Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Now what - Mark Twain, magazine writer

Although I do not doubt that I write better when I have some idea as to what I am writing about, I am always pleased to take a run at a book with no ideas whatsoever.  The original writer already did the real work.  If I scrounge around, like a coyote or an opossum I will surely find something.  And what if I have four books at hand – what riches!

The four books, all by Mark Twain, are:

Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, of which I read everything from 1870 through 1885, 550 pages out of 950, but I read 1852 through 1869 last year and wrote several posts begun with no predetermined notions, and you remember how those turned out.

Sketches, New and Old (1875), Twain’s first proper collection of the contents of the above, mostly humor pieces written for newspapers and magazines, mostly high-quality ephemera.  Lots of overlap with the Library of America book.  I read Elizabeth Conway’s copy.  Many thanks to Ms Conway.

The Stolen White Elephant Etc. (1882), more of the same except in some ways different.  My copy was the warmly appreciated gift of Mrs. Katherine Warthin.

Roughing It (1872), the other book about mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada published in 1872, except that Twain’s idea of geologizing consisted entirely of striking it rich with a silver mine.  He did, in fact, strike it rich, although a lot more slowly, by learning how to write tall tales and fabrications for frontier newspapers.

Not to obsess about pages, but an interesting feature of the Library of America book is that a single year, 1870, gets 18% of the pages and by far the most tales and sketches.  Given the book’s coverage the proportion should be more like two or three percent.  Twain has just had a hit with his first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), and was in demand as a newspaper and magazine writer, a humorist, a job he was able to do, apparently, from such outposts of civilization as Elmira and Buffalo, and this was before the internet, if you can believe that.

Twain was ambitious, and he hated Buffalo, if you can believe that, so soon enough the magazine writing became intermittent and the pieces often longer and something closer to short stories.  Twain’s fame as a lecturer grew to the point where he could publish his speeches.  And he wrote more books, first another travel book – that’s Roughing It – then a mediocre novel (The Gilded Age) followed by a series of adventure books for boys.  His art and thinking deepened.  He did not stay in Buffalo and become the Dave Barry of the Gilded Age.  He could have, though, if he were a bit less of a genius.

When I compared Alphonse Allais to Twain, I was thinking of the Twain of this period, Twain as a popular magazine humorist.  Like Allais at around the same age, he had perfected his voice and his shtick.  He knew what kinds of jokes suited him and which were funny when repeated – like all humor columnists, he was highly repetitive, but of course I was supposed to read his pieces a couple of times a month, not a hundred in a row like I did.

That ought to be enough to write about, at least.


  1. I keep meaning to immerse myself in Twain for a while, not to the same level as yourself, mind you. My recent reading of Miss Lonelyhearts had actually reminded me that I should read some Twain as he was so crucial to the development of American humour particularly the dead pan humour of the tall tale. West himself tried his hand at tall tales of a kind, cutting and pasting together stories from magazines to make new ones. Not very successfully, I believe.
    In the interim, your immersion will allow me to pretend to be knowledgeable ...

  2. Your few words about Twain may provoke me to do something I have held at arm's length for quite a while: read more by Twain. My previous encounters have included Huck Finn (over-rated), Pudd'nhead Wilson, The Mysterious Stranger (under-rated), and -- a long time ago -- Tom Sawyer.

    But first I want to reengage with and finish the Ron Power's biography of Twain; that will set the stage for reading Twain. I would also like to read MT's autobiography.

    Yet this suggests a couple of questions (i.e., it is my quirky habit always to include questions): do you read or avoid writers' biographies and/or autobiographies and memoirs? why?

  3. I am thinking of doing a real Twain immersion next year, knocking off the rest of the big ones, like Pudd'nhead Wilson and The Mysterious Stranger, that I haven't read.

    The humor writing is easy and pleasant immersion. It's popular entertainment of an earlier era. Some of it is dead, but much of it still entertains, even if a sometimes more mildly than it once did.

    West made cutup story collages? That is pretty funny.

    I read actual biographies rarely, but I read lots of reviews of biographies, and reviews of biographies are mostly article-length biographies with some vague reference to the book. So in a sense I read a lot of biographies of writers, just not in book-length form.

    The Library of America volumes all come with detailed timelines that are practically biographies. The Twain one is long and useful.

    Now, memoirs, like Roughing It, I do read as books. A few every year. Once in a while one of them turns out to be a great work of art.

  4. Postscript: And, Tom, consider this:
    All the best from Beyond Eastrod and the Gulf coast!

  5. Complete! I will bet that I will not read the complete Twain. Not even the complete novels, or complete travel books, or complete tales & sketches.

    The two Library of America volumes are a great service, though. I do want to have read through those someday. I have doubts that I will ever read The American Claimant, though, or Tom Sawyer, Detective. Who knows.

  6. The most enduring humorists find ways to vary their routines. Allais mixed in playlets, interviews with talking animals, literary parodies, verses, short stories, social satire, burlesque inventions. Benchley was equally adept at mock scientific talks, domestic sketches, parodies, and sheer nonsense. It must be a rough road.

    I'll be curious to hear what you think of "Pudd'nhead Wilson" and "The Mysterious Stranger." Both are favorites of mine: weird, rich, imaginative, and somewhat of a mess. "The Mysterious Stranger" is such a mess that he never finished it. It's rewarding, though.

    I've read "Tom Sawyer, Detective," which I didn't find particularly memorable. Coincidentally, I plan to read "The American Claimant" next week. I suspect I'll enjoy it.

    I sometimes enjoy bios of writers. Some writers make for more interesting bios than others. I recently read bios of Aleister Crowley (who had an extremely colorful life) and Lewis Carroll (who was weird, but led a pretty dull life).

  7. Inevitably I will do some murdering of Twain's humor by classifying his pieces. I think you are right about the rough road - it was a method of survival. Another column, another column, another column.

    I read and enjoy lots of biographies of fictional people, so maybe I should read more of non-fictional people.

  8. BTW, if you like weird writings by Twain, here is a recommendation: The Devil's Race Track: Mark Twain's Dark Writings - The Best from Which Was The Dream? and Fables of Man (Edited by John S. Tuckey; U of California P [1980]). I am especially fond of the cynical little essay from December 1905 - "Old Age." It is a mirror that taunts me. I will have more to say about Twain's "Old Age" in an upcoming post at Beyond Eastrod.

  9. That book sounds great. Just the side of Twain I ought to get to know better.

  10. I'll also recommend "Letters from the Earth," which is mostly Twain's anti-clerical diatribes. He was good at that. I fondly remember discovering it in my impressionable teen years.

    You fully appreciate Twain (and Allais) when you read some of their contemporaries. I've been dipping into Bill Nye and Eugene Field, and, although they can be funny and charming, they just don't have as much imagination. In France, Georges Courteline wrote funny stuff about soldiers and bureaucrats, but he also seems mild next to Allais.

  11. Letters from the Earth is in a sense a childhood book for me. My father had a copy. I remember looking through it - I was too young to really read it - as if it were a prohibited book, even though it was in no way prohibited. I should actually read the dang thing sometime.

    I guess that is part of what I like about literary history, the way that writers who like similar, like peers, in their own age separate as time passes.

  12. I had my own Twain marathon last week, lapping up three books from around 1892: "The American Claimant," "Merry Tales," and "The Million Pound Bank Note." None was top shelf Twain, although the collections have some fine stories among the puzzling filler (a play in German, extended mockery of an old medical dictionary, a description of Berlin, a comparison of old and new sea travel, extended mockery of an obscure novella, etc.)

    I do prefer Allais, although I think it may be partly an accident of birth. Twain was working in 19th century America, which was populist, sentimental, prudish, folksy, xenophobic, and religious, and Twain's work is often stained with those qualities. Allais's Paris was freer, smarter, and livelier all around.

    And oh, how the lovable, folksy, big-hearted, zany inventor Mulberry Sellers, in "The American Claimant," made me yearn for the ingenious and truculent Captain Cap!

  13. How fun. The writers have some techniques in common, but how different in temperament, or maybe I mean attitude.