Monday, May 7, 2012

A Murder, A Mystery, and a Marriage (1876*)

     There are those who have a deep and abiding love of Mark Twain as a hateful, mean-spirited critic of humanity.  I am not one of them.  I did not have much familiarity with Twain before embarking on the Reading Projects – I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1976) in the 5th grade and a handful of his essays before reading 11 short stories and two novels (this includes re-reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) – outside of his quips on American politics popping up in various TV shows and documentaries I had seen.  I have more affection for the Twain who didn't hate humanity than the one who has been canonized as the patron saint of curmudgeons.  (When I get more familiar with H.L. Mencken, I can reassess which one really deserves the title.)
     The best part about A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage (written in 1876 but not published until 2001) is not the bare bones story that Twain wrote.  It is passable, easily recognizable as Twain but caught somewhere in between the hope and promise of his earlier works and the nastiness that would come to characterize his more mature works.  But Peter de Sère's artwork does much to soften the darker impulses Twain had a mind to impart to his story, helping keep the experience light and the story fun.  Until the end (more on that later).  No, the best part about the book is the short history of Twain and 1876 provided by Roy Blount, Jr. – how Twain's writing forever changed after the election of Rutherford B. Hayes (and the resulting corrupt administration).
     I am sure that anyone who has bothered to do any research on Twain is well aware that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was written in two sections, with an eight year break between them.  In my mind, this time accounts for the break from the well-written, worthwhile, deeply affecting first third (maybe a little longer) of the book – the part of the book that warrants consideration amongst the best American novels ever written – and the hateful, bitter, let's forget that Tom Sawyer was a kickass character and make him a spoiled dick who wants to abuse a slave for sport majority of the book that starts when the Duke and the King hop aboard the raft.  Anyway, I was not aware that there was a large break, nor that the style difference is one that is easy to trace as Twain's opinion of his country is transformed in the wake of 1876.  Blount does a great job of condensing the history of Twain while keeping it very interesting.
     As for the actual story, it really is a 'skeleton of a novel' more than a novella or short story.  It also, unfortunately, works towards an unprovoked attack on Jules Verne (Twain and Blount both mistake Verne as the father of Science Fiction and of balloon tales).  There is not enough meat to the story for it to merit its own book except that it wasn't allowed to be published for...well, almost forever.  But I am more enthusiastic about the background material on the story – Twain's effort to get multiple writers to write different versions of the same concept of a story – and the man than what ends up being his polemic against Verne.

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