Tuesday, June 28, 2016

the vision vanished away; we were prisoners in this dull planet again - Twain darkens

This piece is just one long, soulful, sardonic laugh at human life.  (from “About Play-acting,” 1898)

Mark Twain is describing a Viennese play, not his own writing circa 1898, but, well.  I have been enjoying the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891-1910, the writings from 1891 through 1898, to be specific.  Just one long laugh.  I don’t really know what Twain meant by “soulful.”

Some funny, funny stuff in this period, most famously that magnificent piece of literary spite “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895), but plenty of others.  I found “About All Kinds of Ships” to be a killer, from the title on down, but I will not insist on that opinion.  My kind of humor.

Behind the scenes, but visible to readers now – I wonder how visible to contemporary readers – Mark Twain was turning into Dark Twain.  A series of catastrophes, personal and financial, had struck Samuel Clemens, and he began to write more unpublishable pieces alongside his usual productions, with religious and political opinions unpalatable to the magazine audience.

So there is the “Extract from Adam’s Diary” (1893), on a religious subject but just a good comedy revue sketch, ready for Your Show of Shows:

The new creature eats too much fruit.  We are going to run short, most likely.

Many pages of the bit involve Adam trying to figure out what kind of a critter a baby might be – a fish, or maybe a kangaroo, or, eventually, a talking bear.  He never does learn where Eve gets them.

But a few years later he writes, just for himself, “Man’s Place in the Animal World” (1896, pub. 1962), in which he suggests a modification of Darwinism, replacing the Ascent of Man with “a new and truer” theory, “the Descent of Man.”

Man is the Religious Animal.  He is the only Religious Animal.  He is the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them.  He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.  He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.

I would not want to argue that any of Twain’s arguments are original; some of his jokes, yes.  He ends with the “grim suggestion: that we are not as important, perhaps, as we had all along supposed we were.”

“Which Was the Dream?” (1897, pub. 1966) contains some of the most boring passages I have ever come across in Twain.  He is suppressing his voice for conceptual reasons while he establishes the perfect life of his narrator – perfect career, wife, children, wealth – before destroying the first and last.  The title of the story suggests what is going to happen, that the preposterously ideal beginning – the war hero narrator is, for example, a Senator who is expected to be elected President of the United States as soon as he is old enough – will dissolve when the character wakes up.  No, not exactly.

I was in the room that had been set apart as a nursery, and was employed as usual at that hour of the evening – inventing a blood-curdling story for the children; a child seated on each arm of my chair, their feet in my lap, their elbows on their knees, their chins crutched in their plump hands, their eyes burning duskily through their falling cataracts of yellow hair and black.  For ten minutes I had been wandering with these two in a land far from this world; in the golden land of Romance, where all things are beautiful, and existence is a splendid dream, and care cannot come.  Then came the bray of the brazen horns, and the vision vanished away; we were prisoners in this dull planet again.

And this comes before the character is ruined.  Reading “Which was the Dream?” was like reading a hyperbolized version of Twain’s diary.  He was never at risk of being elected President, nor did he fall back to a log cabin, but he is working through his own crises in fiction here.  No need to publish it, but a strong need to write it.


  1. My I offer a thesis without evidence? Twain darkness is visible in almost all of his writing, but we recognize it more clearly in his later efforts. Even _Tom Sawyer_ has dark qualities. Perhaps there is a publishable paper lurking in that thesis for some young grad student. Better him or her than me. In any case, as almost always, I enjoyed reading and pondering your posting. Cheers!

  2. It must have been interesting in the 1960s, when Twain's unpublished works were finally published, in Letters from the Earth and The Devil's Racetrack and so on. But I don't know what the reaction was like.

    The Library of America collections just put every piece in its chronological place, the unpublished writings mixed in with the magazine pieces, which is great, but I have to check the notes to see what exactly I am reading.

  3. he was kind of hard on poor mr. cooper; i always liked his novels and i read a bunch of them at one time... besides, according to that last cited para quote thingy, twain admired fantasy just like c did, so i see i bit of hypocrisy there...

  4. Would you want Twain to be less hard on Cooper? It would spoil the joke. Comedians are only hypocrites when they don't go for the joke.

    The Cooper piece is a bank shot at, you guessed it, Walter Scott, but I figured everyone was sick of that subject.

  5. yes, you said that a couple months ago; i forgot... so much i don't know...

  6. Twain scores a few substantive hits on Cooper, but frankly not too many.

    It is a shame whenever people take Twain's piece as the last word on Cooper. It's a joke, ah say, a joke, son!