Review: Mark Twain’s short stories stand the test of time
The Complete Short Stories
Introduction by Adam Gopnik
Everyman’s Library: 716 pp., $28
Mark Twain was on the lecture circuit for over three decades. He would take the stage feigning bemusement at discovering his audience and stand silently smoking one of the 30 cigars he would enjoy that day. He was a solitary performer working in dusty, drafty, dimly lit halls, sans audio equipment, Twain knew every trick to keep his audiences engaged. His delivery, emotion, intelligence and humor would bring crowds to their feet. The power was in his voice and that doesn’t imply high volume, but his expressed genius.
“The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain” published in a new edition this month by the Everyman’s Library, is reminiscent of Twain in performance. He is talking directly to you and determined to keep you entertained.
While there are no previously unpublished stories in this edition, there are well-known riches. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s misguided assertions in his introduction to this volume aside, Twain was a master at the short story. With his carefully developed plots, delightful, unexpected conclusions and his distinctive voice bell-like in its clarity, his shorter works were more tightly crafted than his novels.
In his longer works he was prone at times to either questionable elaborations, the ending of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which scholars are still arguing about comes to mind, or he simply ran out of energy and left incomplete manuscripts — “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and “Those Extraordinary Twins” are two examples. This collection, since it provides his entire oeuvre, offers the interested reader insight into Twain’s growth not just in terms of his craft but his sophistication as a satirist as well.
Certainly at this juncture in America’s literary journey there is no need to expound upon why Twain is one of our greatest writers. We should simply recall Hemingway’s pronouncement regarding Missouri’s favorite son: “The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in.”
What might be best then is to road test Twain, so to speak, under current operating conditions to see how well his prose and wit stand up to our multi-tasking, multi-social media, multi-distracted world. To that end the 60 stories ranging from Twain’s first hit, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” to his unfinished novel, “The Mysterious Stranger,” in this edition were read by this reviewer in various locations throughout Los Angeles County both silently as well as out loud.
Ever the control freak, Twain thoughtfully provided instructions for interacting with his prose: “It is so unsatisfactory to read a noble passage and have no one you love at hand to share the happiness with you. And it is unsatisfactory to read to one’s self anyhow — for the uttered voice so heightens the expression.” Thus, let the experiment begin.
First stop, a couch in Claremont on a weekday evening. With a busy cat kneading away on a blanket and an impatient, distracted teenager who lives to text his friends sitting in a nearby easy chair, a random opening turns to “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868). Hysterically funny, this trenchant commentary about the culture of “Congressional affairs” features a delicious riposte of parliamentary procedure. The conclusion arrives with Twain’s trademark snapper where the reader is left with a conundrum of deciding whether the former Congressman is a babbling lunatic or a bloodthirsty cannibal. Either possibility comes replete with its own rich satiric implications. Read aloud, Twain best holds the 16-year-old’s attention when the bodies start disappearing and the possible implications are realized.
A late spring day on the beach in Malibu. Plopping down on the sand with crying seagulls overhead, “A Ghost Story” (1888) is the day’s selection. Every scary, gothic cliche imaginable is employed to tell the tale. An abandoned building in Manhattan, a dark and stormy night, cobwebs in the face, invisible fingers tugging down the blankets, heavy footsteps — enough prompts for an entire Tim Burton film. Then the joke arrives when the terrified boarder tells the ghost of the Cardiff Giant, a.k.a. the Petrified Man, who is on display in the museum across across the street: “Why you blundering old fossil, you have had all your trouble for nothing — you have been haunting a plaster cast of yourself. . . .” In short, the ghost should have been in Albany where the “real” Petrified Man was kept. There is, though, the double joke for readers in the know. The petrified man in Albany was a fake as well, and Twain’s entire story is a tall tale based on a real hoax.
The ultimate test is reading Twain while sick. Hacking away with bronchitis while visiting a friend in Santa Monica, sipping hot tea in bed with a snoring English bulldog, turning to “The Diary of Adam and Eve” (1893, 1905). If a short story can also be a love poem then the perfect instance is found here. Completed the year after the death of his wife Olivia, Twain is at his best, moving, funny and wise. He concludes the story with the beautifully sentimental line: “Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.” This prose perfection, and this is no tall tale, actually had a healing effect upon the reader. Living in an age of relationship and marriage interruptus, this gently humorous paean to love is comforting to the world-weary reader who would like to imagine that such possibilities might just still exist.
Finally, the publication of this new edition prompts the obvious question: “Do we really need another edition of previously published short stories by Mark Twain?” Certainly there is no danger of running out of the plethora of collections already in print and with the nagging helpfulness of cyberspace, such sites as mtwain.com provide links to his short stories and novels 24/7.
For those who love the heft and feel of books, the choice of a physical specimen is a conscious salute to tactile pleasures. And as Twain noted, books can serve purposes for which they may not have been necessarily designed: “A big leather-bound volume makes an ideal razor strap. A thin book is useful to stick under a table with a broken caster to steady it. A large, flat atlas can be used to cover a window with a broken pane. And a thick, old-fashioned heavy book with a clasp is the finest thing in the world to throw at a noisy cat.”
“The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain” makes a perfect literary companion under all conditions. And there is the value added bonus of which the author would approve, the book can also be used as a handy doorstop or charcuterie platter. So bon appétit!
Skandera Trombley’s most recent book is “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years.” She is the president of Pitzer College.
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