Many, many moons ago, my dad gave me his copy of Mark Twain’s short stories; his name and the year–1967 I believe–were inscribed in the front. A keeper, even though at the time I found it hard to commit to stories longer than 4 pages (I read “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” about 50 times and nothing else. It’s a great little tale; you should check it out.) But I made a terrible mistake with this gift. I committed a foolish and embarrassing error when it came to properly storing this olde booke, and it is now returned to the earth from which it originally came. You see, I found out the terrible fact that, when I saw them happily eating this tome, bunnies find books published before 1973 to be irresistibly delicious.
Glass doors on bookshelves have since become very necessary in my home. I was especially glad to have them when, not knowing the shameful tale of how I lost my first Twain collection, my brother sent me the same collection in a lovely new Everyman edition for my birthday last year! It was redemption. And also, a reckoning. The universe, as well as the bitter, shaggy-mustachioed ghost of Samual L. Clemens, was telling me amends could only be made if I actually read this volume.
And so I did. It took me 8 months–because reading a short story longer than 20 pages feels like reading an entire novel to me, and I don’t want to read 40 novels in a row by anyone, not even Eliot, Dickens, Trollope, Gissing, OR Meredith–and so I had to ration it out. It was good; it was really good; Twain was clearly a crazed genius. But sometimes it was also too much for me.
Reading the collected tales of Twain is not all shits and giggles, oh no, although a great deal of it is hilarious. In the last tale in the volume (also the last one written before his death in 1910), “The Mysterious Stranger,” the narrator (an evilly charming nephew to Satan named, not surprisingly, Satan) chastises humanity in general, thus:
Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. (p. 711)
Twain certainly didn’t leave laughter to languish and die. “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaverous County” is one of American lit’s most beloved stories, as it should be; it puts a fresh and extra-mischievous face on literary whimsy; yes, even now, 130+ years after it was written, it seems fresh. No one ever has, and I think ever will, write like Twain. If anyone ever took Emily Dickinson’s maxim of telling things slant to their logical (and illogical) extremes, it was Twain. Indeed, in many ways, he was like Dickens in that it seems he simply couldn’t contain himself. Like murder, hilarity, irony, and goofiness will out.
“A Double-Barreled Detective Story” is one of the funniest, most irreverent, and most joyously unpredictable things I’ve ever read. There’s no way I can give you a sense of what the whole thing is about, because structurally, it’s an insanity complete and unique unto itself. But I can give you this short passage, which I think epitomizes both the tale’s and Twain’s comic genius. Sherlock Holmes makes a surprise appearance in the action, and here’s what the locals have to say about him:
“Look at that head!” said Ferguson, in an awed voice. “By gracious! that’s a head!”
“You bet!” said the blacksmith, with deep reverence. “Look at his nose! look at his eyes! Intellect? Just a battery of it!”
“And that paleness,” said Ham Sandwich. “Comes from thought–that’s what it comes from. Hell! duffers like us don’t know what real thought is.”
“No more we don’t,” said Ferguson. “What we take for thinking is just blubber-and-slush.”
“Right you are, Wells-Fargo. And look at that frown–that’s deep thinking–away down, down, forty fathom into the bowels of things. He’s on the track of something.”
“Well, he is, and don’t you forget it. Say–look at that awful gravity–look at that pallid solemness–there ain’t any corpse can lay over it.”
“No, sir, not for dollars! And it’s his’n by hereditary rights, too; he’s been dead four times a’ready, and there’s history for it. Three times natural, once by accident. I’ve heard say he smells damp and cold, like a grave. And he–”
“‘Sh! Watch him! There–he’s got his thumb on the bump on the near corner of his forehead, and his forefinger on the off one. His think-works is just a-grinding now, you bet your other shirt.” (p. 477)
Twain is being ironic, for Holmes turns out to be a self-important, pompous disaster of the art of detection (rather like the CSI-loving goons on Reddit this past week).
But Twain could be un-ironically speaking of himself, at least when he says that the majority of us don’t know what thinking is, relying as heavily as we do on that unreliable and unsavoury substance he calls blubber-and-slush. The sheer variety of subject matter, the world-shatteringly great writing, the profound insights that relentlessly pile up, all put Twain well above the majority of us regular humans. Here, the criticism is fun gently poked at humanity’s sense of its own intelligence.
Our inherent ridiculousness pervades Twain’s tales, in fact. But the stories, presented in chronological order, become increasingly dark and this criticism increasingly harsh, bitter, didactic, and even, sometimes, hopeless. If Twain’s writing weren’t absolutely brilliant at all times, his stories would often be utterly unreadable. “A Dog’s Tale” and “A Horse’s Tale” caused me more pain than I signed on for, certainly; I actually wailed aloud during the excruciating and excoriating conclusion of the latter. Unless you are very thick-skinned, I just wouldn’t read these stories. They led me to take necessary mental health breaks from reading Twain, the other reason it took me so long to complete this volume.
And by the end of the volume, the hilarity is gone and Twain is elegantly, verbosely, compellingly, and unremittingly upbraiding humanity for being nothing more than a load of humbug buried in a dung pile. The thesis of “The Mysterious Stranger” is something to the effect of, “no one who is sane can be happy;” or, “the majority of us are craven, selfish, and stupid;” or, “none of us is worth trying to save.”
I’m not sure if Twain’s superlative writing makes this more or less easier to take than it would be under other circumstance. No, I do know: his harsh truths were pleasanter when he was softening the blow by suggesting our thought processes comprise mere blubber-and-slush. Which, you know, if it’s true–I’d rather find out from Mark Twain than anyone else. At least the horrible truth is conveyed gorgeously.