Wednesday, January 11, 2017

for we came to believe that it had a soul and that it was in hell - Mark Twain's The Devil's Race-Track

The Devil’s Race-Track: Mark Twain’s Great Dark Writings, University of California Press, 1980, and how can you resist a book that tells you right in the title that the contents are great?  It’s a sure thing.

Personally, I thought the contents were varied in quality – varied in “dark,” too – but absolutely fascinating.  The book consists entirely of writing from a narrow period (1896-1908) unpublished by Twain, sometimes because of its irreligious content, often because the piece was unfinished, and if it was unfinished it was likely because Twain had written himself into a dark, weird corner.

The book is a way to see Twain’s mind at work during a period of crisis.  Twain had gone bankrupt, and while on a worldwide lecture tour to recover his fortune, his daughter, at home in Hartford, died of spinal meningitis.  Twain’s wife began to suffer from serious health problems and would die in 1904.  Twain was never exactly a ray of sunshine, but one result of his suffering was this body of savage, angry, fearful unpublished writing.

The core of the book is a series of linked, unfinished, symbolically charged writings in which Twain keeps returning to stories he doesn’t know how, or doesn’t want, to finish.  A beloved dog alerts a ship’s crew that the ship is on fire, saving them, but the captain leaves the dog behind to die.  A ship becomes trapped in an endless current, The Devil’s Race-Track, and somehow escapes only to find itself in an area of perfect calm, “a trap; and that trap was the Everlasting Sunday” (“The Enchanted Sea-Wilderness,” 34).  The compass not only does not work, but

acted like a frightened thing, a thing in frantic fear for its life.  And so we got afraid of it, and could not bear to look at its distress and its helpless struggles; for we came to believe that it had a soul and that it was in hell.  (34-5)

That is dark, and quite strange.

A father experiences great success, or else catastrophe – a house destroyed by fire, a bankruptcy – one of which is real, one a dream.  “Which Was the Dream?” is the title of that one.

Another endless sea voyage in “The Great Dark,” this time across a microscope slide, the ship constantly threatened by microscopic monstrosities.  The characters vaguely remember a different life, perhaps a dream life, in which they were regular people, on shore, perhaps looking into a microscope.

Almost a third of the book is filled by “Three Thousand Years among the Microbes.”  The narrator is transformed by a magician “into a cholera-germ when he was trying to turn me into a bird” (?) so he spends the next three thousand years (germ years, not human) in the body of the tramp Blitzkowski.  The result is something like Twain humor mixed with Calvino’s Cosmicomics:

I often think of a talk I once had upon some of these things with a friend of mine, a renowned specialist by the name of Bblbgxw, a name which I have to modify to Benjamin Franklin because it is so difficult for me to pronounce that combination right; but that is near enough anyway, because when a foreigner pronounces it it always sounds a little like Franklin, when it doesn’t sound like Smith.  (176)

Bblbgxw is a yellow-fever germ.  That tramp is in rough shape.  But in the end, it is fiction about entropy, ending – or never ending – in the Devil’s Race-Track or Everlasting Sunday, unfinished, unfinishable, sad metaphors for the writer who works through his grief in the only way he knows.


  1. Given the Twilight Zone-like nature of what you've showcased here, a most well-chosen title for this dark greatness whatever the actual quality. Not quite the Twain I remember but attention grabbing nonetheless.

  2. This has been a surprise to me, too. I knew about Twain's irreligious writing, but not this weird stuff. Twilight Zone describes some of it pretty well, episodes written by a screenwriter working through some personal tragedy,

  3. Thanks so much for posting on this. I saw this years ago and read a sample and it must have been one of the "off" pieces. I should have given it more of a chance, and hope to do so soon. For some of the irreligious stuff, Twain could definitely take the pulpit.

  4. Well, it's by nature a hodgepodge. This book is actually a compilation drawn from two much longer books of unpublished Twain. Even more fragmented, peculiar stuff in those, I assume, more shadowy, abandoned ideas.