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Who Is Mark Twain?

Mark Twain

  Who Is Mark Twain?

  By Mark Twain


  “Stacks of Literary Remains” A Note on the Text

  Whenever I Am about to Publish a Book

  Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture

  Conversations with Satan

  Jane Austen

  The Force of “Suggestion”

  The Privilege of the Grave

  A Group of Servants

  The Quarrel in the Strong-Box

  Happy Memories of the Dental Chair

  Dr. Van Dyke as a Man and as a Fisherman

  On Postage Rates on Authors’ Manuscript

  The Missionary in World-Politics

  The Undertaker’s Tale

  The Music Box

  The Grand Prix

  The Devil’s Gate

  The Snow-Shovelers

  Professor Mahaffy on Equality

  Interviewing the Interviewer

  An Incident

  The Jungle Discusses Man

  I Rise to a Question of Privilege

  Telegraph Dog

  The American Press

  The Christening Yarn

  The Walt Whitman Controversy

  Discussion Guide

  About the Author


  Other Books by Mark Twain


  About the Publisher


  You had better shove this in the stove,” Mark Twain said at the top of an 1865 letter to his brother, “for I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.”

  Considering that Mark Twain issued that gentle command weeks before he had published his first big success, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” and almost two years before he published his first book, it was a remarkably prescient thing to say, even as a joke. The letter to his brother survives because his brother ignored the instruction to burn it, and Mark Twain himself soon changed his mind about what should be done with his “literary remains.” Thirty-six years later, in September 1901, he told his good friend Joe Twichell that he had “done a grist of writing here this summer, but not for publication soon—if ever. I did write two satisfactory articles for early print, but I burnt one of them & have buried the other one in my large box of Posthumous Stuff. I’ve got stacks of Literary Remains piled up there.”

  This time he was clearly not joking—or exaggerating. When Mark Twain died in 1910, he left behind him the largest cache of personal papers created by any nineteenth-century American author—letters, notebooks, a massive autobiography, hundreds of unpublished literary manuscripts, seventy thousand incoming letters, photographs, bills, checks, contracts, and other business documents (easily half a million pages). All but two of the short works published here come from that archive, known as the Mark Twain Papers in The Bancroft Library at Berkeley. The other two (“The Devil’s Gate” and “I Rise to a Question of Privilege”) are among the earliest written, and come from a much smaller group of his manuscripts originally kept for him by his sister Pamela. That group includes two dozen unpublished sketches and essays written as early as age twenty, all of which eventually found their way to the Vassar College Library. These two archives alone show that Mark Twain’s penchant for preserving manuscripts he did not publish or sometimes even finish was lifelong.

  In referring to these manuscripts as “stacks of Literary Remains” Clemens would seem to imply that he expected some of them to be published, or at least read, after his death (“not for publication soon—if ever”). But how did he really feel about posterity publishing things from his “large box of Posthumous Stuff”? Aren’t we trampling on his own best judgment in publishing what he himself decided not to publish? I don’t think so. Let me explain why.

  When the first half of the manuscript for Huckleberry Finn was discovered in 1991 (Mark Twain had given it to a library, but it had been lost for more than 100 years) it made quite a commotion in the press and even in the world at large. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example, is known to have stopped his limousine in front of Sotheby’s just to see the long-lost manuscript then on display there. The general feeling was, I suppose, that here at last was the authentic text of Mark Twain’s masterpiece. About this same time, a famous New York publisher called me in Berkeley because, he said, he wanted to know just exactly what the manuscript represented: Was it really the ultimate text for Huck Finn? I explained that, no, it was actually not Mark Twain’s final draft, but rather more like a first draft, since he had had his manuscript typed, and then extensively revised that typescript, which in turn became his final draft and went to the typesetter. The New York publisher said: “How strange. All of my authors go to great lengths to destroy their early drafts”—presumably so that no one can tell how they struggled to arrive at the final text.

  I think it is clear that, unlike most writers, Mark Twain was not embarrassed by his “literary remains” even when they were failures. He seems to have been wholly willing to let posterity read them, unafraid of the light they might cast on his talent, or the way he wrote. That unusual willingness to let the world see how he worked, including how he failed or simply misfired, had only one precondition—he must not be alive at the time. The following passage from Mark Twain’s autobiography (31 May 1906), whose full publication he deliberately forbade until 100 years after his death, makes this precondition explicit, and explains why he thought he was taking no real risk in the matter:

  I can speak more frankly from the grave than most historians would be able to do, for the reason that whereas they would not be able to feel dead, howsoever hard they might try, I myself am able to do that. They would be making believe to be dead. With me, it is not make-believe. They would all the time be feeling, in a tolerably definite way, that that thing in the grave which represents them is a conscious entity; conscious of what it was saying about people; an entity capable of feeling shame; an entity capable of shrinking from full and frank expression, for they believe in immortality. They believe that death is only a sleep, followed by an immediate waking, and that their spirits are conscious of what is going on here below and take a deep and continuous interest in the joys and sorrows of the survivors whom they love and don’t.

  But I have long ago lost my belief in immortality—also my interest in it. I can say, now, what I could not say while alive—things which it would shock people to hear; things which I could not say when alive because I should be aware of that shock and would certainly spare myself the personal pain of inflicting it.

  In other words, Mark Twain was perfectly willing to let us read his most intimate manuscripts precisely because he knew that when we did so, he would no longer exist.

  Yet whatever intentions Mark Twain had for his manuscripts, as long as his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, had charge of them—from 1910 to 1937—he and the author’s only surviving daughter, Clara, had sole access to them and absolute discretion over their publication. Paine, in fact, thought most of the literary manuscripts ought not to be published at all, although he eventually did publish small, heavily edited selections of letters, notebooks, the autobiography, a bastardized form of “The Mysterious Stranger,” and two or three dozen manuscript sketches. Of course Paine implied that he was carrying out the author’s intentions: “Mark Twain himself had quite definite ideas as to the disposition of his literary effects, and he left instructions accordingly—instructions that thus far [i.e., 1935] have been carried out.” But no one except Paine has ever seen even a copy of those instructions, and there are good reasons to doubt that Mark Twain took so protective a view of what he had consistently saved from destruction.

Paine’s successor as editor of the Mark Twain Papers, Bernard DeVoto, published several dozen more manuscripts, and prepared for publication what he thought were the best of the lot: the unfinished “Letters from the Earth” and other late stories, which were not, however, published by Harper & Row until 1962, seven years after his own death, because of Clara’s objections. DeVoto was quite clear that he would publish only the very best of what he found in the papers, lest the inferior material cloud Mark Twain’s reputation: “the publication of variant readings and wholly unimportant fragments should be forbidden” he wrote in 1938.

  Then, in 1962, the University of California contracted with the Mark Twain estate for the rights to publish selections from the Mark Twain Papers, which Clara had given to the University in 1949. The remaining manuscripts then began to be more or less systematically issued in a scholarly edition. Even so, after more than forty years of scholarly publishing during which a dozen or more editors have sifted through the archive and published what they thought was of interest, dozens of manuscripts, both finished and unfinished, remain. The twenty-four collected here represent an across-the-board sampling from different genres and different time periods, weighted slightly toward pieces that can stand more or less on their own, without much explanation.

  It is important to say that these works are not being offered here as a group of overlooked masterpieces that will somehow begin to compete with Mark Twain’s most famous work. In large part, their interest lies elsewhere—in what they show us about how Mark Twain worked as a writer. But it would also be a mistake to assume that they were left unpublished because he thought they fell short of his usual standard. Any random sampling will turn up the usual signs of his genius, the typical precision and sparkle of his prose, always capable of surprising us into smiling at some shameful trait of the damned human race. They are so well crafted, clear, and wickedly funny (even when he left them incomplete) that their non-publication must be explained by particular circumstances, not his judgment that they were inferior work and therefore not worth publishing.

  Seven of the manuscripts are unfinished, breaking off abruptly—left sometimes without a title, let alone a conclusion. They are vivid testimony to Mark Twain’s restless and often quite daring inventiveness, his lifelong habit of seizing upon an idea for an article or story and simply plunging into the telling of it, with hardly a clue as to where he might end up. In “Whenever I Am about to Publish a Book” the text comes to a halt just as he promises to reproduce unaltered quotations from reviews of his “last book” (probably The Prince and the Pauper). Did he suddenly think better of giving such attention to foolish comments on his work? Or was he just distracted by something, and still hoping for a chance to complete the essay? We simply don’t know.

  “Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture,” which is really a draft of a lecture Mark Twain planned to use on his around-the-world-tour of 1895–96, comes to an end (not coincidentally, I think) when the bitterly remembered reason for the lecture tour—his need to pay off the debts of his bankrupt publishing house—bubbles to the surface. He never gave this lecture, the very conception of which seems palpably modern in several ways—a hilarious send-up of our foolish preoccupation with celebrity, built around the story of his own search for fame. Its modernity seems especially obvious if one takes into account its multimedia plan: he imagines projecting slides of the famous people he refers to throughout, thereby producing an illustrated lecture that begins with a more or less factual account of the run-up to his own first (highly successful) appearance on the platform in New York, in May 1867.

  Although I was utterly unknown, every one of the most celebrated men of that day, was invited to come. It has always been my pride that that distinction was shown me. I hope it will not be regarded as immodest in me if I name some of these. First in the list by every right is Grant—scene-photograph—anecdote (grand description of his services.) General Grant—he was not able to come. Sheridan—scene-photograph—had just finished his great Indian campaign, and was tired—of disturbances—and—he was not present.

  Sherman—scene-photo—Lt. Gen—was head of the Army and was reforming the rest of it—he did not need reforming himself—and was obliged to be absent.

  Gen. Thomas—he couldn’t come.

  Gen. Logan wanted to come, but was not well and could not sleep where there was noise.

  Admiral Farragut—just at that time a child was born to—not to him, and I don’t remember now who it was born to, and now I come to think, I believe it was not born that year—but anyway he couldn’t come.

  And so on, until we get the joke, and want only to see what other excuses he can come up with. Yet even after writing more than fifty pages of manuscript, he set it aside and replaced it with something entirely different. Indeed, the piece is so much an unfinished draft that it begins with what are in effect notes to himself. These shade without a break into the narrative proper, showing us quite graphically how he often felt his way into a new work.

  “Conversations with Satan” begins, I think, brilliantly enough with Mark Twain’s description of “a slender and shapely gentleman” dressed, he says, like an Anglican Bishop, who turns out to be Satan himself. The author proceeds with a “modern” interview of the Devil, beginning with small talk about the excellence of the German stove, used for heating the house or apartment:

  “You use it in America, of course?”

  I was pleasantly surprised at that, and said—

  “Is it possible that Ihre Majestät is not familiar with America?”

  “Well—no. I have not been there lately. I am not needed there.”

  This sort of thing is promising enough, but Mark Twain soon gets sidetracked into a long disquisition about cigars, and simply stops writing when he senses that the narrative has made too long a detour ever to get back to the main road. Typically, Mark Twain did not throw away or destroy even work like this, which he left unfinished, and often seemed unable to finish.

  Most of these pieces were, however, finished—two or three articles for magazines or newspapers (“The Force of ‘Suggestion’” written for Harper’s Weekly, “Professor Mahaffy on Equality” and “On Postage Rates on Authors’ Manuscript” for unspecified journals); snatches of pure autobiography (“A Group of Servants,” “An Incident,” “Dr. Van Dyke as a Man and a Fisherman,” and “Happy Memories of the Dental Chair”); letters to the editor (“The Missionary in World-Politics” and “I Rise to a Question of Privilege”); a literary burlesque (“The Undertaker’s Tale”); two original fables (“The Quarrel in the Strong-Box” and “The Jungle Discusses Man”); a short story (“Telegraph Dog”); literary criticism (“Jane Austen”); and even several travel-book chapters (or passages) that he wrote for but ultimately excluded from A Tramp Abroad (“The Music Box” and “The Grand Prix”) and The Innocents Abroad (“The Devil’s Gate”). They were all written between 1868, when Clemens was thirty-three, and 1905, when he was seventy. So why didn’t he publish them? The reasons are almost as numerous as the pieces themselves.

  In some cases they were experiments, practice for more ambitious or more successful work, or just something to test against one of his usual pre-publication readers. We know that Bret Harte, for instance, at Mark Twain’s request, read the entire manuscript for The Innocents Abroad and recommended several cuts, including “The Devil’s Gate,” originally part of chapter 21, where Mark Twain describes Italian scenery. Harte commented in the margin “apropos des bottes” (that is, apropos of nothing) and Mark Twain took it out. He tried again, in 1882, to weave this anecdote into Life on the Mississippi, and was again advised to take it out, which he did. That later version has been published, but “The Devil’s Gate” has not.

  “The Undertaker’s Tale” stands out here as something Mark Twain had tested (unfavorably) against his own personal “focus group.” He seems to have been slow to grasp exactly why it failed, or even to agree that it did fail. The basic idea, also quite modern (think �
��Six Feet Under”), was to throw a typical Horatio Alger hero into a family of undertakers (ladies and gentlemen, meet the Cadaver family) and then let the formulaic story work itself out. Paine reminds us that during the summer months Mark Twain typically spent the day writing, up on a hill above the family home in Elmira, at the end of which he descended and read aloud his day’s work to the family:

  Once, when for a day he put aside other matters to record a young undertaker’s love-affair, and brought down the result in the evening, fairly bubbling with the joy of it, he met with a surprise. The tale was a ghastly burlesque, its humor of the most disheartening, unsavory sort. No one spoke during the reading, nobody laughed. The air was thick with disapproval. His voice lagged and faltered toward the end. When he finished there was heavy silence. Mrs. Clemens was the only one who could speak. “Youth, let’s walk a little,” she said.

  A few weeks later Mark Twain asked his friend William Dean Howells to “tell me what is the trouble with it.” We don’t know what Howells told him, but Mark Twain obviously did not throw the manuscript away. It is published in full for the first time here, and very possibly for the first audience capable of appreciating its humor as the author intended.

  “Happy Memories of the Dental Chair” is manifestly autobiographical, and possibly incomplete—a report of his first encounter with a dentist, but in this case a rather extraordinary one: John Mankey Riggs of Hartford, who gave his name to Riggs’s Disease (what your dentist would call “pyorrhea”). Mark Twain is here characteristically fascinated by technical procedures, including Riggs’s part in the discovery and use of anesthetic: “an event of such vast influence, magnitude, importance, that one may truly say it hardly has its equal in human history.” Much as he admires Riggs for his part in that discovery, he also has him squarely in his sights: “He was gray and venerable, and humane of aspect; but he had the calm, possessed, surgical look of a man who could endure pain in another person.” Riggs died in 1885, shortly after this sketch was written, and that may have been partly why Mark Twain did not publish it.