Thursday, March 23, 2017

old Twain - a list - because I believed in him and could not think he would deceive a mere boy

What was Mark Twain writing in his old age?  I have to make a list.  It is a complex subject.  He lost interest in books, but he wrote an immense amount of stuff.

I am thinking of approximately 1900 through 1910.  Twain has returned from his successful world tour (written up as Following the Equator, 1898) which make him a mountain of money.  But his daughter died, his wife was ill, his nation won a war and its leaders chose to become the kind of imperial power Twain so despised in Europe, and Twain was finding the limits of being the world’s most famous writer.

For my own sake, some categories:

1.  The so called “dark writings,” a series of dream narratives involving ships on endless journeys, dogs dying in fires, and strange microscopic worlds that look like attempts to cope with trauma.  I read a chunk of this material in a collection titled The Devil’s Race-Track, and wrote a bit about it.  The writing is rough, not just unfinished but unfinishable – stories about endless entrapment present narrative difficulties – but the imagery and vision are original.

2.  Similarly, Twain returned several times to a cluster of ideas that emerged posthumously as The Mysterious Stranger (1916) but can now be read in the three distinct manuscripts that were mashed together to create the “novel.”  In each case, a boyish Satan figure – Satan’s 44th son, or a nephew – comes to town and upends things with his magic powers and view that humans are a kind of animal.

3.  Twain becomes obsessed with Satan, “a sacred character, being mentioned in the Bible” (“The Chronicle of Young Satan,” Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, p. 41), and he becomes a frequent mouthpiece, a suitably distant observer of the follies of mankind.  Adam and Eve are also recurring figures.  Just as the “Mysterious Stranger” story is tied up with Twain’s Hannibal childhood, the satirical use of the Old Testament stories is a return to the Sunday school of sixty years previous.  The Sunday schools I attended in the 1970s do not sound much different that Twain’s from the 1840s.

As long as Twain did not get into sex, as in “Letters from the Earth” (1909), these stories were publishable.  Twain put a letter in Harper’s Weekly in 1905 in the voice of and signed by Satan (“A Humane Word from Satan”).

4.  Twain’s philosophy, most tediously expressed in What Is Man?, a Platonic dialogue about a purely deterministic universe.  This pamphlet, published anonymously, was dull but helpful, since it clearly states the metaphysical position that shows up everywhere in this period.  Reading this, I knew that Twain meant it.  Some of it.

5.  On the other hand, this is the time of Twain’s most active political involvement, writing scathingly and hilariously against American control of the Philippines, Christian missionaries in China, and the Belgian atrocities in the Congo.  All of this in public.  The pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule (1905) is a terrific piece of rhetoric, an inhumane word from a human Satan.

6.  “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), “The $30,000 Request” (1904) – stories about how money – the possibility of money – ruins lives.  Published in popular magazines, and again in best-selling collections.  Highly effective.  Abolished greed for a time.  Not sure what happened since.

7.  Did everyone else know about Twain’s Sherlock Holmes story, A Double Barreled Detective Story (1902)?  How did the copyright work?  Similarly curious is A Horse’s Tale (1906), much of it from the point of view of Buffalo Bill’s horse, a nasty shocker apparently designed to terrify children.

8.  Once in a while, Twain felt the urge to write a perfect, signature humor piece, just like in the old days.  Something like “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” (1906):

I followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of the United States one morning, because I believed in her and could not think she would deceive a mere boy, and one who was trusting her and considering her honest.

Maybe some kind of allegory in there.

I don’t know why anyone else would read this, but it was helpful to write.  I’ll poke at some of these over the next couple of days.


  1. In a lot of those late writings, Twain seems to have little or no control over his material. He's spinning out ideas in all directions, apparently unable to shape or direct them. He was always an intuitive writer, but his utter inability to discipline himself is kind of disturbing. What happened?

    The other big late project was his autobiography, another fascinating sprawling mess.

  2. Yes, the autobiography! Another project with lots of writing that, the way he did it, seems unfinishable by design.

    I am glad I am seeing roughly the same phenomenon as you. No control, exactly. In some of the "Mysterious Stranger" texts, I could almost see the point where Twain gets stuck. Something happened.

  3. Some of his books ("Connecticut Yankee" and "Puddn'head Wilson" particularly) started as light comic ideas that changed into something else, as Twain grappled with Carlyle, the French Revolution, his own repudiation of the Confederacy, slavery. He was right, in a way; those were more interesting subjects.

    He had been pretty disciplined with his Joan of Arc book, and was baffled that nobody thought it was his best work. Maybe part of his later confusion was that old conflict of wanting to tackle big subjects, but realizing readers wanted him to be funny. At any rate, there's some great stuff in all those unfinishable projects.

  4. The transformation-in-progress is a major part of how Twain wrote long works. Sometimes it results in Huckleberry Finn. But in this last decade the process was not working in a way that led to finished books.

    Maybe that does not matter. The Romantics - heck, the Greeks - got me used to reading fragments. A little archaeology can be a good thing - a stroll through the ruins.

  5. I'm of a mixed mind on King Leopold’s Soliloquy. Looking back on my notes (wow...almost a decade did that happen?), I note that its over-the-top approach didn't always resonate with me but I admired the buttons he was pushing since they would have connected with early 20th-century Americans.

    I just finished watching Ken Burns' documentary on Twain with my boys (for school) and I was happy to see how they connected with Twain.

  6. King Leopold's Soliloquy did not seem over-the-top to me. Given what was going on, it seemed if anything understated, which was, essentially, its punch line.

    I am glad you are corrupting the youth with Twain. How can people not like Twain? Not counting this late Twain, the one I have been reading, who is not exactly what I would want to call "likable."