Mark Twain’s “Legend of the Capitoline Venus”

It was an exquisite figure of a woman, and though sadly stained by the soil and the mold of ages, no eye can look unmoved upon its ravishing beauty. The nose, the left leg from the knee down, an ear, and also the toes of the right foot and two fingers of one of the hands were gone, but otherwise the noble figure was in a remarkable state of preservation.

Mark Twain skewers the art world in another short short story “Legend of the Capitoline Venus”. It’s set up similar to a play where a starving artist is unable to get permission from the love of his life’s father to marry her. The reason is, of course, he doesn’t make enough money as a sculptor. The artist’s more “practical” friend finds a way for him to make money.

mark-twain

As usual, its very funny and while the art world gets most of the satirizing, I would say that the broader idea of which Twain is trying to poke fun is how “the masses” can be so easily duped.

At the end of the story, Twain references the Cardiff Giant or the Petrified Giant. A hoax that apparently made quite a sensation in Mark Twain’s day even though I don’t hear much about it today. Twain also used this hoax in his story “A Ghost Story” which I posted about here.

While technology may have changed drastically since his time, I can’t help but think that Twain would still have a lot to make fun of today. Speaking of hoaxes and forgeries in the art world, a fascinating documentary came out a couple years ago called Art and Craft.  It boggles the mind how easily people can be duped.

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“A Ghost Story” by Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s “A Ghost Story” contains his typical humor and down-to-earth view of the world with a slightly scary twist and a little piece of unknown (at least by me) history.

The narrator takes a room in an old, and apparently abandoned, apartment building in Manhattan.  Twain describes the walk up the stairs with tremendous detail and gives the reader a little chill along the way.  Why the narrator decides to live in an old abandoned building never really matters.

For a brief respite, the narrator feels safe and warm from the outside world.  After drifting into a restful sleep, he suddenly awakes to the sound of “elephant” footsteps.  He even finds giant footprints in the ashes by the fireplace.

At last, he comes face to face with the ghost of the Cardiff Giant, after the ghost clumsily breaks most of the narrator’s furniture.  From my understanding, the Cardiff Giant is known as one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century.  The giant was a supposedly “petrified” man found near Cardiff, New York.  Put on display by P. T. Barnum, people from all over paid money to see the giant’s remains.  Eventually, the diplay was exposed as a fraud, whether Barnum was in on it or not, I couldn’t determine.  However, I think Barnum was the one who said “There’s a sucker born every minute”?

(Excavation of the Cardiff Giant)

Twain has his narrator sit down and chat with the ghost and discover the ghost is trying to haunt the museum across the street to get his remains (on display at this museum) returned to Cardiff.  The narrator reveals to the ghost that his remains are really in Albany-much to the ghost’s confusion.  Now the ghost really doesn’t know what he should haunt.

I chose this story by going down the table of contents in my Twain short story collection looking for something that had to do with ghosts.  The title “A Ghost Story” jumped right out.  I didn’t expect the story to be truly creepy, but I was expecting it to be humorous – and it was.

Is anyone else familiar with the history of the Cardiff Giant?  I wasn’t until I read this story.