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The following review appeared 17 May 2009 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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A photograph taken about 1875 shows Mark Twain sitting in his
"study" at Quarry Farm, with wads of discarded paper tossed near
the fireplace. In another photograph of Twain taken in the same place about
the same time a shallow wicker basket under the table appears to be filled
to the brim with trashed scribblings. Other photographs of Twain show him
in close proximity to waste-baskets containing his false starts, rejected
themes, and discarded first drafts. It's no use enlarging these photographs
to read Twainian trash; God knows I've tried.
But all is not lost. Mark Twain saved more of his unpublished writings than any other American author, most of them now part of the vast archive of his papers preserved at the Mark Twain Project in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. There the manuscripts of all but two of the two dozen pieces included in Who Is Mark Twain? now reside. A number of these pieces have been printed in magazine form, used in scholarly studies, or included in a small privately printed text published by the Mark Twain Project in 2001. Here they are now in their first trade book publication, carefully edited, and gracefully and informatively introduced by Robert H. Hirst, the general editor of the Mark Twain Project.
Dating from 1868 to 1908, these pieces span nearly all of Twain's professional career and take the form of fables, burlesques, letters to editors, literary criticism, short stories, autobiographical snippets, and political screeds that reflect the varied scope of Twain's familiar published writings. They embrace most of the same themes as his previously published works, which should not be surprising since more than a few of them were written during the same periods when Twain was composing his most enduring works. At the same time that they evoke Twain's broader themes, several contain familiar turns of phrase and familiar "quotes" found elsewhere in Twain's works. Just as Twain mined his interviews and notebooks for things he could use in his writings, he also mined his unpublished writings for anything he could use in a published piece.
By their very nature, some of these short pieces may have served as abortive first drafts for portions of Twain's longer writings. Two are texts Twain removed from the manuscript of A Tramp Abroad ("The Music Box" and "The Grand Prix") and one was removed from The Innocents Abroad ("The Devil's Gate") and again rejected when Twain wanted to include it in Life on the Mississippi. Three others ("Professor Mahaffy on Equality," "An Incident," and "The American Press") were written about the same time Twain was working on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and reflect some themes in common with that longer work. One story, "Telegraph Dog," was written in 1907; it tells the story of a loyal dog that dies at the end of the story, a maudlin tale that echoes both A Dog's Tale (1903) and A Horse's Tale (1907). Finally, some pieces seem to borrow themes from previously published works. In "Conversations with Satan" written just a few years after Puddn'head Wilson was published, Twain is under the impression that Satan goes easy on Indians and so borrows the plot device he'd used in that novel and drops hints to Satan that he is really an Indian, switched in the cradle at birth.
Several of these pieces contain Twain's notes to himself where he obviously intended to expand on the text at some later date (but never did), and six of them abruptly end as if Twain was suddenly interrupted, never to recapture the inspiration that had carried him to that point. Some make abrupt shifts in direction, only to run out of steam before ever getting back on track. Most are finished and ready for print, but were withheld from publication for reasons sometimes obvious to the reader and at other times for reasons known only to Twain. Twain was in the habit of getting things off his chest by writing letters that he never sent, and some of these short pieces may have served a similar function. None of them is a masterpiece, some are even failures, but all of them shed light on Twain's creative process.
Being a trade publication rather than another volume in the excellent series of scholarly texts published by the Mark Twain Project, these pieces are not burdened with the heavy textual apparatus that serious Twain scholars expect and admire. Instead, they are introduced by Hirst with as much commentary and background as is appropriate to a trade book. In his twenty pages of introduction Hirst highlights the backgrounds of most of the pieces, provides the context of Twain's writing habits, explains why so many of Twain's writings remained unpublished until now, defines the selection criteria for this group of pieces, supplies reasonable titles to the ten pieces that were never titled by Twain himself, and ends with the known or probable composition dates for every piece.
Hirst crammed as much information into his introductory pages as any reasonable trade publisher would tolerate, but a few footnotes along the way would have enhanced the reader's appreciation of Twain--the stated aim of this volume. A short biography of Frank Fuller would have improved the second piece (Forum members can find a very good biography of Fuller in Mark Twain's Letters, Vol. 1, p. 5-6). Likewise, brief biographies of Matthew Arnold and Rev. Henry Van Dyke would have been helpful for a better understanding of the pieces Twain wrote in reply to those authors, and clear citations to their writings that provoked Twain's response would have been illuminating. In "A Group of Servants," a footnote would have been welcome identifying "the Executive" (quite likely Twain's wife Livy) who patiently and hilariously struggles to "reconstruct" a servant nicknamed "Wuthering Heights." A trade book of this kind should not be cluttered with footnotes, but a few helpful references here and there would not have been intrusive or distracting to the casual reader.
That minute quibble aside, the pleasures of reading these pieces are manifold. As one leafs through the book, some familiar Twain quotes leap off the page. In the second piece, "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture" we find Twain crediting his famous quote about lightning and the lightning-bug to Josh Billings (p. 24), but this time claiming that the difference is between "vivacity and wit" instead of the "almost-right word & the right word." "On Postage Rates on Authors' Manuscripts" begins with Twain's famous lines, "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself" (p. 95). Several other lines in these pieces echo familiar quotes, but I predict that some others not yet familiar will become quoted bits of Twainian wit in the future. "Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact" is a memorable line (p. 55) from "The Privilege of the Grave" one of the stronger essays in this collection, an expansion of Twain's well-known statement that only the dead can truly speak the truth. This essay was written in September, 1905 when Twain was revising two works that he did not feel he could publish at the time: "The War-Prayer" (published posthumously in Europe and Elsewhere, 1923) and What Is Man? (privately printed, anonymously, in 1906).
Another memorable line pops up early in "A Group of Servants" (p. 61) when Twain describes the impossibility of ever learning to spell the names of his Hungarian and Polish servants, whose names look to him like "the alphabet out on a drunk." This piece may not have made it into print earlier because it is clearly autobiographical and very likely describes Twain's wife's efforts to reform one of their servants. Describing his dentist in "Happy Memories of the Dental Chair" Twain says "he had the calm, possessed, surgical look of a man who could endure pain in another person" (p. 80). That quote will surely be anthologized. Twain displays his wicked wit when he digs at missionaries in "The Missionary in World-Politics," proclaiming "I do not know why we respect missionaries. Perhaps it is because they have not intruded here from Turkey or China or Polynesia to break our hearts by sapping away our children's faith and winning them to the worship of alien gods" (p. 103-4). Ouch!
When Twain is not being wickedly funny, he can be brief and
nearly poetic. In an extended passage in "The Grand Prix" he describes
the movement of a massive crowd and says "It was as if the world was
emigrating" (p. 132). But in that same piece he shifts back to his wicked
wit mode when he describes a Frenchman's custom of keeping mistresses and
concludes "This occasions a good deal of what we call crime and the French
call sociability" (p. 142). Twain takes a swipe at partisan politics
(p. 58) writing that once a man joins a particular party he will stay in it
even after he no longer believes in it because of friendships and fear; therefore
he does not have free speech. However, he gives a stirring defense of American
newspapers in "The American Press" when he boasts "it is our
irreverent press which has laughed away, one by one, what remained of our
inherited minor shams and delusions and serfages after the Revolution, and
made us the only really free people that has yet existed in the earth..."
(p. 205). A few lines away on the same page Twain could be describing himself
when he says "a discriminating irreverence is the creator and protector
of human liberty."
Besides quotable quotes, there are longer sections of text that will attract attention from Twain scholars or stick in the minds of Twain's readers. The quote about crowds in "The Grand Prix" is from a long passage (p. 136-43) in which Twain perfectly captures the ebb and flow of the ocean of people in attendance. In his reply to Rev. Henry Van Dyke, Twain makes a clear statement on determinism (p. 88), using language very close to his annotations in his copy of a book by William Lecky and the ideas he expressed in What Is Man?. He even ends that piece with an explicit reference to What Is Man? when he says he thought about giving a copy of that book to Van Dyke but had second thoughts because Van Dyke would not understand it.
Another extended passage that is striking for its candor is
Twain's description of his experience with using chloroform as a painkiller
(p. 82-3) as one of his "Happy Memories of the Dental Chair." Things
go better for Twain in the dental chair than they did for Tom Sawyer's cat.
Perhaps the most striking passage in the book is Twain's sensuous description
of a "shapely" bare-ankled young woman stepping from a carriage
into the mud at "The Grand Prix" (p. 133-4). The passage is not
erotic--Twain's writing never is--but it's clear Twain was paying close attention
and "enjoying all this scenery" as he says. One other passage deserves
note. In "Interviewing the Interviewer" (p. 159) Twain, himself
a former journalist, enumerates the elements of tabloid journalism: sensationalism,
vilification of the innocent, libels, and the glorification of "moneyed
While not among the longer or more striking passages among these pieces, Twain's comments on religion are numerous. Two of the pieces are directed to men of the cloth ("Dr. Van Dyke as a Man and as a Fisherman" and "I Rise to a Question of Privilege") and a third ("Professor Mahaffy on Equality") is a letter to the editor replying to Prof. Mahaffy's confusion of secular and religious equality. "The Quarrel in the Strong-Box" is a fable written about seven years after the reply to Professor Mahaffy and echoes Twain's secular views of the equality of mankind. When Twain converses with Satan, the dark spirit is dressed as an Anglican bishop (p. 32). When Twain describes how he has tried to appreciate the writings of Jane Austen (whose characters he dismissed as "silly" unsympathetic "snobs" and "sneaks") he compares himself to a bartender trying to appreciate the charms of Presbyterians (p. 47), and Presbyterians take another gentle jab when Twain says (p. 87) that although Van Dyke is a 35-year-old Presbyterian clergyman and Princeton faculty member, he still likes him "notwithstanding." In "The Missionary in World-Politics" European missionaries in China take a beating. In "The Devil's Gate" some miners, stung by a religious newspaper's criticism of their town's name, hold a meeting and innocently rename their hamlet "Jehovah's Gap." We know how Twain, not a bit innocent, would have voted at that meeting.
Two pieces not mentioned above are among the best in this volume, and are must-reads. "The Undertaker's Tale" is a cheeky riff from 1877 on life as a zero-sum game. The narrator is raised by the Cadaver family who fall on hard times and nearly lose their home when business falls off. "I cannot bury people if they will not die" bemoans the family patriarch. But soon the village is hit by a spate of accidents and pestilence and business is once again brisk and all ends well. The misfortune of others is their good fortune. This theme is picked up again in "The War-Prayer," but by 1905 Twain's take on war as a zero-sum game, where one side's misfortune is the other side's victory, is a bitter reflection of an older wiser Twain who doesn't even try to be funny. A closer reading of this pair of stories would yield at least one term paper somewhere.
The other story that deserves special attention is "The Snow Shovellers" and was written the year after Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, in the months before the Chicago Haymarket Riots, when labor union organizers were fighting for an eight-hour work day. It relates a conversation between two black snow-shovellers early one morning on a wealthy suburban street in the pristine aftermath of a heavy snow-storm. Not a shovel-full of snow ever gets shovelled. With no other souls stirring, the two men instead lean on their shovels discussing (in dialect) their disgust with anarchists and socialists ("Anerkis'" and "Socialis'"), and reaffirm their own Calvinist work ethic ("ef I didn't work for my livin' I'd feel dat low down dat I couldn't look nobody in de face--dem's my senterments"). They begin their talk with mutual declarations that they would not work for pay by the job, but only by the hour. At last, their chat is abruptly and angrily ended by one of their rich employers who threatens to fire them if they don't get to work. It's possible Twain heard black men discussing this topic, but it's far more likely that these sentiments were spoken by his white friends and neighbors, and that Twain could not effectively satirize his friends' hypocrisy unless he put their words into the mouths of stereotypical lazy black laborers, whose voices, his readers would be more likely to accept. The setting, the words spoken, and everything about this short piece drip with irony (the year after Twain published the greatest ironic American novel) and there is more here worth exploring than could be covered in a term paper.
These stories don't have a thematic unity or common purpose, but instead show Twain's many facets as a writer and social commentator, and give a hint of the harvest to come from his many more unpublished manuscripts. In "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture" an anxious Twain overhears two men looking at a handbill for his first New York lecture. One asks the other "Who is Mark Twain?" and the other replies "God knows--I don't" (p. 15). Hence, the title of this marvelous little collection. By the end of this book every reader will know the answer to that question.