In Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s”, the narrator and his friend Riley (an “odd” friend as the narrator puts it), both journalists, walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C. in the midst of a winter storm when they are met by Mr. Lykins, a teacher from San Francisco who aspires to a post-office position in his California home.
Perhaps because Riley is amused at Mr. Lykins for thinking these journalists will have some sort of pull to get him the position he’s looking for, Riley proceeds to tell Mr. Lykins a story:
He backed Mr. Lykins against an iron fence, buttonholed him, fastened him with his eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and proceeded to unfold his narrative as placidly and peacefully as if we were all stretched comfortably in a blossomy summer meadow instead of being persecuted by a wintry midnight tempest…
The story goes on longer than Mr. Lykin probably expects and has nothing to do with Mr. Lykin’s ambitions. In spite of Riley’s “oddness”, Twain throws his sympathies to him for being able to keep Mr. Lykin’s attention for so long with no specific point.
“Be pure, honest, sober, industrious, and considerate of others, and success in life is assured.”
Mark Twain’s “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” ploughs through terrain we’ve experienced before specifically in “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” and “The Story of the Good Little Boy”.
This story includes the same theme of turning the results of moral choices on its head much the same way the above stories do; however, this one contrasts two orphaned cousins adopted by the same parents. One falls under the good little boy category and one under the bad little boy.
Given the contrast between the two boys, I would say “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” is the better of the three stories. Is it funnier? Perhaps. But it’s not difficult to guess from early on that the advice given by the parents to the boys that I quoted above doesn’t turn out quite the way the parents think it will.
“How wonderful it is! Two little hours ago I was a free man, and now my heart’s in San Francisco!”
In “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton”, Mark Twain gives us another hilarious situation involving technology. This time it’s that new fangled thing called a telephone.
With Alonzo in Maine on a boring snowy day, he uses the new invention to call his Aunt Susan in San Francisco. While talking, Alonzo overhears an almost lovely singing voice (a few notes are flat) and inquires as to who it might be. This is the start of a beautiful relationship between Alonzo and Ronsannah Ethelton – even though they can’t see each other.
The biggest laughs come when Twain gives lengthy descriptions of what each party is wearing even though we know they can’t see each other. In another instance someone picks up the phone and pretends to be someone else giving the relationship its first little bump in the road.
I’ll leave the ultimate resolution of the relationship to anyone who might want to read this story themselves.
He carefully made up his mind, and once more entered the field – this time to make a collection of echoes.
“Of what?” said I.
In Mark Twain’s “The Canvasser’s Tale”, the canvasser tells the narrator the story of his uncle who buys and sells echoes. While he manages to make some money, of course, eventually everything falls through.
It’s the 19th century version of derivitives. Or the 19th century version of Enron. Or the 19th century version of the 21st century’s Great Recession. Well, OK, I realize there have been other recessions and depressions since the 19th century so maybe my analogy went a little too far.
But Mark Twain is quite the prophet.
I don’t know whether the phrase “good old boys” had the same meaning in Mark Twain’s time as it does today. I’m guessing not because his short story “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls” doesn’t have much relationship to the ideas that the phrase might conjur up today.
One could call this a reverse fable in the sense that the animals of the woods discover items made by human beings, such as a train or a building, and determine, based on their knowledge, what these might be – unlike traditional fables where stories are told by men how animals came to be.
It’s a pleasant story and unsurprisingly a funny one. The animals all have minds that help them identify the items that they find – even if they are wrong – exemplified in one of Professor Snail’s conclusions:
“The fact that it is not diaphanous convinces me that it is a dense vapor formed by the calorification of ascending mositure dephlogisticated by refraction. A few endiometrical experiments would confirm this, but it is not necessary. The thing is obvious.”
A locomotive becomes the transit of Venus crossing the earth – even though the transit of Venus was suppose to cross the sun. The train tracks are lines of latitude.
Since Twain usually makes fun of something, I wonder what he may have been satirizing with this story. Maybe he’s just throwing the whole fable concept upside down and, if so, he does a nice job of it. If he’s making fun of human beings in the process, its not quite as obvious.
…she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire, now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after peal of laughter, and then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she could no longer get breath enough to express. At such a moment as this a thought occurred to me, and I said:
“Aunt Rachel, how is it that you’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble?”
In Mark Twain’s “A True Story”, Aunt Rachel, a former slave, tells how she, her husband and seven children were seperately sold at auction. And she also tells of her eventual reunion with her youngest son.
The title Twain gives this story raises some questions. Would readers perhaps wonder if this is a true story so he gives it the title to let them know it is? Could the story be part of Twain’s imagination but hold some sort of truth regardless? Could the contrast between Aunt Rachel’s joyful demeanor at age sixty and the heartbreak she suffered as a slave bring to question the truth of the story?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Whenever he was out of luck and a little downhearted, he would fall to mourning over the loss of a wonderful cat…
“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.
I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before.
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.