Tuesday, October 30, 2012

As long and tedious as it should be useless to me - Mark Twain's anti-fiction

So what was the youthful, vigorous Mark Twain doing with his time?

In San Francisco the men of ‘The Call’ told me many legends of Mark’s apprenticeship in their paper five-and-twenty years ago; how he was a reporter delightfully  incapable of reporting according to the needs of the day.  He preferred, so they said, to coil himself into a heap and meditate until the last minute.  Then he would produce copy bearing no sort of relationship to his legitimate work – copy that made his editor swear horribly, and the readers of ‘The Call’ ask for more.

With a few modifications, this is a passable description of the composition of Wuthering Expectations – “coil himself into a heap” is uncannily accurate.  This comes from the end of Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 “An Interview with Mark Twain” which can be found in The Portable Kipling (1982).  I did not know this interview existed when I wrote yesterday’s piece.  Such are the vicissitudes of amateur criticism.

Despite the plain fact that everything Twain wrote was pure invention, he was not really writing fiction for the first couple of decades of his career.  I had wondered why his first novel or half-novel (he co-wrote it), The Gilded Age (1873) was so mediocre (I am being charitable), given how much he had written (he was 38 when it came out), but now I see the problem.  By 1869, at least – that is as far as I have gotten, and I am relying entirely on the mercy of the editor of the Library of America collection – he had hardly written any ordinarily coherent short fiction as such, but rather a mess of parodies, squibs, jokes, nonsense and anti-stories.  The editor gives by far the most space to 1870 – I suppose that year is full of fiction with characters and plots and insights and the usual stuff.

By anti-stories, I mean something like Twain’s single most famous story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (1865), which in many ways walks and quacks like a short story, a “tale,” with a narrator reporting a story about a frontier prank and chastened hubris he heard from a fellow named Simon Wheeler.  Except the narrator, Twain, actually begins the story with a letter to his editor.  He accuses the editor of playing a prank on him, sending Twain to Wheeler just to cause aggravation:

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.

Twain is even careful to tell me exactly how to imagine I am hearing the story:  “He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the quiet, gently-flowing key to which he turned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm…”  In other words, Twain tells me how to ruin the story; he takes a number of steps to destroy his own story before it begins.

And soon the tale is reprinted all over the country and Twain is at least slightly famous and it remains his best known short piece, which only improves the joke.

All right.  I have uncoiled from my heap.  Let me post this thing.


  1. You appear, sir, to be implying that there are people who plan, draft and revise these internet weblog post things. That's crazy talk.

    Maybe he never did real reporting, but one thing I like about much Twain is the tone of reportage used. Though maybe the tone of a reporter isn't so different from the tone of a teller of tall tales. I'll have to think about that one.

    I like the image of Kipling interviewing Twain. Kipling was 34 and Twain was 64. I found an article from the NYT Saturday Review of Books and Art (July 17, 1897) that claims Kipling had replaced Twain as the master of "masculine fiction" because Twain, in his old age, had gone soft and romantic.

  2. Kipling was 24, actually. He was a phenomenon.

    That tone of reportage - exactly, that is part of what Kipling borrows or adapts from Twain. It serves his tales as well as Twain's nonsense.

    "Masculine fiction," huh? I guess Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896) was too gooey for the NYT critic.