Mark Twain’s “The Trials of Simon Erickson”

He could not think of the turnip without emotion; he could not speak of it calmly; he could not contemplate it without exaltation; he could not eat it without shedding tears.

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For whatever reason, a turnip is a very funny vegetable. It’s not the first time that they show up in a story by Mark Twain. In “The Trials of Simon Erickson”, another story within a story, Simon Erickson attempts to help a young man in Michigan who is obsessed with turnips – specifically getting turnips to grow on a vine. The young man is so obsessed that his health starts to deteriorate.

The trials, as well as the humor, ensue when Erickson corresponds with an apparent turnip expert; however, the response he gets is in less than perfect handwriting. He interprets and misinterprets the writing to the point that he mistakes the verbage as offensive. According to Erickson, who is potentially telling this story years later, this minor misunderstanding starts wars in Italy.

While today, letter writing and handwriting seem to be a thing of the past, I’m sure Twain could get lots of humor out of text abbreviations and auto correction.

Mark Twain’s “A Trial”

Capt. Ned Blakely – that name will answer as well as any other fictitious one (for he was still with the living at last accounts, and may not desire to be famous) – sailed ships out of the harbor of San Francisco for many years.

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In reading through Mark Twain’s short stories, I knew I would eventually have to grapple with material that would be considered offensive by today’s standards and his story “The Trial” contains just such material.

But it’s difficult to say whether the overarching story in theme is offensive or just the racial slurs used.

Bill Noakes, the nemisis of Captain Ned Blakely, kills a favorite African shipmate of Blakely’s. Noakes is seen doing the killing by numerous witnesses so when Blakely goes to hang Noakes, he is taken by surprise when everyone insists on a “fair” trial.

The setup seems to move the story toward a trial where Noakes is found innocent in spite of his obvious crime. But, no, that’s not what happens. He’s found guilty and he’s hanged.

If there is humor in this story, it went over my head – or perhaps its simply not as timeless as much of Twain’s humor is. Would the ending have been a surprise to Twain’s readers in 1872? Would Twain’s 1872 readers have found something funny in this story? Or did Mark Twain just decide that some of his stories didn’t need to be funny?

 

Mark Twain’s “Tom Quartz”

Whenever he was out of luck and a little downhearted, he would fall to mourning over the loss of a wonderful cat…

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“Tom Quartz” is another of Mark Twain’s stories that is actually a story within a story. It reminds me a little of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” because of the way the story is told in dialect and accent. The story involves a cat, dynamite and miners who only half know what they are doing.

The Looney Tunes antics that ensue are funny only because nobody (or no animal) truly gets hurt. I know that the quotation I’ve used above may imply otherwise – but the cat isn’t really harmed. I mean, he’s able to walk away.

 

Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram”

I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before.

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Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram” doesn’t have an old ram in it.

It does have cannibals that are converted after eating their missionaries, a dead man rising up at his funeral to tell his mortician that he doesn’t want this coffin but would rather have another one, and a man killed at a carpet factory after which his widow weaves his remains into the piece of carpet that killed him.

But no, it doesn’t have an old ram in it.

Mark Twain’s “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral”

“Now we’re alright, pard. Let’s start fresh. Don’t you mind my snuffling a little – becuz we’re in a power of trouble. You see, one of the boys has gone up the flume-“

“Gone where?”

“Up the flume – throwed up the sponge, you understand.”

“Thrown up the sponge?”

“Yes- kicked the bucket-“

“Ah-has departed to that mysterious country from whose bourne no traveler returns.”

“Return! I reckon not. Why, pard, he’s dead!”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Oh, you do? Well I thought maybe you might be getting tangled some more. Yes, you see he’s dead again-“

“Again! Why, has he ever been dead before?”

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“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” really isn’t about Buck Fanshaw. His funeral is simply a way for Scotty Briggs to talk to a minister to ask him to perform the funeral service.

Scotty Briggs is a miner from the West Coast while the minister is from the East Coast. The minister also is more educated than Scotty. The conversation that ensues becomes something of a “who’s on first” routine as Scotty attempts to ask the minister to officiate using lower class slang and poker analogies. Not understanding, the minister responds with long-winded remarks containing large theological words and concepts – which of course sounds foreign to Scotty.

I loved the fact that the reader gets to hear both men and is able to find both of them funny. Twain doesn’t seem to be taking sides between West and East or between lower class and upper class. The path to understanding is hilarious from both points of view.

Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Good Little Boy”

Once there was a good little boy by the name of Jacob Blivens. He always obeyed his parents, no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were; and he always learned his book, and never was late at Sabbath-school. He would not play hookey, even when his sober judgment told him it was the most profitable thing he could do.

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A few posts ago, I read Mark Twain’s story “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”¬†where the consequences of a bad boy’s behavior didn’t turn out the way they did in the Sunday School books of the day – he simply grew up to be a congressman.

Now we have the flip side of that story “The Story of the Good Little Boy” in which Jacob Blivens goes to great lengths to be good but things don’t work out the way he thought they would – according to the Sunday School books.

For some reason, this story is a little funnier than the first one. Something about the way the other boys find Jacob “afflicted” made me laugh more.

Even though some of the “rules” Jacob follows are not necessarily common today (like not playing marbles on Sunday), the humor and satire keep the story timeless.

As I read through Twain’s stories, I continually find myself realizing that he would have just as much to make fun of today as he did 150 years ago. Maybe more!

Mark Twain’s “Science vs. Luck”

He brought in a cloud of witnesses, and produced an overwhelming mass of testimony, to show that old sledge was not a game of chance but a game of science.

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While I’m not much of a gambler, I live only miles from a major river with numerous casinos and in a state that has horse racing as one of its top industries. I do own some stock and I’ve never known exactly why that isn’t considered gambling. But my point is that the world I live in doesn’t see gambling as a moral issue, but in another of Mark Twain’s very short stories “Science vs. Luck”, this isn’t the case. In fact, a group of friends are taken to court for playing “games of chance”. Their lawyer, Jim Sturgis, figures out a way to get them off the hook by convincing a jury that these games are more science than luck – as the title implies.

A number of the jurors are what one might call the pillars of the church in this community. The setup of this story was very good. The potential for poking fun at the morals of the day with all of the irreverence that I expect from Mark Twain is very high. But the punchline? It was an intelligent punchline – just not as funny as I thought it would be.