetter, and four years later became an apprentice pilot on the Mississippi, a career cut short by the outbreak of the Civil War. For five years, as a prospector and a journalist, Clemens lived in Nevada and California. In February, 1863, he first used the pseudonym “Mark Twain” as the signature to a humorous travel letter; and a trip to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867 became the basis of his first major book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). Roughing It (1872), his account of experiences in the West, was followed by a satirical novel, The Gilded Age (1873), Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Following the publication of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Twain was compelled by debts to move his family abroad. By 1900 he had completed a round-the-world lecture tour, and, his fortunes mended, he returned to America. He was as celebrated for his white suit and his mane of white hair as he was for his uncompromising stands against injustice and imperialism and for his invariably quoted comments on any subject under the sun. Samuel Clemens died on April 21, 1910.
TOM QUIRK is professor of English at the University of Missouri- Columbia. He is the editor of the Penguin Classics editions of Mark Twain’s Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches (1994) and The Innocents Abroad (2002), and Ambrose Bierce’s Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories (2000), and coeditor of The Portable American Realism Reader (1997). His books include Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn (1993), Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction (1997), and Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination (2001).
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This edition first published in Penguin Books 2004
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Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint “Corn-Pone Opinions” from Europe and
Elsewhere by Mark Twain, edited by Albert Bigelow Paine. Copyright 1923 by Mark Twain Company,
renewed 1951 by Mark Twain Company. .
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Twain, Mark, 1835-1910. The portable Mark Twain / edited with an introduction by Tom Quirk. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. ).
eISBN : 978-1-440-64913-4
1. Humorous stories, American. 2. Twain, Mark, 1835-1910—Correspondence.
3. Authors, American—19th century—Correspondence. I. Quirk, Tom, 1946- II. Title.
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During his last decade, Samuel Clemens was writing, or rather dictating, his “Autobiography.” It was a work that only death could complete and would be published, if at all, long after he was gone. Clemens embraced the premise, for it meant that he might speak, so he liked to believe, without reserve or constraint; speak with the bluntness only a dead man might enjoy. In casual yet systematic fashion, he committed himself to narrating his life according to whim and random recollection. The publication in 1906 of a bastardized version of his earlier anthology, Mark Twain’s Library of Humor (1888), at once incited his fury and provoked a certain introspection and became a subject for one morning’s dictation. Perusing the contents, “Mark Twain” reflected in his “Autobiography” on the fate of nineteenth-century humorists. For the forty years “wherein I have been playing professional humorist before the public,” he observed, a host of literary comedians have come and gone. “Why have they perished? Because they were merely humorists. Humorists of the ‘mere’ sort cannot survive. Humor is only a fragrance, a decoration.” And Why (he implicitly asks) have I lasted? Because (he implicitly answers) I am a moralist, and they were not. “Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach,” he continued, “but it must do both if it would last forever. By forever, I mean thirty years. With all its preaching it is not likely to outlive so long a term as that.”
Already, Twain is indulging in fuzzy math. The fame of the mere humorist is extinguished in a few years, but even the humorous moralist cannot expect more than thirty years. However, Twain himself has just observed that he has been a professional humorist for forty years, a full decade beyond “forever.” But he is not through with his calculations:
I have always preached. That is the reason that I have lasted thirty years. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not. I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am a dead person speaking from the grave. Even I would be too modest to say them in life. I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead—and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.
In order to be absolutely honest with his readers, Clemens imagines speaking from beyond the grave, bound by neither time nor occasion. The presupposition, of course, is that he is being beforehand with a world not yet born, and he adopts the position of a ghost in the narrative machine of his own making. But behind the undertaking there is also the presumption that Mark Twain will be of continuing interest for generations to come, far longer than the thirty (or perhaps forty) years allotted to him or any other humorist. And, his protestations notwithstanding, Twain remains a humorist to the last. The mysteriously complicated, even irreconcilable, carbon dating of his lasting fame is finally a sly prologue to the punch line—“People ought to start dead.”
The vaunted boast of this self-assessment (at once retrospective and predictive) is in stark contrast to the confession he made to his brother Orion, in an 1865 letter: “I have had a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order—i.e., humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit, & if I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty which says that to do right you must multiply the one or the two or the three talents which the Almighty trusts to our keeping, I would long ago have ceased to meddle with the things for which I was by nature unfitted & turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures. Poor, pitiful business!” When he made this declaration, Clemens was thirty years old, high time for a man to have settled into an occupation, however lowly. It is true that he had turned his hand to other work from an early age. It is probably true that he would have been content to have remained a riverboat pilot, had not the Civil War effectively ended that career; at least he made that claim more than once. It is unfortunately true as well that he did not cease to meddle in things beyond his peculiar ken—as entrepreneur and businessman, publisher and self-appointed philosopher, inventor and investor—and much of this meddling cost him hard coin and caused him grief.
In any event, these two statements, made approximately forty years apart, will serve well enough to bracket the career of Mark Twain. Those same four decades provide a vast reservoir of writings from which to gather up representative features of Twain’s art and genius—secular sermons and tall tales; vicious wisecracks and tender comedy; testaments of political outrage and deep compassion; antic, and sometimes merely silly, comic indulgence. The Portable Mark Twain means to give as complete a picture as possible of Twain’s art and comedy. But the complete corpus of Twain’s prodigious output is anything but “portable.” When one lumps together, in addition to the writings published in his lifetime, the approximately 12,000 extant letters, the voluminous notebooks, the speeches, the unpublished and (in his mind) unpublishable writings, the unfinished manuscripts, not to mention the “Autobiography” itself, some 2,500 pages in typescript, one is tempted to conclude something that is manifestly untrue: Here was a man who had no life apart from writing. But, in fact, for good or ill, he gave over a great deal of time to his business concerns, to his friends and family, to his search for one sort of health cure or another, to his cockamamie schemes for world betterment and personal profit (ranging from food additives to an ingenious bed clamp to keep the baby’s covers on), and to his vast and diverse reading. Add to this the hundreds of thousands of hours of talk, acres and acres of the stuff—spontaneous after-dinner monologues, hundreds of newspaper interviews, peripatetic chatter with comrades, or improvised bedtime stories for the children—and one soon enough recognizes that Twain’s writings formed only a part, and perhaps not the best part, of the man.
Still, as a matter of simple “coverage” of his written work, this anthology casts a wide enough net to catch the flavor and inexhaustible variety of the man at nearly every stage of his life. At the very least, his salient qualities are here. Those qualities are several, and all their possible combinations make them virtually unnumbered. William Dean Howells, in a review of Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old (1875), named the characteristic traits of the humorist. Twain is a master of “burlesque,” though, Howells adds, in its special tendency to double back on itself, his travesty acquires a novel subtlety and suppleness. He has a “fine, forecasting humor,” by which I think Howells meant that the author has an ambulatory style that, on the promise of some joke as yet unspotted, engenders in his readers an eager willingness to follow wherever he might lead. Twain is finely “American” in his boisterous “extravagance of statement”; he is reassuringly trustworthy and amiable in his “incorruptible right-mindedness”; and his delightful “dryness,” his apparent oblivion to his own comedy, permits readers, under the spell of his crafty art, to feel smarter than perhaps they should.
More important than all these, Howells detected a “growing seriousness of meaning in the apparently unmoralized drolling.” In California, Twain had sometimes been called the “Moralist of the Main,” and several of his journalistic pieces left his indignant seriousness in little doubt. However, Eastern readers knew Twain as the literary comedian and not much more. Howells was doing the humorist a service in pointing out this other dimension of the man. In fact, Howells singled out “A True Story” as much the best piece in the collection and a sketch generally misunderstood by critics who, expecting a joke and not wanting to be left out, altogether missed the “rugged truth” of this moving story of slave life. This is a reasonably complete list of Twain’s gifts, and I would add only Louis J. Budd’s identification of a “quintessentially Twainian quality”—“an emotional-intellectual drive, an integrative, pleasure-sharing ability to soar above or outside of commonly accepted experience.” That flight from ordinary experience at times may have been mere escape from trials and tribulations, but as often, as Budd observes, it provided the author a special pleasure that one might justifiably call “ecstasy.”
For several decades, it has been fashionable to think of Clemens as having been cooped up and hemmed in (whether he was restrained by the inheritance of a Calvinist conscience, the pressures of a pervasive Victorian gentility, or some perverse inner check hardly matters). He sometimes complained that the world at large valued him only as a funny man, incapable of deep conviction and firm principle, but that may or may not mean he was disposed to be secretly subversive of the prevailing order. Of course Twain himself invites such psychoanalytical second-guessing when he confesses to his frustration with the occupation of humorist, as he did, for example, in an 1875 letter to Howells, by complaining his customary audience required him to “paint himself stripèd and stand on his head every fifteen minutes.” When Clemens first adopted the pen name “Mark Twain” in 1863, he likely felt some liberation in the persona. Mark Twain appears in a variety of guises (as the tenderfoot, the dandy, the muggins, and so forth) but always in ways that are far less complicated than was the author himself. Still, in disguise, Clemens could speak more forthrightly than he might in his own person. Eventually, however, he began to complain that the public had not got him “focused” right and thought of him as perpetually jolly and decidedly unserious. Humor was his bread and butter, but often it was a bitter portion to swallow. This dilemma must have eventually contributed something to the deterministic philosophy he adopted in later years.
Twain’s late philosophic meditations, expressed in “Corn-Pone Opinions” (1901), What Is Man? (1906), and elsewhere, merely added quasi-intellectual support to a long-standing conviction that conduct and thought are imposed from without. The average man or woman desires above all else, he argued, a sense of self-approval that can only be had by gaining the approval of others. Similarly, the approval of the public required Twain to perform antics of one sort or another that, in their turn, became a humiliation to himself and his family. Small wonder that he should complain that truthful and frank expression is all but impossible. Still, it is at least thinkable that the author’s levity stemmed not simply from a desire to please or to be evasive or to subvert, but because he couldn’t help himself. Perhaps he was addicted to the ecstatic privilege that such flights above and beyond earth-bound decorum and right thinking might afford.
What is more certain, at any rate, is that he was good at it. At a dinner honoring Andrew Carnegie in 1907, for example, Twain gave a speech and found his comic opportunity in Carnegie’s promotion of simplified spelling. “He’s got us all so we can’t spell anything,” Twain fumes. Any rational reformer would address the root of the problem—the alphabet:
There’s not a vowel in it with a definite value, and not a consonant that you can hitch anything to. Look at the “h’s” distributed all around. There’s “gherkin.” What are you going to do with the “h” in gherkin, I’d like to know. . . . Why, there isn’t a man who doesn’t have to throw out about fifteen hundred words a day when he writes his letters because he can’t spell them! It’s like trying to do a St. Vitus’s dance with wooden legs. . . .
It’s a rotten alphabet. I appoint Mr. Carnegie to get after it, and leave simplified spelling alone. Simplified spelling brought about sunspots, the San Francisco earthquake, and the recent business depression, which we would never have had if spelling had been left all alone. . . . Simplified spelling is all right, but, like chastity, you can carry it too far.
Who, in the history of humankind, ever tried to do a St. Vitus’s dance? And did the person who put the “h” in “gherkin” do it as a prank, or was it an act of malice prepense, purposely designed to bring about sunspots? And now that the problem has at last been properly diagnosed, who else but Mark Twain would have the nerve to sic the great Andrew Carnegie on it?
Early and late, Twain was capable of such antic comedy. As often as not, it supports rather than contests prevailing moral opinion. In a speech called “Advice to Youth” (1882) Twain advises young boys and girls not to “meddle with old unloaded firearms; they are the most deadly and unerring things that have ever been created.” He continues: “You don’t have to take aim even. No, you just pick out a relative and bang away, and you are sure to get him. A youth who can’t hit a cathedral at thirty yards with a Gatling gun in three-quarters of an hour, can take up an old empty musket and bag his mother every time, at a hundred.” Here, Twain is having it both ways. He is outrageous in expression. How did the youth come by a Gatling gun and why on earth does he want to fire on a cathedral? But he is very conventional in his outlook. After all, what could be more agreeable and proper to his Victorian audience than to warn children away from guns? Twain has at once satisfied his audience that he is the master humorist of the age and bolstered his image as a moral sage, but one free of any familiar finger-wagging or fustian rhetoric.
The material for humor seemed to be constantly available to him. There is of course the comedy of situation. His notebook germ for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) is an inventory of comic possibilities:
Dream of being a knight errant in armor in the Middle Ages. Have the notions and habits of thought of the present day mixed with the necessities of that. No pockets in the armor. No way to manage certain requirements of nature. Can’t scratch. Cold in the head—can’t blow—can’t get at handkerchief, can’t use iron sleeve. Iron gets red hot in the sun—leaks in the rain, gets white with frost & freezes me solid in winter. Suffer from lice & fleas. Make disagreeable clatter when I enter a church. Can’t dress or undress myself. Always getting struck by lightning. Fall down and can’t get up.
The humorous situation was only one of many weapons in his comic arsenal.
There was also the comedy of animals—of moulting cows, asthmatic horses, insomniac clams, and swearing blue jays. There was the comedy of customs—of burials (of the stalwart Buck Fanshaw or the unlucky William Wheeler, who got nipped by the machinery of a carpet factory and had to be buried “just so”); and of sentimental grief (expressed in the morbidly bad poetry of Emmeline Grangerford, alas). There was the comedy of vegetables (of Simon Erickson’s fanatic desire to grow turnips as a vine or Pudd’nhead Wilson’s acute adage: “Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”). There was comedy in holidays and hospitality, in sacred places and in slang; there was comedy in apprenticeship and penmanship, in clothes, furniture, and scripture, in undertakers and editors. Amazingly, with such imaginative power at his disposal, Twain never really pressed his advantage. He did not condescend to his created characters, no matter how mean their condition or amusing their idiom. Nearly always, Twain refused to play the humorist as bully; he preferred to pick on someone or something his own size or at times much bigger. Two notable exceptions are to be found in his treatment of the particularly vulnerable states of Arkansas and New Jersey, however.
As a purely chronological matter, this collection includes diverse specimens of his writing, beginning in 1865 with the publication of the famous jumping frog story and continuing throughout his writing career to his last years. And if The Portable Mark Twain does not exhaustively survey the author’s professional life, it at least touches upon nearly every important phase of it. In a letter to an unidentified correspondent, Twain confessed that he confined himself in his writings to “familiar” experience. That experience was diverse, he reported, and included stints as jour printer, pilot, soldier, prospector, journalist, publisher, lecturer, and the like. The inventory ends with this revealing disclosure: “I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55.” Ass or no, Clemens nevertheless dramatized his recollected experience with an exquisite attention to detail and mood. There are in “Early Days” (1907) delicious memories of the time spent on his uncle John Quarles’s farm close to his birthplace in Florida, Missouri. In “Old Times on the Mississippi” (1875) Clemens vividly recalls his childhood ambitions in Hannibal and his awkward apprenticeship under the seasoned riverboat pilot, Horace Bixby. There are comic pictures of “the boys” in Nevada Territory, of Twain himself tearfully grieving at the tomb of Adam or puzzling over the vast canvasses of the Old Masters. There are the biting satires of colonial endeavor and the decimation of native populations, and the almost but not quite reverential description of the Sea of Galilee seen by starlight.
In matters of geography, too, this volume is reasonably comprehensive. The great Mississippi River valley receives the greatest space, and this is as it should be, if for no other reason than it is the setting of his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are also specimens from his actual travels in the Holy Land and in Germany and Italy and his round-the-world tour made in 1895-96, as well as the wholly fantastic journeys to Camelot and the Garden of Eden (magically transported to Niagara Falls). Twain had Pudd’nhead Wilson say in one of his maxims, I have “traveled more than any one else and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent.” This is arrant nonsense, of course. If David Wilson, attorney at law, a.k.a. the “pudd’nhead,” had had a lick of sense or an ounce of self-respect, he would have left Dawson’s Landing instantly. Instead, he perversely lingered most of his life fashioning maxims for his “Calendar,” collecting fingerprints, and living among people who had decided from the moment he stepped off the boat that he was a “lummox,” a “labrick” and many other unflattering things.
Twain, on the other hand, had indeed traveled more than most people, enough to know that, the effects of British colonialism notwithstanding, the English language and the Anglo-Saxon point of view were not the only games being played in the world. In fact, by the end, Clemens had circumnavigated the globe and gone nearly everywhere except the place he set out for in 1857, the Amazon. But he got diverted into river-boating and did not look back. Twain later transferred the childhood ambition to get to South America to Huckleberry Finn, but Huck never made it either.
Twain (and Clemens, too, for that matter) had also traveled up and down the social ladder in remarkable ways. In his San Francisco days, it was oysters and champagne one day, unemployment and despair the next. In the mid-1880s he owned his own publishing house that had just published the monumentally successful memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, and he had high hopes for his investments; ten years later he was trying to find his way out of debt. These swings in personal fortune probably made him that much more alert to thwarted ambition and to matters of class distinction and the spurious lines that divide human creatures from one another. Clemens knew firsthand the profligacy of ambition and the meagerness of destiny, but in this, as in most matters, he was on both sides of the question. He could have Pudd’nhead Wilson sardonically remark, “There isn’t a Parallel of Latitude but thinks it would have been the Equator if it had had its rights.” Yet in “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” (1909) he could picture true “heavenly justice”; the hereafter was a place where one was judged and rewarded according to an inward greatness that, on earth, often never had the opportunity to develop.
As a rule, Twain recognized the markers of supposed merit for what they are, patent absurdities. In his day they might be pretentious titles, epaulets, or bad French; in our own they might be stretch limos, buns of steel, or bad French. He typically satirized such inequity and pretense with an eager glee. In The Innocents Abroad (1869), for example, Twain meets the Czar of Russia and marvels at the terrible yet whimsical authority he wields: “If I could have, I would have stolen his coat. When I meet a man like that, I want something to remember him by.” However, the author himself was not exempt from like affectation. Clemens had a love/hate relation with the English and more than once satirized their aristocratic ways. Nevertheless, he sometimes strutted around in the scarlet robes he had worn when he received an honorary degree from Oxford—there was no other red that could compare with it, he thought, “outside the arteries of an archangel.” He once bragged, “An Oxford decoration is a loftier distinction than is conferrable by any other university on either side of the ocean.” And, in the persona of Mark Twain, Clemens could become the ultimate name-dropper. He recounts in Following the Equator (1897) a visit by a Mohammedan “god.” A direct descendant of the Prophet and worshipped accordingly, this walking deity wants to discuss the “philosophy of Huck Finn.” Twain’s reaction is predictable: “It would be false modesty to pretend that I was not inordinately pleased. I was. I was much more pleased than I should have been with a compliment from a man.”
These sorts of encounters between social unequals can make for great comedy, and Twain applied the attendant mechanisms of social adjustment (envy and flattery, obsequiousness and exasperation, indifference and condescension) in a variety of ways and to diverse effects. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865) begins with a letter addressed to Artemus Ward. Twain, in this instance cast in the role of a dandified gentleman, expresses his “lurking suspicion” that he has been set up. In urging him to search for the edifying company of Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, Ward has deliberately thrown Twain in the way of Simon Wheeler and a reminiscence of the notorious Jim Smiley. What follows, of course, is a rambling and hilarious narrative about a “fifteen minute nag,” a bull pup named “Andrew Jackson,” and the precocious jumping frog “Dan’l Webster.” If Twain had been less impatient with Wheeler, we might have heard the tale of a “yaller one-eyed cow” as well, but he storms off in a huff and his readers necessarily must follow. In “An Encounter with an Interviewer” (1874), a “peart” young reporter from the Daily Thunder-storm seeks an interview with the estimable Mr. Twain. The persona here is simpleminded and afflicted with an “irregular” memory, and Twain leads the interviewer on a wild goose chase for even the most basic information. The young man—having learned that Twain is 180 years old, attended Aaron Burr’s funeral, and many other curious things—leaves exasperated and befuddled. Twain regrets the departure: “He was pleasant company, and I was sorry to see him go.”
In “The Story of the Old Ram” (1872) Twain the tenderfoot is tricked by “the boys” into mouth-watering anticipation to hear Jim Blaine’s inebriated tale. The storyteller meanders about, getting further and further from the announced subject, and it is not until the raconteur falls asleep mid-sentence that Twain perceives that he has been “sold.” There are many other instances of unlikely pairings of character—those emissaries from the “grand divisions of society” in Virginia City, Nevada, Scotty Briggs and the Parson; or Twain the self-satisfied and ignorant substitute editor for an agricultural journal (who advises among other things that “clams will lie quiet if music be played to them”) and the outraged editor who rebukes him; or Hank Morgan, the practical, hardheaded, nineteenth-century Yankee, and Sandy, the good-hearted, innocent, sixth-century jabberer.
Some of Twain’s encounters were not humorous, however, nor were they intended to be. In “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” (1874) the former slave and now a servant, Aunt Rachel, literally and figuratively towers above the author, clearly his moral superior. For once, Clemens did not hide behind the camouflage of an adopted persona but is known simply as “Misto C—” and as such bears the full weight of an unwanted recognition: namely, that his judgment of Aunt Rachel’s character borders on criminal stupidity and callousness. Similarly, in one of the most affecting episodes in Huckleberry Finn, after playing yet another joke on Jim, Huck receives such a tongue lashing from the fugitive slave that he mulls over his deserved upbraiding and finally “humbles” himself to a black man. “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” (1885) was published in the company of other Civil War memoirs in the Century magazine. Clemens had spent a very brief time in the pro-Confederate Marion Rangers before removing to the Nevada Territory, and he freely admits that perhaps he “ought not be allowed much space among better people.” For the most part his description of the campaign is pure burlesque at the author’s expense, but a sudden revulsion of moral feelings brought about by the shooting of an innocent man decides him on quitting the business of war “while I could save some remnant of my self-respect.” It is almost a certainty that this killing was pure fabrication, introduced to provide the author with a moral dilemma he might respond to with the sort of sensitivity he had attributed to Huckleberry Finn, whose narrative he had completed only a few months before writing this memoir. Clemens is extenuating his conduct during the war, but he is also expressing a value. The ultimate worth and dignity of a man or woman cut across class lines and unmistakably declare themselves, if only by appealing to one’s moral sympathies and wounded sense of justice.
Despite the orthodox language of Clemens’s confession to his brother that he was answering to the inner promptings of the Lord’s will in becoming a humorist, it is more likely that he was following the path of least resistance. Comedy came naturally to him. It was apparently irresistible and, for the most part, something more than mere “fragrance” or “decoration.” Far from doing God’s work, at least as early as 1865 and probably before, he seemed motivated to offer up the comforts of laughter as relief from a world that, depending on his mood, he had decided was an annoyance, a trial, an affliction, or a tragedy; a world that, if it could not be redeemed, might at least be made more tolerable. At any rate, in the same letter to Orion he confided a less than reverential regard for the workings of providence: “I have a religion—but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor.”
The poor was not his cause, but it was, from time to time, his affiliation. There was not much young Clemens inherited from his father that he could not disavow or outgrow, but he did seem to be permanently affected by the idea that prosperity was just around the corner. In the 1820s, John Marshall Clemens had purchased at least 70,000 acres in Tennessee, and he held fast to the conviction that it would one day make the family rich. It didn’t. To the contrary, it engendered in the children false hopes. As Clemens recalled late in life, “It put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us—dreamers and indolent. . . . It is good to begin life poor; it is good to begin life rich—these are wholesome; but to begin it prospectively rich! The man who has not experienced it cannot imagine the curse of it.”
It was a curse that Sam Clemens could never quite shake. No doubt that prospective fortune grew in proportion to the degree the family felt the pinch of necessity. John Clemens died in 1847, but even before that his debts had mounted; the family auctioned off property, sold their furniture, and took in boarders. Young Sam Clemens never experienced the penury of Tom Blankenship (the impoverished and neglected Hannibal boy who apparently served as the model for Huck Finn), but at times he must have felt something of a child of misfortune himself. Still, the visionary in him persisted throughout his life, as even only a few items from the large inventory of his enthusiasms will attest. In the Nevada Territory in the 1860s, Clemens thought he would strike it rich by trading in mining stocks. He didn’t. As the owner of his own publishing house, he enthusiastically believed every Catholic family in the world would purchase the authorized biography Life of Pope Leo XIII (1887). They didn’t. He was right to believe that an automatic typesetter would make a fortune; he was wrong to believe the inventor James W. Paige, an inveterate tinkerer and perfectionist, would ever produce a commercially viable product. He was wrong, too, in investing around a quarter of a million dollars in the project and as a consequence leaving his own publishing concern undercapitalized. In 1894, Clemens entered into voluntary bankruptcy; by 1898, largely through the success of his around-the-world lecture tour, he was able to repay his debts in full. One would think Clemens might have learned the wisdom of Pudd’nhead Wilson’s maxim published in Following the Equator: “There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can.” However, in 1900 Clemens began investing in a food supplement called Plasmon and eventually lost around $50,000.
These are merely instances, but they indicate, in Clemens, a tendency that was abroad in the land. Get-rich-quick schemes, grand aspirations, exploitation, and corporate and government corruption abounded after the Civil War. Twain dramatized the passion for instant wealth in such tales as “The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract” (1870), “The £1,000,000 Bank Note” (1893), “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), and “The $30,000 Bequest” (1904). Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote a novel naming the era The Gilded Age (1873), but the literary historian Vernon Parrington might have come closer to the spirit of the times when he called it “The Great Barbecue”: “A huge barbecue was spread to which all presumably were invited. Not quite all, to be sure; inconspicuous persons, those who were at home on the farm or at work in the mills and offices, were overlooked; a good many indeed out of the total number of the American people. But all the important persons, leading bankers and promoters and business men, received invitations. There wasn’t room for everybody and these were presumed to represent the whole. It was a splendid feast.”
The Gilded Age is political and social satire, but the character of Colonel Beriah Sellers outshines the invective and is finally more interesting than the convoluted plot of the novel. He is, at any rate, something more than a mere satirical device and better illustrates the impulses behind the venality of a certain kind of American than do Twain’s tales and sketches that explore this theme. Sellers is an altogether memorable creation—part visionary and part windbag; at once calculating and naïve. He is a quixotic braggart, but capable of quickly improvising explanations for events that might permit him some scrap of dignity. He is compromised in his material condition but rich in the affection of his wife and children. “Good gracious, it’s the country to pile up wealth!” he proudly exclaims, but he dines on turnips and water and heats the room with a tallow candle. Sellers is a major stockholder in the soap bubbles of his effervescent imagination and charitably disposed to let others in on the ground floor of his next big deal. There is something majestically helpless about the man that simultaneously commands our sympathy and provokes our laughter.
Clemens based the character of Colonel Sellers on the personality of his mother’s cousin, James Lampton, but there was a portion of himself in the figure as well. Clemens’s imagination, when it was functioning well, was at once projective and assimilative, which is to say it was a compound of keen observation (of mannerisms, colloquial idiom, gesture, and the like) and a genuine identification with the created character. In his “Autobiography,” he emphasized only half of this equation: “Every man is in his own person the whole human race, with not a detail lacking. I am the whole human race without a detail lacking; I have studied the human race with diligence and strong interest all these years in my own person; in myself I find in big or little proportion every quality and every defect that is findable in the mass of the race.” Samuel Clemens, unique in himself, acknowledged that he was representative, too—representative of material ambition and the desire to be accepted into a social order he had some doubts about, but also of a certain native social and cultural uncertainty vying with an equally native pride and vernacular boisterousness.
It was audacious, and risky, to announce, as he did in the Preface to The Innocents Abroad (1869), that the purpose of his book was “to suggest to the reader how he would see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him. I make small pretence of showing any one how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.” The author proposes no cultural authority to report on his journey to the Old World and the Holy Land; what he does propose, on the other hand, is more extraordinary—that he can see, feel, and speak for a vast cross-section of the American public and serve as their surrogate abroad. There is, potentially, obnoxious presumption in this claim, but in point of fact, the public embraced the book. The publishers advertised Twain as “The People’s Author,” and if sales figures are any indication, they were right. Almost instantly The Innocents Abroad became a best-seller and remains one of his most popular books.
What is more, in the course of writing The Innocents Abroad, the “Mark Twain” persona gradually, perhaps imperceptibly, began to become something more than an ad hoc impersonation, outfitted for the purposes of comic vision alone. His original plan was to give a comic account of his voyage with fellow travelers he eventually came to call “pilgrims.” As such, he was playing the part of irreverent journalist, whose imagination was stimulated by direct observation and recent experience. When the terms of his contract required him to produce a book manuscript much longer than he had anticipated, his notes and published “letters” to newspapers had to be supplemented by recollection. One result was that he abandoned the present-mindedness of the reporter for the broader purposes of the imaginative raconteur. He was becoming, almost in spite of himself, a “literary person.”
This is oversimplification, of course. But the fact remains that much of Twain’s best writing is the work of remembrance. Roughing It (1872) recounted experiences several years old; when “Old Times on the Mississippi” (1875) was written, Clemens had been away from the river more than a decade; and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was a “hymn” to childhood precisely because it consisted of spontaneously youthful adventures recollected in maturity. Tom Sawyer, particularly, is nostalgic in the root sense of the word. There was likely a certain “homesickness” in Twain that motivated him to cast an eye backward to a simpler and mischievously happier time and to picture for the adult reader youth as it is remembered, perhaps at times even as it had been lived. Tom’s free play of his romantic imagination inflicted on his comrades, his successfully conducted pranks or his childish transgressions (followed swiftly by the expected punishment and the equally expected affectionate forgiveness), and his adventures in puppy love were gratifying to the writer and the reader alike.
There are in Tom Sawyer, of course, sinister elements lurking about the edges of the novel. But what is finally more disturbing than the grotesqueness and the violence in the book is the apparent fact that Tom, for all his puckish defiance of the adult powers that be, is clearly and inevitably becoming neither wise nor mature but merely becoming a grown-up. In that sense, he is an embedded reporter from antebellum St. Petersburg who disturbs but never really challenges the prevailing social order. What is more, in the final chapters he uses his persuasive influence to bring the pariah Huckleberry Finn into the fold. Huck had meandered into the novel swinging a dead cat and having definite thoughts about how to cure warts and was conceived as one more comrade for Tom. To associate with Huck at all is in the eyes of the town an act of insubordination, and as a consequence Tom revels in his company. Nevertheless, Tom envies Huck’s aimless freedom, ignorantly supposing that sleeping in a hogshead and living hand to mouth is blissful relief from constraint. On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt Tom’s sincerity when, after the boys return to town to attend their own funeral, he grabs the hand of a shyly retreating Huck and exclaims, “Aunt Polly, it ain’t fair. Somebody’s got to be glad to see Huck.”
Perhaps it was at that moment that Twain recognized Huckleberry Finn was a fundamentally interesting creation. Originally, Twain wrote a concluding chapter for Tom Sawyer describing Huck’s cramped life at the Widow Douglas’s but eventually removed it from the manuscript. The opening chapter of Huckleberry Finn may in fact be a rewriting of that chapter told from Huck’s point of view. What is more certain, at any rate, is that at some time Twain saw that Huck had his own story to tell and that only he could tell it. In the summer of 1876, apparently as an idle amusement (“more to be at work than anything else,” he claimed), he began to write what he called in a letter to Howells “Huck Finn’s Autobiography.” He wrote several hundred manuscript pages that summer but abruptly stopped midway through Chapter 18. “I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have got,” he reported, “and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the MS when it is done.” He did pigeonhole the work from time to time, only to return to it periodically and to increase the number and significance of Huck’s adventures. By 1883 Twain was personally proud of the result but uncertain of public reception: “I expect to complete it in a month or six weeks or two months more,” he told Howells. “And I shall like it, whether anybody else does or not.”
When Twain adopted Huck’s point of view, he created a lens through which to view life along the river in the antebellum South, to survey its manners and customs, recreate its superstitions, sentimentality, and vainglorious gestures, its sloth, venality, and violence. Because Huck was not, and did not care to be, part of the social world he so effectively renders in his own distinctive and ungrammatical idiom, he perforce became the author’s satirical instrument. But Huck is a great deal more as well. He admires, or attempts to admire, all manner of affectation, from chalk fruit to Tom Sawyer’s “style” to “The Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d,” because he automatically assumes the existing order is somehow incontestably right. And precisely to the degree that he is excluded from that world, his earnest but failed attempts to appreciate or understand it create in the adult reader a solid contempt for sham, deception, pretense, and the like.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was an experimental novel, but with a difference. It is an improvisational affair, full of narrative inconsistencies or improbabilities; and a glance at Twain’s working notes for the novel indicate that the selection of episodes to dramatize was almost an arbitrary consideration for him. In that sense, his prefatory “Notice” for the book, that “persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot,” might be taken seriously. In any event, Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece almost in spite of itself. Far from being motivated by a Melvillean devotion to the “great Art of Telling the Truth” or a Jamesean artistic ambition to face the “beautiful difficulty” of dramatic rendering, or even a Poundian desire to “Make It New,” Twain seems to have begun the book as a sport. In the end, Twain did indeed tell a great many truths (“covertly and by snatches,” as Melville said Shakespeare did), and he exhibited a technical mastery over his material that, were he ever disposed to do so, even Henry James might admire. And the book was new in the way Ezra Pound thought modern literature should be. The testimony of a host of American and English writers (Somerset Maugham, H. L. Mencken, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, John Barth, and many, many more) bears witness to the significance of a book that, despite its obvious faults, achieves greatness. Ernest Hemingway’s praise of Huckleberry Finn is the most familiar, but it is also typical: It is “the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
Evidently conceived as the product of idle leisure, Huckleberry Finn often expressed the author’s personal longings. Twain could envy Huck’s unpestered freedom and identify with his rejection of the torments of “sivilisation,” though life at the Widow’s required only minor concessions of him—mumbling over his victuals, wearing shoes and starched collars, going to school; in a word, behaving. Soon enough, however, the author recognized that Huck’s sensibility and the world he inhabited were far from idyllic. This is no “hymn” to youth; an accurate body count of the dead folks in the book might indicate it is something of a dirge instead. The mounting seriousness of the story begins to come into focus with the introduction of the abusive Pap and continues throughout (in the form of slave catchers, lynch mobs, casual bigots, cruel loafers, aristocratic murderers, mindless feuding families, conniving con men). Still, as vividly drawn as these contemptible characters are, there are no out and out villains in the book; they are not evil-doers, but they have rather blandly been disloyal to their own humanity. Huck sometimes is implicated in the disturbing events of the narrative but as often serves as perplexed witness to them, and in neither case does he reveal a damning moral judgment, merely a confused child-like sympathy. T. S. Eliot astutely observed that Huck really has no imagination but he does have “vision.” Huck “sees the real world; and he does not judge it—he allows it to judge itself.” Condemnation (moral, social, or political) is left for the adult reader; Huck is too busy getting out of one scrape after another.
His adventures are intermittently punctuated with rare comedy, of course, but at times with unnecessary burlesque as well. It would be a mistake to forget that Huckleberry Finn is a very humorous novel, but at its heart is a troubling moral dilemma. Everything the boy has been taught upholds slavery as a sacred institution and views the slaves themselves as subhuman objects of toil or amusement. So far as he is aware, his decision, or his several decisions really, to help Jim to freedom is in the eyes of the church and the state a sin and a crime. Huck’s diverse encounters with all manner of people along the river are interesting in themselves, but the book simply would not cohere without the presence of the fugitive slave Jim.
Excepting perhaps Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, whose exploits Twain knew well, there is no more unlikely fictional pair than Huck and Jim. One is a child; the other, a grown man. One is white; the other, black. One is an unwanted outcast; the other is valuable property, by his own reckoning worth eight hundred dollars. Huck wants to go south, eventually to the Amazon, to get shed of a cruel father, on the one hand, and a superintending guardian, on the other. Jim wants to go north to Canada, work for wages, and buy his family out of slavery. Huck wants to be free from constraint and responsibility; Jim wants the liberty to be a participant in the social order. Huck and Jim have little in common, but together they form, in Twain’s words, a “community of misfortune.” Unable to cultivate what is best in them or to express their freedom except by slipping the knot of necessity, they are collateral damage in the experiment of democracy.
The characters seem blind to their misfortune, however. If they do not openly question society’s estimation of them, neither are they filled with self-loathing. When they grieve it is not for themselves but for others. Their occasional happiness is nearly always mingled with gratitude. Often their sympathies are misplaced, but they are genuine. Huck, for example, is truly anxious for the safety of the supposedly drunken circus rider, and when Jim learns that the boy “dolphin,” rightful heir to the French throne, was locked up in a cell to die, his heartfelt response is “Po’ little chap.” These are comic mistakes in judgment because Huck and Jim take fictions for fact, but in their own fashion the reactions are as revealing of their fundamental decency as, say, Jim’s self-recrimination for hurting his deaf daughter or Huck’s regret for his cruel deception of Jim after they were separated in the fog. Together, the two know as much about the constitutional machinery of the republic or the failed promises of democracy as they do about British aristocracy or the French language, but their mixed-up exploits nevertheless constitute, in Ralph Ellison’s phrase, a “great drama of interracial fraternity.” As such, they provide, at once, an image of the nation’s possibilities and serve as an emblem of its largely self-inflicted limitations.
To say that most everything Twain wrote after Huckleberry Finn is a falling off and that a decline in creative energy corresponded to a darkening pessimism in the man is to repeat a commonplace. It is also to speak a half-truth. To be sure, in his last years Clemens was often skeptical and cynical. By 1894 he had lost his publishing house and had declared bankruptcy. He was humiliated, but he had other worries as well. His wife, Olivia, had always been frail, but her health was more and more uncertain; and Clemens himself had suffered from various ailments for years. He had embarked on a round-the-world lecture tour in 1895, in order to repair his fortunes and, by paying off his debts, to restore his good name. Clemens and his wife were still out of the country when their oldest daughter, Susy, died of spinal meningitis in 1896. After a prolonged illness, Olivia died in 1904; Jean, the youngest daughter, died from an epileptic seizure in December, 1909. In addition, Clemens had become disgusted and angry over his country’s chauvinistic swagger and its imperialistic policies, attitudes expressed most powerfully in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901), and he believed that the nation had forsaken worthier objectives to satisfy a rapacious greed. In a word, if Twain had turned pessimist, he had his reasons.
What is more, these subtractions from his life were complemented by a personal determinist philosophy that had been latent in his thinking since the 1870s but came more and more to the fore as an explanatory principle for human conduct and as a means to puncture the balloon of human vanity. The salient features of Clemens’s determinism are these: that thought is merely the mechanical putting together of sense impressions; that human beings are ruled by an interior master, or conscience, which commands us to gratify it; that originality is a myth and all our ideas derive from heredity and temperament or environment and training, and that instinct is merely “petrified thought” passed down from one generation to another. The author thought his “philosophy” quite scandalous and took some measures to disclose it without damaging his public image. In point of fact, however, much of what he had to say comported well enough with the conclusions of nineteenth-century science and psychology and there was little, if anything, that was very shocking about it.
There was a curious discrepancy in his system, however, since, in contradiction of his own mechanical and materialistic assumptions, Twain retained a belief that the mind, or “me,” existed apart from its own mental machinery. That “me” took many forms, apparently. After his daughter Susy’s death, Clemens complained to his friend Howells that he had become a “dead” man, a mere “mud image, & it puzzles me to know what it is in me that writes, & that has comedy-fancies & finds pleasure in phrasing them. . . . the thing in me forgets the presence of the mud image & goes its own way wholly unconscious of it & apparently of no kinship with it.” In A Connecticut Yankee, he has Hank Morgan proclaim man’s duty in this “sad pilgrimage, this pathetic drift between the eternities, is to look out and humbly live a pure and high and blameless life, and save that one microscopic atom in me that is truly me.” Elsewhere, he describes this self as a “vagrant thought,” “wandering among the empty eternities.” In a letter to his sister-in-law, Susan Crane (reprinted in this volume), he muses that his whole life might have been a dream and that he has no certain way to prove it otherwise. These are not the musings of an out-and-out materialist who believes human beings are machines and nothing more.
In any event, his system served him well enough in the creation of such short fiction as “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), What Is Man? (1906), “Little Bessie” (ca. 1908), and Letters from the Earth (ca. 1909); and in parts (but only in parts) of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) and A Connecticut Yankee. Twain might even explain the physical organization of microorganisms as a form of social hierarchy governed chiefly by pride and envy, as he did in “Three Thousand Years among the Microbes” (1905). He would reaffirm his philosophy in essays such as “Corn-Pone Opinions” (1901) and “The Turning Point of My Life” (1910) and in several of his letters. In one of his more amusing philosophic outbursts in a letter to Joseph Twichell (reprinted in this volume), he describes his experience of reading the Puritan Jonathan Edwards on the will as resembling “having been on a three days’ tear with a drunken lunatic.” In a word, however dark this philosophic vision may have been, it did not harness the sheer audacity of his humor or the sting of his wit. Nor did it impinge upon his social and political convictions or restrain his fiery denunciation of tyranny, imperialism, and demogoguery.
On the other hand, Twain was continually driving beyond the limits of his own philosophy, without regard to logic, system, or continuity. In Chapter 31 of the novel, Huckleberry Finn is tortured by his guilty conscience for depriving Miss Watson of her rightful property by helping Jim to freedom. However improbable his decision is (and given his upbringing it is improbable indeed), he is heroic in choosing to go to hell rather than betray his companion. Twain himself later described Huck’s conduct as the triumph of a “sound heart” over a “deformed conscience.” Hank Morgan believes that “training is everything” and foolishly attempts to transform King Arthur’s England by introducing nineteenth-century ideas of political and religious liberty and the conveniences provided by industrial progress and technological efficiency. The conjunction of these two worlds makes for wonderful comedy, of course. However, in the end the dying Morgan believes his own modern world is the product of delirium and dream and reaches out, across thirteen centuries, for everything that is dear to him—his wife, his child, his friends, his antique life.
Ultimately, Twain’s determinism is not very interesting in itself, not as philosophy and not as an existential position he fashioned out of his own disappointments. Ironically perhaps, it was useful because it permitted him certain antic freedoms that were more in his line than synthetic explanations of human behavior. And his philosophizing does seem to have supplied him with a rationalized defense post from which he might launch repeated attacks on human vanity or, alternately, on a God that equipped human nature with a “moral sense” but without the necessary means to lead, except passively, the moral life. Twain might ridicule human conceit in several ways: by locating his species as a mere speck in the infinite vastness of space or by treating the human creature as the assembled concatenation of infinitesimally small but overproud particles or as the product of millions of years of evolutionary process leisurely fumbling its way toward some undisclosed end. It was the very absurdity of the human condition, regarded through the lens of incongruous frames of reference, that inevitably summoned humorous remark. “It is easy to find fault if one has that disposition,” Pudd’n-head Wilson records. “There once was a man who, not being able to find any other fault with his coal, complained that there were too many prehistoric toads in it.”
In 1896, Twain remarked, “The mysterious and the fabulous can get no fine effects without the help of remoteness; and there are no remotenesses any more.” That was a dilemma he might easily remedy. By locating the human comedy in the distant reaches of space or in a cholera germ in the bloodstream of a tramp, or by reaching back into prehistory, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, Twain found there remained plenty of fine effects to be had. He might observe human foibles in himself and others and dramatize them under such alien conditions and thereby construct a different sort of comedy, one that applied broadly to universal human nature and could teach the lessons of humility and a common destiny. Humility is a social virtue and laughter is its companion. Humiliation, by contrast, is a stigma, alienating and corrosive. However cynical Twain became in his later years, his comedy never degenerated into the merely derisive or spiteful. He remained to the end the reader’s genial companion and ally.
Despite his insistence that originality was impossible, Twain often enough transcended the terms of his own intellectual system and explored literary territory that was at least fresh and often unexampled. He did this in his “Autobiography” by ransacking his recollection vaults, creating a life out of fickle remembrance, and offering it to an indefinite future. He did it as well in his comedies of first and final things. His Captain Stormfield, who sailed for heaven but arrived at the wrong port, is sympathetically ridiculous because he has brought with him the baggage of wrongheaded but conventional expectation about the hereafter. Stormfield learns that planet Earth is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things; it is referred to locally as the “Wart.” He tries his hand at plucking a harp (he knows only one tune) and using his wings (he collides with a Bishop, and they exchange sharp words), only to find out that these customs are not required. When Stormfield drops his pre-possessions about paradise and his final reward, he begins to see things anew and more clearly, and we do too. We also begin to suspect why he is there and not the other place.
Twain also wrote often about beginnings, most extensively about the experiences of Adam and Eve in the Garden and after. By doing so, he was willfully depriving himself of his constituted gospel of training and inherited ideas. Eve characterizes the pair’s situation in their innocent state: “Interests were abundant; for we were children, and ignorant; ignorant beyond the conception of the present day. We knew nothing—nothing whatever. We were starting at the very bottom of things—at the very beginning; we had to learn the a b c of things.” Twain did not conceive of the pair, nor do they really conceive of themselves, as children—obedient or otherwise. They are self-appointed “scientists,” who through repeated observation and experimentation are trying to get the hang of the place called Paradise. It is Adam’s assigned task to name things, but Eve beats him to the punch every time, simply because she knows the right name for every beast and bird. She also knows that Sunday is a day of rest, whereas Adam thought every day was. Thereafter, his diary for Sunday is always the same: “Pulled through.” Eve puts up signs everywhere—“Keep off the grass.” “This way to the Whirlpool.”—and believes Eden would make a swell summer resort.
Adam and Eve are evicted from the Garden, but not for eating of the apple. The forbidden fruit, it turns out, is the “chestnut.” Adam partook of this fruit in the form of a hackneyed joke he told, as old as creation, and he compounded the felony by laughing himself silly over it. Many years earlier, in The Innocents Abroad, Twain stood at the Tomb of Adam and tearfully lamented that the old man had not lived to see him, “his child.” In “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” Twain re-imagines his ancestor as one who has discovered a hairless and toothless creature he can’t quite identify. Eve has instinctively named it Abel. Adam supposes it might be a fish and throws it in the water. Eve retrieves it. It might be a frog, a bird, or a snake; but it isn’t. He decides it is “either an enigma or some kind of bug.” He becomes so convinced that it is a kangaroo that he names it “Kangaroorum Adamiensis.” He rejects that hypothesis and concludes it must be a “zoological freak,” either that or a tail-less bear. Adam wears himself out looking for another specimen of the species; meanwhile Eve has caught another one and named it Cain.
There is preposterous and affecting comedy in these, our first parents, trying to discover where babies come from and establishing themselves, without benefit of consultation or clergy, as the first family. Driven from the Garden, Adam and Eve discover in a new and apparently unsponsored world the lasting pleasures of one another’s company. “After all these years,” says Adam, “I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her. . . . Blessed be the chestnut that brought us near together and taught me to know the goodness of her heart and the sweetness of her spirit.” If an old joke brought about the Fall, it appears that Adam and Eve have had the last (and the first) laugh.
In his old age, Twain’s once hopeful optimism may have reached the end of its tether, but, for forty years and more, the imaginative reach of his humor had traveled far and wide—from the Nevada Territory to the Black Forest, from Plymouth Rock to the Rock of Gibraltar, from the outer reaches of the universe to the inner life of microbes, from the creation to the hereafter. Through it all, in multiple personae and in unequal doses to be sure, his antic geniality, his irascible sympathy and self-righteous indignation, his zany irreverence, and ridiculous solemnity traveled with him. The ebullient humor and amiable presence of Twain can be felt on nearly every page of his best work and remain, perhaps, his most important and durable features. Those qualities are good companions, and portable indeed.
Suggestions for Further Reading
The sheer volume of criticism and scholarship concerning Mark Twain’s life and writings is immense. The bibliography below is meant to list resources for reliable information about the author and his work, identify certain collections or editions of Twain’s writings that may be of interest but not generally known, and to indicate the range of interpretive approaches to his work, particularly Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Under the general editorship of Robert Hirst, The Mark Twain Project has prepared and continues to prepare authoritative texts of Twain’s notebooks, travel narratives, short fiction, novels, letters, and unpublished writings. These texts are published by the University of California Press and the historical introduction, notes, and annotations are an unusually rich resource of accurate and pertinent information about Twain and his writing. Readers with a specialized interest in Twain scholarship will find these volumes especially rewarding. The items listed below were selected as particularly appropriate for a general audience.
Camfield, Gregg, The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain (New York, 2003)
LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds., The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (New York, 1993)
Long, E. Hudson, and J. R. LeMaster, The New Mark Twain Handbook (New York, 1985)
Rasmussen, R. Kent, Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings (New York, 1995)
Tenney, Thomas Asa, Mark Twain: A Reference Guide (Boston, 1977). Annual supplements to this reference guide have been published in American Literary Realism (1977-1983) and the Mark Twain Circular (1984-present)
Baetzhold, Howard G., and Joseph B. McCullough, eds., The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood (New York, 1996)
Budd, Louis J., ed., Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 2 vols. (New York, 1992)
Fatout, Paul, ed., Mark Twain Speaking (Iowa City, Iowa, 1976)
Kiskis, Michael, ed., Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography (Madison, Wis., 1990)
Zwick, Jim, ed., Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse, N.Y., 1992)
Andrews, Kenneth R., Nook Farm: Mark Twain’s Hartford Circle (Cambridge, Mass., 1950)
Baetzhold, Howard G., Mark Twain and John Bull: The British Connection (Bloomington, Ind., 1970)
Fatout, Paul, Mark Twain on the Lecture Circuit (Bloomington, Ind., 1960)
Dolmetsch, Carl, “Our Famous Guest”: Mark Twain in Vienna (Athens, Ga. 1992)
Emerson, Everett, Mark Twain, a Literary Life (Philadelphia, 2000)
Ferguson, Delancey, Mark Twain: Man and Legend (New York, 1943)
Harris, Susan K., The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain (New York, 1996)
Hill, Hamlin, Mark Twain: God’s Fool (New York, 1973)
Kaplan, Fred, The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography (New York, 2003)
Kaplan, Justin, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, a Biography (New York, 1966)
Meltzer, Milton, Mark Twain Himself: A Pictorial Biography (Columbia, Mo., 2002)
Paine, Albert Bigelow, Mark Twain: A Biography, 3 vols. (New York, 1912)
Powers, Ron, Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain (New York, 1999)
Skandera-Trombley, Laura, Mark Twain in the Company of Women (Philadelphia, 1994)
Steinbrink, Jeffrey, Getting to Be Mark Twain (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991)
Ward, Geoffrey C., and Dayton Duncan, with a preface by Ken Burns, Mark Twain (New York, 2001)
Wecter, Dixon, Sam Clemens of Hannibal (Boston, 1952)
Bellamy, Gladys, Mark Twain as a Literary Artist (Norman, Okla., 1950)
Branch, Edgard M., The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain (Urbana, Ill., 1950)
Bridgman, Richard, Traveling in Mark Twain (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987)
Budd, Louis J., Mark Twain: Social Philosopher, rev. ed. (Columbia, Mo., 2001)
———, Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality (Philadelphia, 1983)
Covici, Pascal, Jr., Mark Twain’s Humor: The Image of a World (Dallas, Tex., 1962)
Cox, James M., Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (Columbia, Mo., 2002)
DeVoto, Bernard, Mark Twain’s America (Boston, 1932)
Gerber, John, Mark Twain (New York, 1988)
Gibson, William M., The Art of Mark Twain (New York, 1976)
Gillman, Susan, Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain’s America (Chicago, 1980)
Howells, William Dean, My Mark Twain (New York, 1910)
Krauth, Leland, Proper Mark Twain (Athens, Ga., 1999)
Lynn, Kenneth S., Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston, 1970)
Melton, Jeffrey Alan, Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2002)
Messent, Peter, Mark Twain (New York, 1997)
Michelson, Bruce, Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self (Amherst, Mass., 1955)
Quirk, Tom, Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York, 1997)
Rogers, Franklin R., Mark Twain’s Burlesque Patterns as Seen in the Novels and Narratives, 1855-1885, (Dallas, Tex., 1955)
Sloane, David E. E., Mark Twain as a Literary Comedian (Baton Rouge, La., 1979)
Smith, Henry Nash, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (Cambridge, Mass., 1962)
CRITICISM ON ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Arac, Jonathan, Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time (Madison, Wis., 1997)
Blair, Walter, Mark Twain and Huck Finn (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1960)
Chadwick-Joshua, Jocelyn, The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn (Jackson, Miss., 1998)
Doyno, Victor A., Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process (Philadelphia, 1992)
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices (New York, 1993)
Inge, M. Thomas, Huck Finn among the Critics: A Centennial Selection (Frederick, Md., 1985)
Mensh, Elaine, and Harry Mensh, Black, White, and Huckleberry Finn: Re-Imagining the American Dream (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2000)
Quirk, Tom, Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn (Columbia, Mo., 1993)
Sattelmeyer, Robert, and J. Donald Crowley, eds., One Hundred Years of “Huckleberry Finn” (Columbia, Mo., 1985)
Twain, Mark, The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn (New York, 2001)
Wieck, Carl, Refiguring Huckleberry Finn (Athens, Ga., 2000)
Note on Texts
In some instances, I have supplied titles for excerpted pieces because the chapter title or running head was not especially descriptive of the text at hand. Whenever possible, the texts used are taken from the first American book publication of the text in question.
The text for “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is taken from The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (New York: C. H. Webb Publisher, 1867). “How I Edited an Agricultural Journal Once” was first published in the Galaxy for July, 1870, the source for the text printed here. “An Encounter with an Interviewer” first appeared in the volume Lotus Leaves, edited by John Brougham and John Elderkin (Boston: William F. Gill and Co., 1875), the source for the text printed here. “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” first appeared in Atlantic Monthly for November, 1874, the source of the text printed here.
The texts for the following selections were derived from the first American edition published by The American Publishing Company of Hartford, Connecticut: “The Sea of Galilee” and “At the Tomb of Adam” are from The Innocents Abroad (1869). The texts for “The Story of the Old Ram,” “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” and “Letters from Greeley” are from Roughing It (1872). The text for “Colonel Sellers Entertains Washington Hawkins” is from The Gilded Age (1873) which was jointly written with Charles Dudley Warner. The texts for “Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn” and “The Hair Trunk” are taken from A Tramp Abroad (1880). The text for “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” is from The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins (1894). The texts for “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar” and “Decimating the Savages” are from the first American edition of Following the Equator (1897).
“A Boy’s Ambition,” “Perplexing Lessons,” and “Continued Perplexities” first appeared in “Old Times on the Mississippi,” serialized in the Atlantic Monthly from January to August, 1875; they were later included as Chapters 4, 8, and 9 of Life on the Mississippi. The texts for these selections, along with “The River and Its History,” “Sunrise on the River,” and “The House Beautiful,” are taken from the first American edition of Life on the Mississippi (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1883).
The text for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with one notable exception, derives from the first American edition of the novel (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885). Following the example of Bernard DeVoto’s Portable Mark Twain, the “raftsmen episode,” first published in Chapter 3 of Life on the Mississippi, but originally intended as part of the novel, has been restored as part of Chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn.
“The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” was first published in the Century Magazine, December, 1885 and is the source for this text. The texts for “The Yankee in Search of Adventure” and “The Holy Fountain” are from the first American edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1889).
Mark Twain wrote “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” in 1892 and asked his business manager, Fred Hall, to place it in either Cosmopolitan or Century magazine. Hall was unsuccessful in placing the manuscript, but Iriving S. Underhill, wishing to promote Niagara Falls as a tourist attraction, asked Twain for a contribution for The Niagara Book. Twain revised “Adam’s Diary,” making Niagara Falls Park the scene for the work, instead of the Garden of Eden. The text printed here is from The Niagara Book. A Complete Souvenir of Niagara Falls Containing Sketches . . . by W. D. Howells, Mark Twain . . . and Others (Buffalo: Underhill & Nichols, 1893).
“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” was published in the North American Review, February, 1901, and is the source for this text. “Corn-Pone Opinions” was written in 1901 but was first published in Europe and Elsewhere, Albert Bigelow Paine, ed. (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1923), the source of the present text. A chapter from Twain’s ongoing “Autobiography,” “Early Days” was published in the North American Review, March, 1907, and is the source for this text.
The texts for “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,” “Education and Citizenship,” and “The Alphabet and Simplified Spelling” are from the first American edition of Mark Twain’s Speeches (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1910). “Advice to Youth” and “Farewell Banquet for Bayard Taylor” are from Mark Twain Speaking, Paul Fatout, ed. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1976).
The letter to Frank Nichols (3/1885) was published in the Boston Daily Advertiser on April 2, 1885. The letter to Susan Crane (3/19/1893) is reprinted with permission from the Hartford House, Hartford, Connecticut. The remaining letters are from the two-volume Mark Twain’s Letters, arranged with comment by Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1917).
1835 Samuel L. Clemens is born in Florida, Missouri.
1839 The Clemens family moves to Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River.
1847 His father, John Marshall Clemens, dies March 24.
1849-1851 Apprentices with Joseph Ament, printer; sets type for the Hannibal Courier.
1853 Leaves Hannibal for St. Louis; spends August in New York City; visits Philadelphia.
1857 Meets Horace Bixby, the riverboat pilot, who agrees to take him as an apprentice.
1858-1859 Apprentices as a “cub” pilot; receives his license April 9, 1859.
1861 In June, joins the Marion Rangers, a group of volunteers sympathetic to the Confederate cause. The unit disbands after two weeks.
In July, travels with his brother Orion to the Nevada Territory.
1862 Joins staff of the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise.
1863 In three “Letters from Carson,” he first uses the pen name “Mark Twain.”
1864 Moves to San Francisco and works as a reporter for the Morning Call. Publishes sketches in the Golden Era and the Californian.
1865 “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” is published in the New York Saturday Press and is widely reprinted throughout the country.
1867 In June, sails on the Quaker City for Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent for the Alta California and the New York Tribune.
Contracts with the American Publishing Company to make letters from voyage into a book.
Meets Olivia Langdon.
1869 Becomes engaged to Olivia Langdon.
The Innocents Abroad is published.
1870 Marries February 2; moves to Buffalo, New York.
Son Langdon is born; dies 18 months later.
1872 Roughing It is published.
Daughter Olivia Susan (Susy) is born.
1873 The Gilded Age (coauthored with Charles Dudley Warner) is published.
1874 Daughter Clara is born.
The Clemenses move into their still uncompleted house in Hartford, Connecticut, in the fall.
In November, publishes “A True Story” in the Atlantic Monthly, Twain’s first attempt to tell a serious story in African-American dialect.
Begins writing articles about his years as a Mississippi riverboat apprentice.
1875 In January, the first installment of “Old Times on the Mississippi” appears in the Atlantic Monthly.
In September, Mark Twain’s Sketches New and Old is published.
1876 In the summer begins writing “Huck Finn’s Autobiography” at Quarry Farm, overlooking Elmira, New York.
Publishes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
1877 In December, delivers the “Whittier Birthday Speech” in Boston. Many, including Clemens’s friend William Dean Howells, are shocked by the burlesque that features tramps impersonating Longfellow, Holmes, and Emerson.
1878 In April, the Clemens family travels to Germany and makes excursions throughout Switzerland and Italy. They return home September, 1879.
1880 In March, A Tramp Abroad is published.
Daughter Jane Lampton (Jean) is born.
1881 In December, The Prince and the Pauper is published.
1882 In preparation of expanding the “Old Times on the Mississippi” articles into a book, travels to St. Louis and takes a riverboat down to New Orleans and then back north, stopping off at his hometown, Hannibal.
1883 In May, Life on the Mississippi is published.
1884 In May, he and Charles L. Webster start their own publishing company.
In July, begins writing “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.”
In November, begins a four-month lecture tour with George Washington Cable.
In December, the English edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.
1885 His own publishing house, Charles L. Webster & Company, issues the first American edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, on February 18.
“The Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” is published in the December issue of Century.
Begins investing in the Paige typesetting machine.
1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is published by Charles L. Webster & Company.
Optimistic about the prospects for the Paige typesetter and that he will be able to retire from writing and live off the profits.
1890 His mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, dies.
1891 With the publishing house deeply in debt, he stops his payments for the support of the Paige typesetting project.
Unable to afford the maintenance of their Hartford house, the family moves to Europe.
1893 “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” is published in Niagara Book.
1894 Clemens declares voluntary bankruptcy.
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins is published by the American Publishing Company.
1895 Begins his round-the-world lecture tour in order to pay creditors.
1896 His daughter Susy dies.
1898 Remaining debts paid in full.
1901 “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is published in the North American Review and as a pamphlet by the Anti-Imperialist League.
The family moves to Riverdale-on-the-Hudson in New York.
Writes “Corn-Pone Opinions”; published posthumously. 1902 Visits Hannibal and St. Louis for the last time.
Receives an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
1903 Settles in Italy for Olivia’s health.
1904 Olivia Clemens dies June 5.
1905 Writes “Eve’s Diary,” published in Harper’s Magazine.
A seventieth birthday party in his honor is given at Delmonico’s; 172 people attend.
1906 What Is Man? is published anonymously by DeVinne Press.
Begins to publish “Chapters from My Autobiography” in the North American Review.
1907 Receives an honorary Litt.D. degree from Oxford.
Publishes “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” in Harper’s Magazine (Dec. 1907-Jan. 1908).
1908 Conceives the idea of forming a club called the “Aquarium,” whose members would be schoolgirls between ten and sixteen years old called “angelfish.”
Moves into new house in Redding, Connecticut, and at daughter Clara’s suggestion calls it “Stormfield.”
1909 Daughter Jean dies December 24.
1910 Travels to Bermuda; begins to have chest pains.
Returns to Stormfield; dies April 21.
TALES AND SKETCHES
Twain’s genius was constitutionally eruptive, and for that reason much of his best work is to be found in his short fiction where the spontaneity of his imagination, combined as it almost always was with meticulous revision, could be given free rein. The writer was naturally adept at most short forms—the tall tale, the sketch, the burlesque and parody, the fable—but he was also disposed to ring some changes on narrative conventions. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is a case in point. Clemens had heard a man named Ben Coon tell the story in a mining camp in the California foothills and made brief notes for a tale to be written at some future date. When Artemus Ward requested a humorous tale of him for a collection of such stories, Twain had his opportunity, and he chose the familiar form of the frame tale to structure the narrative. A frame tale typically begins with a genteel narrator (educated, correct, and a bit stodgy) who comes in contact with a vernacular character (unrefined and ungrammatical) who, in his turn, spins a humorous yarn. The genteel character returns at the end to round things off. Because this sort of humor was popular in Eastern periodicals, there was a temptation for the writer to condescend to the frontier ruffian and to make him a figure of fun in order to please an audience generally perceived to be above and apart from such types. Twain, on the other hand, more often than not makes the teller (in this case Simon Wheeler) and the principal character (here, Jim Smiley) amusing and certainly limited in understanding and opportunities, but they are sympathetic too. And within Wheeler’s frame of reference, Smiley and the mysterious stranger who bests him are men of “transcendent genius.” The Twain persona, on the other hand, is blind to the humor of the story and only belatedly recognizes that he has been, from the beginning, the butt of a joke concocted by Artemus Ward. “The Story of the Old Ram” is another frame tale, and once again, Twain, in the role of tenderfoot in the Nevada Territory, realizes that he has been set up by the “boys.” In believing that he has the privilege of hearing the notorious story of the old ram, told by a man who must be “symmetrically” drunk to tell it, Twain perceives, by the end, that he has been “sold.” Jim Blaine, on the other hand, is unaware that anything he has said is funny, and, instead of concluding a tale that really has never gotten started, he falls asleep midsentence.
“How I Edited an Agricultural Journal Once,” “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “Letters from Greeley,” and “An Encounter with an Interviewer” do not depend on the device of the frame tale as a form, but they do participate in the humor of encounters between and among characters of different backgrounds and experience. Two of them benefit from Twain’s journalistic experience—he wrote “How I Edited an Agricultural Journal Once” at a time when he was one-third owner of a Buffalo newspaper and was involved in making editorial decisions of his own; as a journalist and, later as something of a celebrity himself, Twain had been on both sides of the reporter’s notepad and knew something about the latent comedy in any encounter with an interviewer. His days in the West had thoroughly acquainted him with the slang and argot of the mining camps, and with men such as Buck Fanshaw, a “bully boy with a glass-eye” and who never “shook his mother.” “Letters from Greeley,” on the other hand, is founded on two widely known facts—that Greeley was an amateur farmer who published his views on agriculture and that his handwriting was notoriously illegible. All of these tales depend on some form of miscommunication for their humor, but beyond and above that common foundation, Twain’s humorous imagination might soar to unexplored territory. Everyone has had trouble deciphering another’s handwriting, but who else but Twain could read into the scrawl: “Bolivia extemporizes mackeral.” Everyone in a temper has improvised some sort of profanity, but who else but Twain could unleash these ripe expletives upon the regular editor of an agricultural journal: “you cornstalk, you cabbage, you son of a cauliflower . . . You turnip! . . . Yam! . . . Pie-plant!”
In dramatic contrast to Twain’s tall tales and humorous sketches, “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” is a morally serious story. Nevertheless, Clemens enlisted the devices of humor and modified them to his purpose. The Aunt Rachel of this tale was, in fact, Mary Cord, the servant of Clemens’s sister-in-law, Susan Crane, at Quarry Farm, which overlooks the town of Elmira, New York. Clemens had more than once boasted that, because he had grown up around slaves in Missouri, he was better acquainted with the temperament of blacks than New Yorkers. Susan Crane was not convinced, and urged Clemens to ask Mary Cord to tell her own story. Clemens was reluctant, but one evening he did ask the woman about herself, and the result was the inspiration for one of his finest short works. By the end of her story, Clemens must have known that he had been set up by Susan Crane and that the effect of Mary Cord’s tale was transforming. Once again, Sam Clemens had been “sold,” but in an entirely serious way. “A True Story” is not merely a transcript of what he heard, however. He shaped the narrative, giving it a coherent beginning, middle, and end; and through the artful management of gesture, what Twain sometimes called “stage directions,” he made Aunt Rachel a dignified and powerful moral presence. Twain submitted the story to the Atlantic magazine and—somewhat to his surprise—the editor, William Dean Howells, was pleased to publish it. It was the first time Twain had had anything accepted by that prestigious magazine. And it was probably the first time, as well, that he recognized that he could tell a genuinely “literary” tale with a serious moral purpose entirely in dialect. This recognition would later prove important when he began to write Huckleberry Finn.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865)
In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded.
I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel’s, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley—Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley—a young minister of the Gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of Angel’s Camp. I added that, if Mr. Wheeler could tell me any thing about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, I would feel under many obligations to him.
Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was any thing ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse. To me, the spectacle of a man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever smiling, was exquisitely absurd. As I said before, I asked him to tell me what he knew of Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, and he replied as follows. I let him go on in his own way, and never interrupted him once:
There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49—or may be it was the spring of ’50—I don’t recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume wasn’t finished when he first came to the camp; but any way, he was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides. Any way that suited the other man would suit him—any way just so’s he got a bet, he was satisfied. But still he was lucky, uncommon lucky; he most always come out winner. He was always ready and laying for a chance; there couldn’t be no solitry thing mentioned but that feller’d offer to bet on it, and take any side you please, as I was just telling you. If there was a horse-race, you’d find him flush, or you’d find him busted at the end of it; if there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it; why, if there were two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first; or if there was a camp-meeting, he would be there reg’lar, to bet on Parson Walker, which he judged to be the best exhorter about here, and so he was, too, and a good man. If he even seen a straddle-bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get wherever he was going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle-bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road. Lots of the boys here has seen that Smiley, and can tell you about him. Why, it never made no difference to him—he would bet on any thing—the dangdest feller. Parson Walker’s wife laid very sick once, for a good while, and it seemed as if they warn’t going to save her; but one morning he come in, and Smiley asked how she was, and he said she was considerably better—thank the Lord for his inf’nit mercy—and coming on so smart that, with the blessing of Prov’dence, she’d get well yet; and Smiley, before he thought, says, “Well, I’ll risk two-and-a-half that she don’t, any way.”