Late in life, responding to the adolescent Stark Young, Henry James made out a reading list of five of his own works of fiction. On the list he included no short stories—only novels. But he told Young to come back to him after he had read the novels. Then “you shall have your little tarts when you have eaten your beef and potatoes.” The Library of America, now up to sixty-one volumes of classic American writing, has not presented us any of James’s little tarts—although it has given us a number of volumes of James’s novels, essays, and prefaces.

The Library has also given us some of Mark Twain’s beef and potatoes: The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, and the Mississippi Writings. But now, in their latest two-volume offering, the Library at last gives us the fullest collection ever published, in an authoritative edition, of the little tarts of Mark Twain—those sketches, tall tales, essays, stories, and even speeches that made him our most boisterous and irreverent national humorist. There is, of course, no substitute for his hilarious and often disturbing novels—among others The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1882), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). But anyone with an interest in these novels will find in the brevities of Samuel Langhorne Clemens a rich compendium of his observations on prospecting and politics, fashions and manners, medicine and journalism, seances and fortune-telling, popular and historical charlatans, Indians, female suffrage, royalty, barbers, dueling, temperance, copyright laws, postprandial oratory, the crime of injudicious swearing, the pleasures of tobacco, the science of onanism, and the decayed art of lying. In addition to these sketches, we find in the Library’s collection such masterworks of short fiction as “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (1865) and “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899) and essays in criticism like “How to Tell a Story” (1895) and “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” (1895). To read these more than 270 pieces—which amply fill more than 2,000 pages—is to observe the emergence of a brilliant artist from the youthful apprentice and to witness that gifted man declining into the blackest pessimism and rage against the universe. Of course there are dark strains in the early work and hilarity in the later: Clemens was nothing if not inconsistent.

No doubt there was method in his literary madness.

No doubt there was method in his literary madness. In “How to Tell a Story,” Clemens laid claim to a theory of national humor, according to which the best of our standup comedy and written humor—as illustrated by Artemus Ward, Bill Nye, and Dan Setchell—arises not from the matter of a tale but from the manner of its telling. This ordinarily involved the invention of an ingenuous persona who dramatizes a garrulous and disjointed tale in a grave manner, doing his best “to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.” The tale finishes with “a nub” or “snapper,” but this is “inadvertently” dropped amidst so much irrelevancy that the narrator “does not know it is a nub” and when the “belated audience” presently catches the joke, the narrator looks up “with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.” The best humorous tale is thus not merely funny but a delayed-reaction time-bomb, a hoax played on the beguiled and perhaps slow-witted audience, in which calculated pauses and split-second timing are essential. It was a method practiced first in the West, around prospector campfires and on courthouse lawns, where the tales grew tall and taller and were perfected and polished in the retelling. It is a method that very nearly every American humorist, from Petroleum V. Nasby to Jack Benny and Woody Allen, has exploited.

Certainly most of the hilarity of Clemens himself, who perfected the method, rises out of such an ingenuous invented personality—particularly that of his favorite nom de plume, Mark Twain. Clemens attained national celebrity in 1865 when the New York Saturday Press published his “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (subsequently renamed “The Celebrated [or Notorious] Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”), a tale commonplace in the mining towns but perfected in Clemens’s written narrative. Most readers nowadays are likely to remember it as merely the account of a practical joke played on the compulsive bettor Jim Smiley by the stranger who fills Smiley’s frog, Dan’l Webster, with a double-handful of quail-shot so he can’t jump in the contest. But the real genius of the tale is in the practical joke played on “Mark Twain” by “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne), who supposedly urged Twain to ask old Simon Wheeler about the whereabouts of his friend the Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley. The name association leads the garrulous old Wheeler to launch into such a rambling but hilarious monologue—of which the jumping frog incident is but a part—that Twain cannot wait to escape. Jim Smiley, says Wheeler,

. . . was the curiosest man about always betting on anything that turned up you ever see, if he could get anybody 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 satisified. 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 what 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 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 was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first …

This is rhythmic oral prose at its best; the syntactic play, the down-home syllabic elisions, the iterations and reiterations in the tale are those of a writer with a perfect ear who knows how to stylize the speaking voice.

In his prefatory letter to Ward, Twain writes:

I have a lurking suspicion that your Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth—that you never knew such a personage, and that you 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 your design, Mr. Ward, it will gratify you to know that it succeeded.

As will be obvious to any reader of the tale, old Wheeler’s monologue is pure perfection in its illiterate dialect, knee-slapping comedic exaggeration, and deadpan humor. Of course the joke on this “Twain” is that he never “gets” how funny Wheeler is, for he is—in this tale—too proper and gentlemanly to bear patiently an illiterate old yarn- spinner.

At the center of Twain’s tales is always some kind of comic mendacity and the impulse to hoax the naïve—the dandy, the Easterner, the greenhorn, and the gullible. If he could take in, however momentarily, the whole nation, so much the better. As a newspaperman, Clemens used the reporter’s reputation for fact to get the maximum credulity, as in this piece, headlined “Petrified Man,” which appeared in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise for October 4, 1862, and was reprinted in various other newspapers. (It is worth remembering that the Petrified Forest had just recently been discovered in the West, and Easterners were agog with the news of ancient stone trees.)

A petrified man was found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner—which lifetime, by the way, came to a close about a century ago, in the opinion of a savan who has examined the defunct. The body was in a sitting posture, and leaning against a huge mass of croppings; the attitude was pensive, the right thumb resting against the side of the nose; the left thumb partially supported the chin, the fore-finger pressing the inner corner of the left eye and drawing it partly open; the right eye was closed, and the fingers of the right hand spread apart. This strange freak of nature created a profound sensation in the vicinity, and our informant states that by request, Justice Sewell or Sowell, of Humboldt City, at once proceeded to the spot and held an inquest on the body. The verdict of the jury was that “deceased came to his death from protracted exposure,” etc. The people of the neighborhood volunteered to bury the poor unfortunate, and were even anxious to do so; but it was discovered, when they attempted to remove him, that the water which had dripped upon him for ages from the crag above, had coursed down his back and deposited a limestone sediment under him which had glued him to the bed rock upon which he sat, as with a cement of adamant, and Judge S. refused to allow the charitable citizens to blast him from his position. The opinion expressed by his Honor that such a course would be little less than sacrilege, was eminently just and proper. Everybody goes to see the stone man, as many as three hundred having visited the hardened creature during the past five or six weeks.

This “Mark Twain” is earnest in his objectivity, detailed in his reportage, and scrupulous in the precision aimed for in the “facts” of the case. The style is that of a reporter who has done his interview legwork and can be morally solemn, appropriately judicial, and fittingly elevated in diction. Of course the preposterousness of the whole business—especially the notion of blasting free the stone man with the wooden leg —might alert the attentive Eastern reader. But in the age of Darwin’s fossils and the rip-roaring West, who could be sure?

As Clemens developed this persona of “Mark Twain,” the character took on more and more of the illiterate dialect, Western irreverence, moral slipperiness, and garrulous mendacity of old Simon Wheeler. Clemens was always at his best, it seems to me, when he allowed free imaginative play to the comic and satiric possibilities arising out of his character’s ignorance, pretension, artful but obvious lying, and mental eccentricity. He was in his element with an elaborated burlesque or farce, for, as he once wrote, nothing can stand against the “assault of laughter.” He could also toss off choice one-liners, as in “Mark’s Maxims,” of which these, from the Library edition, are exemplary: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” And “It is the foreign element that commits our crimes. There is no native criminal class except Congress.” And “The trouble ain’t that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.”

Psychiatrists are fond of telling us that all humor is really a sublimated form of aggression and that “making fun of” masks the displaced anger of a disappointed idealist. Certainly as Clemens grew up with the country, he became more irked with and outraged by what he saw about him. In his case, the anger surfaces intermittently in the early years but becomes the dominant ground-bass at the end. In this election year it is worth remembering that he lived through one of the more venal eras in American politics, and he warmed with relish to the exposure of elections bought by business interests, legislators on the corporation payroll, and courts in the hip pocket of the plutocrat. Washington for him was “the place to get a low opinion of everybody in.” He concluded that “the government of my country shuns honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in public service a year or two.” He turned down an influential postmastership in San Francisco on the ground that it would be “a falling from Grace . . . Government pap must be nauseating food for a man.

Certainly as Clemens grew up with the country, he became more irked with and outraged by what he saw about him.

In a sketch called “Running for Governor,” Twain showed how he was defeated by his opponent, a tool of the Erie Railroad, simply because the newspaper editors did not regard him as properly equipped to run the governorship corruptly. He switched parties freely looking for an honest man, and told the Knights of Saint Patrick in 1876 that we needed an American patriot to do for the U.S. what Saint Patrick had done for Ireland. “St. Patrick had no politics. . . . When he came across a reptile, he forgot to inquire whether he was a democrat or a republican. I wish we had him here to trim us up.” The only solution to the purchase of civic virtue, to cite one of his political diatribes, was to give women the vote, and he was a long-time, if inconsistent, woman’s suffrage enthusiast, even calling for a woman’s party, although he saw that such a development would bring womanhood down off that cherished pedestal. But not even he foresaw Bella Abzug.

No doubt there was something clinical in Clemens’s identifying so fully, in later life, with his persona Twain. This is, at least, the implicit view of his biographer Justin Kaplan in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. More serious, however, was his taking upon himself the burden of guilt for every mischance that occurred to him and his family. Quite irrationally he believed himself responsible for his brother Henry’s death in a steamboat accident. He unaccountably accused himself of causing the death of his infant son Langdon, who died of natural causes. After he lost his money through poor investments, he had to lecture abroad to pay off the creditors. His daughter Susy died while he was abroad. Here Twain is consoling himself: “She died in our own house—not in another’s, died where every little thing was familiar and beloved; died where she had spent all her life till my crimes made her a pauper and an exile.” Thus our funniest national humorist was a man racked by self- accusation, remorse, a tormented conscience, and a morbid sense of sin and guilt.

The sign of these fused identities is the rage that led him to write those despairing works of the later years—“Corn-Pone Opinions” (1901), “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” (1902), “Eve’s Diary” (1905), “What Is Man?” (1906), and “Letters from the Earth” (1909). These pieces in the Library collection show him raging against God as “an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master.” The capricious Deity is the evil source of disease, pestilence, crime, and war who operates throughout history for purposes insane to man’s reason. Twain also rails against “the damned human race” for being driven by self-interest, cowardice, and conformity and sees the moral history of the race as a succession of acts of violence, bloodshed, and murder from the story of Cain and Abel on up—progress signifying merely improvement in the instruments of destruction. It was an easy extension to transfer his hatred of the Creator to mankind—and to himself. “What a man sees in the human race is merely himself in the deep and honest privacy of his own heart,” Twain wrote. “Byron despised the race because he despised himself. I feel as Byron did for the same reason.” Thus the corruption of man and the determinism of cosmic events prevent any chance at a true amelioration of conditions: life is meaningless and conscience futile in a world where the Deity is really a cosmic Satan and man a contemptible worm.

To cope with his own obsessive duality of character and the horror of his inward existence, Twain invented, late in life, a dream self to account for the psychological phenomenon that he seemed to be two people. In his dreams, time and space were abolished and his spiritualized body could fly “to the ends of the earth in a millionth of a second. Seems to—and I believe does.” In “Is Shakespeare Dead?” he quoted approvingly Prospero’s lines “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, / And our little life is rounded with a sleep.” By a natural extension he came to think that reality itself was oneiric, hallucinative, and nightmarish. He told Mrs. Crane late in life:

I dreamed I was born and grew up and was a pilot on the Mississippi and a miner and a journalist in Nevada and a pilgrim in the Quaker City, and had a wife and children and went to live in a villa in Florence—and this dream goes on and on and sometimes it seems so real that I almost believe it is real. I wonder if it is. . . . I wish I knew whether it is a dream or real.

All of this late pessimism is fully represented in the Library edition. It of course emerges full blown in “Great Dark” and The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, posthumously published, though unfinished, with their horrific portrait of God as the indifferent, amoral, cosmic devil who foreordains the violent events of human history. Paltry men are mere animalculae in the perspective of time, infectious microbes in the bloodstream of the cosmos. There is thus no efficacy in our having a conscience, which a sadistic God has given us only that we may torment ourselves, for life is a horror and death a blessing: sanity and happiness are an impossible combination. Beneath it all is an anguished cry for absolution. In the Library of America’s collection of Twain’s shorter pieces— ably edited and annotated by Emeritus Professor Louis J. Budd (who for many years gave the Duke English Department a scholarly distinction since tarnished by its New Age critical nihilists)—we have the full range of Twain’s light-hearted burlesque, broadly farcical, hysterically satirical, and bitterly dark comedy. The collection is a rich rolling cart of the delectable little tarts with something—sharp or sweet—for everyone.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 3, on page 65
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now