Variations on my favorite Mark Twain joke – the ur-joke – all from Roughing It (1872):
This was the most faultless piece of road in the mountains, and the driver said he would “let his team out.” He did, and if the Pacific express trains whiz through there now any faster that we did then in the stage-coach, I envy the passengers the exhilaration of it. We fairly seemed to pick up our wheels and fly – and the mail matter was lifted up free from everything and held in solution! I am not given to exaggeration, and when I say a thing I mean it. (Ch. 12)
And they tell of a native diver who went down in thirty or forty-foot waters and brought up an anvil! I think he swallowed the anvil afterward, if my memory serves me. However I will not urge the point. (Ch. 72)
A white man cannot drink the water of Mono Lake, for it is nearly pure lye. It is said that the Indians in the vicinity drink it sometimes, though. It is not improbable, for they are among the purest liars I ever saw. [There will be no additional charge for this joke, except to parties requiring an explanation of it. This joke has received high commendation from some of the ablest minds of the age.] (Ch. 38)
Roughing It is nominally a memoir. Much of it is in fact a memoir, describing Twain’s life in the Nevada silver-mining country only a decade earlier. He did, in fact, take the mail coach from St. Joseph to Carson City, Nevada; he did, in fact, visit the saline Mono Lake, which he describes in detail with some accuracy. But everything is material for a joke, at the least, and I believe I have given here a couple of examples of the least of Twains’ jokes, which is why he urges the point while insisting that he is not. The commentary on the jokes, the insistence that they are not jokes – or that they are – is funnier than the jokes themselves.
The paradox of Twain’s travel writing is that contains a great deal of travel writing, as if Twain were a journalist producing material according to the professional standard of his time. His travel writing as such is written much like that of many other professional writers of his time, and thus at times a little on the dull side. His visit to the interior of an active volcano is interesting – volcanoes are interesting – but there is not much Mark Twain in it. It is when he tires of his own account that Twain returns, as when he describes the prowess of Hawaiian divers, tells someone else’s story that perhaps goes too far, and decides he has to top it. See above, second example.
The Stolen Elephant includes a seventy page account of a pleasure trip to Bermuda (“Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion”) that kills off close to half of its pages with the trip to the island, including a recurring joke about a young man “(who, by a sort of kindly common consent, had come latterly to be referred to as ‘the Ass’)” who does not understand humor. The final ten pages have nothing to do with Bermuda at all, but contain “The Invalid’s Story,” a tasteless, overly long, and funny story about nitwits mistaking Limburger cheese for a rotting corpse. A footnote reads “Left out of these ‘Rambling Notes, when originally published in the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ because it was feared that the story was not true, and at that time there was no way of proving that it was not. – M. T.”
There we go, that is Mark Twain.