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The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain

Mark Twain


  Title Page



  A Note on the Text


  The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

  The Story of the Bad Little Boy

  Cannibalism in the Cars

  A Day at Niagara

  Legend of the Capitoline Venus

  Journalism in Tennessee

  A Curious Dream

  The Facts in the Great Beef Contract

  How I Edited an Agricultural Paper

  A Medieval Romance

  My Watch

  Political Economy

  Science vs. Luck

  The Story of the Good Little Boy

  Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral

  The Story of the Old Ram

  Tom Quartz

  A Trial

  The Trials of Simon Erickson

  A True Story

  Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup

  Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls

  The Canvasser’s Tale

  The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton

  Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale

  The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s

  Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning

  What Stumped the Bluejays

  A Curious Experience

  The Invalid’s Story

  The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm

  The Stolen White Elephant

  A Burning Brand

  A Dying Man’s Confession

  The Professor’s Yarn

  A Ghost Story


  Playing Courier

  The Californian’s Tale

  The Diary of Adam and Eve

  The Esquimau Maiden’s Romance

  Is He Living or Is He Dead?

  The £1,000,000 Bank-Note

  Cecil Rhodes and the Shark

  The Joke That Made Ed’s Fortune

  A Story Without an End

  The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

  The Death Disk

  Two Little Tales

  The Belated Russian Passport

  A Double-Barreled Detective Story

  The Five Boons of Life

  Was It Heaven? Or Hell?

  A Dog’s Tale

  The $30,000 Bequest

  A Horse’s Tale

  Hunting the Deceitful Turkey

  Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven

  A Fable

  The Mysterious Stranger

  About the Author

  Ask your bookseller for more Bantam Classics

  Copyright Page

  For Hanna and Colin Palmerston


  I wish to express my gratitude to Harper & Brothers and to the Mark Twain Estate, without whose cooperation it would not have been possible to publish this volume. I owe particular thanks to Mr. Frank MacGregor of Harpers and to Mr. Henry Nash Smith of the University of California (Berkeley) for courtesies extended to me.



  The present volume contains a total of sixty stories, thirteen of them gathered from works of non-fiction. They cover the entire span of Twain’s published works, from 1865 to 1916, six years after his death. The text is that of the Stormfield Edition of Twain’s Works, published in 1929 by Harper & Brothers in thirty-seven volumes. The stories are arranged chronologically according to the years of first publication, and alphabetically within a given year whenever more than one story was published within that year.

  “A Cure for the Blues” is an example of a short piece which I did not include. It is a sort of burlesque book review, with none of the usual attributes of a story. “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” is another example. It is a piece of reminiscence which comes close to being autobiography and again is clearly something other than a short story.



  NOT LONG ago I happened to be reading Mark Twain’s Roughing It, when I was piqued by his habit of inserting yarns of pure fiction in a non-fictional work, yarns tossed in just because they were good ones which he had in his head at the time. I counted five yarns or stories in Roughing It and wondered if there were others in some of his other non-fictional books. Sure enough, there were: two in A Tramp Abroad, three in Life on the Mississippi, and three in Following the Equator. “What a curious habit!” I thought. But Twain is full of curious habits, both personal and literary, and you either love him or you don’t, regardless. I do. It is just his unconventionality, as a literary figure as well as a man, which makes him so appealing to those who like him.

  “Strictly speaking, however, these yarns don’t belong in the books which house them,” I thought. “They belong with his other tales, the stories which are plainly recognized as such. They ought to be included in his collected stories. Let’s see if they are.” And so I went across the street to the Columbia University library, where I discovered, to my surprise, that his stories had never been put together apart from essays, anecdotes, and the like.

  Here is a man, a very great man, a national monument, you might say, who has been dead these forty-odd years without having had his stories collected, when lesser men, just recently dead, or still living, have had that mark of honor offered them by the publishing world and the public. Why? Is it because he is not a good writer of stories? But he is acknowledged to have written some great stories and I believe it is generally conceded that as a story writer he is among our best. Is it because his output was so large, varied, and popular that his stories have been overshadowed—by the novels and travel books? Or is it because he is not a formalist and did not himself publish his short stories purely as such?

  During his lifetime his stories appeared in volumes which I can only call hodgepodge, containing as they did anecdotes, jokes, letters, essays—all sorts of serious and humorous non-fiction along with the fiction. Twain was a man who was very easy-going about border lines. Some of his short pieces fluctuate between fiction and fact. And he was a fellow who had very definite notions about the appeal of the grab bag. When he was a publisher himself he got William Dean Howells, his friend, to edit a collection of accounts of true adventure. Howells put the pieces together according to a scheme, and after Twain had looked at it he gently advised Howells to mix the things up, give them variety, so that the reader might be surprised. A formal scheme was about as appealing to him as a tight collar. This differed considerably from the French notions popular at the time and popular today. Perhaps it is his unconventionality, his insistence on formlessness, which has left his stories in the lurch.

  Twain was not unconscious of his formlessness. Whether he was rationalizing some literary defect or not when he was defending it, I do not know. I know he had a philosophy about it. Six years before his death, when he was dictating fragments of his autobiography, he felt impelled to explain the practice of dictation. His explanation illuminates his general writing beliefs.

  Within the last eight or ten years I have made several attempts to do the autobiography in one way or another with a pen, but the result was not satisfactory; it was too literary. With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every bowlder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken, but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and someti
mes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around, and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important, so that the trip is made.

  With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gait and style and movement are not suited to narrative. That canal stream is always reflecting; it is its nature, it can’t help it. Its slick shiny surface is interested in everything it passes along the banks—cows, foliage, flowers, everything. And so it wastes a lot of time in reflections.

  In almost any other writer’s work it is easy to say, “This is a short story, whereas that is not.” Take the cases of Joyce, Mann, James, Hemingway, Kafka, Lawrence. There is no hesitation about it: a short story belongs to a particular genre and has a relation to the whole of fictional writing in the same way that a water color has to the whole of painting, or a song to the whole of composition. Even in Chekhov it is easy to say what is a short story and what is not. I say “even” because his stories are so gentle in their shading, so clearly lacking in formalism (although not in form), that he of all the writers mentioned might cause some trouble in this respect. But in Twain’s case it is quite another matter. I have the sense that Twain wrote primarily to satisfy an audience rather than the requirements of a genre. Whatever came to mind that aided his cause was grist for his mill. This is why we find sketches in which it is not possible to distinguish between fiction and fact.

  He rarely bothered about the niceties of fiction. Fiction has a tone all its own, which the literary artist reveres. For him it is in a special sense greater than reality; it shapes reality, controls it. It is inconceivable to think of a James or a Flaubert inserting raw material, untransmuted, unmodulated, into his fictions. For Mark Twain such problems were beside the point. He simply disregarded them, although he was quite aware of them, a great deal more aware than he was accustomed to admit. Twain had enough of the frontier spirit to dislike “form.” Form was likely to be something eastern; or if not eastern then something worse: European. Henry James went to Europe to seek form, to saturate himself in it, the form of old societies, old art, old manners and buildings. Twain went to Europe to poke fun at it and to make us laugh. The product of the frontier thought he could see where form was growing hollow and becoming a fraud.

  Whatever a short story may be—and this is not the place to attempt to say exactly what it is or should be—we can say with some assurance what it is not. It is not a fragment of autobiography or biography; it is not a report, unalloyed, of a historical event; it is not a joke or a hoax pure and simple; it is not a moral sermon, whether taken down from the pulpit or not; it is not, in short, any of the small bits of writing which used to be produced in the old West for newspaper and magazine fillers and of which Twain turned out a healthy share. A short story is something which, through the long process of evolution, has come to exist in and for itself. It has laws of its own, it is sovereign in its field. And it was already sovereign when Twain began to write.

  Twain had the artistic temperament without too much of the artistic conscience. His genius was essentially western, its strength the land, the people, their language and their humor. What he lacked was a studied eastern conscience to refine the great ore he mined. Perhaps such a conscience would have inhibited and eventually ruined him. Probably he knew best what was necessary for him. What he had, he had in great measure: the naked power of the man with the gift of gab. He knew what a yarn was, and what it was for, and what to do with it. He did not think that a good yarn needs prettifying, and he told it straight, without trimmings. His high jinks are remarkable—his love of mugging, of monologue, dialect, caricature. He is a great proponent of the tall story, piling details on until the story comes crashing down. At his best he is uproarious, and he is often at his best in his stories, as you will see.

  It has been said that his stories are an important part of our literary heritage. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to dispute this statement successfully, presuming one cared to try. They are also part of our folklore. Twain is our writer closest to folklore, our teller of fairy tales. The Jumping Frog story is a living American fairy tale, acted out annually in Calaveras County. Whatever may be its dim origins (it has been claimed to be close kin to an old Greek tale; but the latter probably descended from a Hindu one, and so on), it is now our story, mirroring something in us. “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is part of our moral heritage. A rebel American of the creative kind, Frank Lloyd Wright, has written to me that it is his favorite of all short stories. These tales, together with several others, among them “The $30,000 Bequest” and “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note,” have been anthologized many times. Others—tales of moral indignation such as “A Horse’s Tale,” and tales meant to shock, for example, “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” are no less powerful and important for being less popular. Who are our short-story writers? Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, James, Melville, O. Henry, Bret Harte, Hemingway, Faulkner, Porter—these are names which come to my mind without reflection, although my taste does not run to O. Henry and Harte, and finds much to quarrel with in Faulkner. Twain’s ranks high among them.

  Twain is a dangerous man to write about. Unless you approach him with a sense of humor you are lost. You cannot dissect a humorist upon a table. Your first stroke will kill him and make him a tragedian. You must come to Twain with a smile. That is his prerogative: that he can make you do so or fail. A great American critic wrote a study of Twain which was brilliant. The only trouble with it was he thought he was describing Twain, when all along he was describing somebody else—himself, probably. The critic did not have a sense of humor, and his error was comparable to that of the tone-deaf critic who wrote on Beethoven. God forbid that I should try to dissect Mark Twain. In Twain it is not the line-by-line detail which is great, nor the day-by-day life—it is the mass, the contour, and the fragrance of a personality. Who would want, here in this place, to try to dissect that? I shall just pursue a few thoughts briefly, and if I seem to be critical at times, let the reader remember I love the man this side of honesty.

  Twain poured his writing out in a stream, showering upon it all his gifts. Sometimes it carried everything before it but at others it failed naïvely. He was not the sort of versatile writer who is equally good at everything he puts his hand to. It is difficult to believe that he could have written fastidious travel essays like Hawthorne’s or the delicate, subtle criticism of James; yet at times he appeared to be attempting both. He carried a broadsword which he sometimes tried to use on butterflies. He wrote very rapidly and was as proud as a boy of his daily turnout. He did not strive for the polished effect—or, rather, he strived for it too seldom. When his mood changed he stopped writing and put a manuscript away, sometimes for years. He was not a good judge of his work. Being essentially a man of humor, he was rarely humorless regarding himself in relation to his work. He was unlike Flaubert and Proust and James in this respect. To be humorless regarding oneself—or at least regarding one’s work—can sometimes be a great advantage. To be well balanced does not guarantee better-grade work.

  There is, in a good deal of Twain’s writing—in the Hadleyburg story, for example—a kind of naïveté which one feels is literary, a sort of refusal to infuse prose with the sophistication of the mature man. This no doubt reflects in some measure an attitude Twain had to the act of writing and to the nature of his audience. Writing was not the whole man. It may have even been at times the lesser man; and the audience, one seems to perceive, like his family, was largely composed of women: naïve women, sheltered from the painful realities of a man’s world. The moral pressure in Twain’s work is generally considerable; but the purely literary, the aesthetic pressure is occasionally s
o low as to form only a trickle. This aesthetic pressure, impossible to define, is what is necessary to the creation of a work of art. In some cases it stems from moments of transcendent well-being, in others from the depths of frustration or despair; but whatever the causes, the pressure must be there, inside one, for the effect to be made. Too great a pressure may be as devastating to a work as too little, although writers like Twain are more likely to suffer from too little.

  In Twain’s case there is often something pleasant in even the lesser pages, precisely because of the low pressure: he is relaxed and his mood is infectious. Twain rarely tries to overreach himself, to strain after an effect of greatness. This lesson of being relaxed while writing, although a dangerous one for young writers, is an invaluable one for the mature ones. The right balance of pressure when one is about to sit down to work—one’s health, one’s relation to the material, one’s linguistic resilience at the moment, the play of one’s mind—is really what is called inspiration: the balance is everything: the container, which is one’s own complex state, must exactly suit the thing contained, which is the raw material about to be transfigured into art. It is a pity that Twain did not often take the pains to find the just balance for himself. But if he did not, he at least substituted another virtue. He says somewhere, wryly, that he had the habit of doing and of reflecting afterward. One contrasts this habit with an opposite one, the habit of reflecting to the point of disease, often found in the later works of Melville and James, as well as in portions of the works of Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust.

  Twain does not strive to be an artist—artiste, he probably would have called it with a grin. He would have felt more comfortable wearing the term journalist. He grew up a journalist, like Dickens, and was one of those hearty nineteenth-century scribblers who strayed into literature almost without realizing it. He had the journalist’s instinct, in the way Defoe had, and in the way Hawthorne and James did not. This is not necessarily a handicap in the creation of literature. In so far as it stimulates a sense of audience, a sense of common scene, and the use of native speech and lore—in so far, that is, that it inspires one to attempt a colloquy in common terms but with uncommon genius, it is a definite and rare gift. Its limitations are likely to be great also, the limitations of the known, and especially what is known to the particular group. Twain’s writing was almost always a means to an end. He had few impersonal objectives in mind in the way of form, experiment, texture, design. He had the common touch and knew it was a blessing. He was enriched by it and made world-famous.