Paging through Twain’s humor columns reminds me how hard they are to remember. They are throwaways, time-killers, desperate ideas pounded into comedy often by means of a single line. What I am doing here is thinking about Twain sitting at his desk in Buffalo or Hartford, trying to Be Funny. I doubt anyone was ever so successful at the task for so long, but the strain is visible once I look for it, as is the mystery of humor.
Luckily, Twain repeats himself. Lucky for him, lucky for me. He is so angered by the idea of a “temporary insanity” defense that he mocks it again and again. He loves nonsensical descriptions of women’s clothes, parodying the fashion items in the newspaper. He invents the McWilliams family, where the wife is paranoid and the husband henpecked, whether the problem is lightning, burglars, or the “membranous croup.” These stories always have a happy ending. “Hence the tide of our days flows by in deep and untroubled serenity.”
Has there ever been an American humor columnist who has not declared that he is running for President?
The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice? (“A Presidential Candidate,” 1879)
Then there are the improving books for boys. Twain is driven to distraction by the transparent falsity of the improving books for boys. Thus “The Bad Little Boy Who Did Not Come to Grief,” “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (1870) and many more, including “Poor Little Stephen Girard” (1873) which is not even by Mark Twain! Yet there it is on p. 547 of the Library of America collection! But is so much like this Twain specialty that the confusion is almost necessary.
Thus perished the good little boy who did the best he could, but didn’t come out according to the books. Every boy who ever did as he did prospered, except him. His case is truly remarkable. It will probably never be accounted for.
It occurs to me that beginning with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876 Twain launched on his own series of improving books for boys wherein bad boys prosper and good boys are not demolished in nitro-glycerin accidents like the good boy just above, which relatively speaking is a kind of prospering. My point is that Twain had been worked up about boys’ books for fifteen years before deciding to solve the problem directly.
This has been random. I am so indecisive – write about what is good, or what is dull, or what is new. Look at “A Telephonic Conversation” (1880). Look at the comic form that Twain invents, or so I suppose.
What did you say?
Oh no, I don’t think it was.
No! Oh, no, I didn’t mean that. I meant, put it in while it is still boiling, - or just before it comes to a boil.
I turned it over with a back stitch on the selvage edge.
Yes, I like that way, too; but I think it's better to baste it on with Valenciennes or bombazine, or something of that sort. It gives it such a air, - and attracts so much notice.
It's forty-ninth Deuteronomy, sixty-fourth to ninety-seventh inclusive. I think we ought all to read it often.
Perhaps so; I generally use a hair-pin.
Etc. etc. etc., or as many etc. as three pages requires. The “overheard on the phone” piece written today in imitation of Twain would be set on the subway or in a coffee shop.
So what I think I am trying to show here is Twain as a comedian. Not that I did not find these bits funny, but tomorrow I will pick some pieces where Twain outdoes not just other comedians, but himself.