Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The 2010 - 2011 Book Reading Project -- Part Four (Mark Twain)

     There is something to be said for good – and inexpensive – collections of short stories.  Sure, there is more weight and investment with a novel or lengthy play, but not every tale needs 100+ pages to make a point or illuminate a character.  Furthermore, one can really tally up a good count of works when they are both well written and brief.  As for me, I took on some level of challenge of reading some short stories over the course of the year as an easy means to expand the authorship to which I would be exposing myself.  And one of the authors who I didn't want to address at the novel level was Mark Twain.
     Go ahead and gasp; I'm not a huge Mark Twain fan.  I know that many regard him as the greatest American writer of his era – if not all time – but I used to think of him as a talented man who wrote stories accessible to children and reveled in the sarcastic comment in public.  Reading him as an adult – and I'm sure that giving The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) another read this year will give me a more balanced perspective as an author – I found him to be more full of bile and hatred than any stripe of cleverness.  This was an angry man, one who wasn't sending up people and institutions with biting wit but with borderline hatred.
     The Dover Thrift Edition book Humorous Stories and Sketches (part of a four book collection that checks in at $8) has eight Twain pieces: "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865; apparently this is the original title of the story), "Journalism in Tennessee" (1869), "About Barbers" (1871), "A Literary Nightmare" (1876), "The Stolen White Elephant" (1882), "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed" (1885), "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895), and "How to Tell a Story" (1895).  Of these, the only gem is "The Private History of a Campaign the Failed", in which Twain recounts – very colorfully and with quiet passion – his brief time as a Confederate soldier and what it was like to play at war.  It is soulful and insightful, but more than that it doesn't resort to cheap and hurtful attacks on others.  Twain turns his examination inward and writes a moving story about the threat of war being opposed to the fantasy of soldiering.
     Also included in the DTE box set is The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories.  It also contains "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865); one begins to wonder if Dover would include the story in all Twain books simply because it is the most celebrated of Twain's short stories.  Packaged with it are "The £1,000,000 Bank-Note" (1893), "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1900), and the unfinished – though controversially cobbled together from different manuscripts by Albert Bigelow Paine – "The Mysterious Stranger" (1916).  Anyone who has done any reading (or seen television or movies) will immediately recognize the notions behind both "The £1,000,000 Bank-Note" and "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg".  Even given that, Twain writes with enough personality and skill to make them seem original – which they largely were when he wrote them.  Filled with his intense dislike of humanity, the Hadleyburg story in particular evokes a worldview of learned pessimism.  Bad will always defeat good, not because "good is dumb" but rather because humanity is just so suited to be self-serving as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  As for "The Mysterious Stranger", if Twain had a point to make about Satan, it was lost on me.  He seemed more concerned with displaying the senselessness of trusting powers beyond our (individual) own in determining our respective fates.  It would seem that Twain had a bone to pick with God and decided that letting a partially sympathetic – yet ultimately unknowingly cruel – Satan run about the woods of central Europe represent that opposition.

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