Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I abhor the implication that Mark Twain stories are a haven for cannibalism

In what passes for an idea at Wuthering Expectations, I browsed through a book titled The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, Doubleday, 1957, 676 pp., ed. Charles Neider.  Complete­­ – that’ll answer my question about Twain and short stories, won't it?  Since I have decided that 1869 would be a good, entirely non-arbitrary, completely justifiable place to stop reading Twain in the first Library of America Tales and Sketches volume, I am covering about 30% of Twain’s amazingly long career, and about a sixth (17%) of the total Library of America pages.  That earlier editor had to decide exactly what was a “short story” and what was not.  He picked six “short stories” from 1869 or earlier, filling about eight percent of his pages.

To recap: in the first 30% of Twain’s career, he produced 17% of his important \ best \ whatever short pieces, and 8% of his total short story page count.  So almost all of the short stories as such come later, maybe much later in Twain’s life.

As I argued yesterday, even the stories that look like stories are not so story-like.  Take “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868), part of that 8%.  At a train station in Terre Haute, Indiana, Twain meets a “mild, benevolent-looking gentleman” who eventually reveals “a secret chapter of my life.”  He was once on a train car that was trapped by a blizzard for so many days that the men resolve to justify the title of the story.  This takes about three pages of nine:  the frame, the blizzard, the starvation.  I do not believe these pages contain a single joke or other humorous element, and that is before we get to the grim matter of the cannibalism, which is introduced like this:

"Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer!  The time is at hand!  We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!”

MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: “Gentlemen – I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.”

MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: “I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.”

MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: “I nominate Mr. Samuel A.  Bowen of St. Louis.”

Suddenly the story, which is supposedly being spoken, is in the form of minutes.  As this sort of thing continues:

The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course.  The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs.  Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.

I say, as this continued I began to suspect that this billet doux of Twain’s had about as much relation to Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro as does a Monty Python skit (“As a naval officer I abhor the implication that the Royal Navy is a haven for cannibalism”).  It’s funny, though:

MR. MORGAN (excitedly): “Mr.  Chairman – I do most strenuously object to this amendment.  The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone – not in flesh.  I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance?"

Twain loses his nerve at the end, making a vague and cowardly gesture towards meaning, just in case any of his weak-livered readers found that the horror of cannibalism outweighed the laughs of an unlikely use of Robert’s Rules of Order.

You may be thinking, is that not more or less what I wrote about yesterday?  No, no, I have just made a very subtle transition.


  1. Ironically, I believe it was Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" and not this Twain short story that was banned for being deemed "too cannibalistic." Great post title, by the way.

  2. Moral standards were much lower in Twain's times, as his writing repeatedly demonstrates.

  3. What, are we going to talk about meaning now? Or are you going to compare Twain's development with Chekhov's. That might be interesting, since Chekhov wrote all those faux news not-quite stories when he was starting off. I eagerly anticipate your charts and graphs. Or have you stumbled across the key which unlocks the hidden story inside Robert's Rules of Order? It's actually a romance, isn't it?

  4. Meaning as a structural element, yes, as a typical component of the conventional short story. Not actual meaning.

    A joke has the freedom to dispense with meaning, or perhaps to have no more meaning than something like "clever people can do surprising things with language" or "surprises can be funny for some reason."

    Chekhov v Twain is not bad. Chekhov immediately entered the strange world of newspaper fiction - strange to me, although it still exists in some parts of the world - so even his sketches have a cloudy resemblance to what I think of as short stories. No one is beat up by Irish Indians and thrown over Niagara Falls ("Niagara Fall," 1869, "However, thus far [the doctor] thinks only six of my wounds are fatal. I don't mind the others.")