Satirist, novelist, and keen observer of the American scene, Mark Twain remains one of the world's best-loved writers. This delightful collection of Twain?s favorite and most memorable writings includes selected tales and sketches such as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, How I Edited an Agricultural Journal Once, Jim Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn, and A True Story. It also features excerpts from his novels and travel books (including Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi, among others; autobiographical and polemical writings; as well as selected letters and speeches. The collection also reprints the complete text of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, including the often omitted raftsmen passage.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, in 1835, and died at Redding, Connecticut in 1910. In his person and in his pursuits he was a man of extraordinary contrasts. Although he left school at twelve when his father died, he was eventually awarded honorary degrees from Yale University, the University of Missouri, and Oxford University. His career encompassed such varied occupations as printer, Mississippi riverboat pilot, journalist, travel writer, and publisher. He made fortunes from his writing but toward the end of his life he had to resort to lecture tours to pay his debts. He was hot-tempered, profane, and sentimental and also pessimistic, cynical, and tortured by self-doubt. His nostalgia helped produce some of his best books. He lives in American letters as a great artist, the writer whom William Dean Howells called “the Lincoln of our literature.”
Tom Quirk is the Catherine Paine Middlebush Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the editor of the Penguin Classics editions of Mark Twain's Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches (1994) and Ambrose Bierce's Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories (2000) and co-editor of The Portable American Realism Reader (1997). His other books include Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn (1993), Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction (1997) and Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination (2001).Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
During his last decade, Samuel Clemens was writing, or rather dictating, his “Autobiography.” It was a work that only death could complete and would be published, if at all, long after he was gone. Clemens embraced the premise, for it meant that he might speak, so he liked to believe, without reserve or constraint; speak with the bluntness only a dead man might enjoy. In casual yet systematic fashion, he committed himself to narrating his life according to whim and random recollection. The publication in 1906 of a bastardized version of his earlier anthology, Mark Twain’s Library of Humor (1888), at once incited his fury and provoked a certain introspection and became a subject for one morning’s dictation. Perusing the contents, “Mark Twain” reflected in his “Autobiography” on the fate of nineteenth-century humorists. For the forty years “wherein I have been playing professional humorist before the public,” he observed, a host of literary comedians have come and gone. “Why have they perished? Because they were merely humorists. Humorists of the ‘mere’ sort cannot survive. Humor is only a fragrance, a decoration.” And Why (he implicitly asks) have I lasted? Because (he implicitly answers) I am a moralist, and they were not. “Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach,” he continued, “but it must do both if it would last forever. By forever, I mean thirty years. With all its preaching it is not likely to outlive so long a term as that.”
Already, Twain is indulging in fuzzy math. The fame of the mere humorist is extinguished in a few years, but even the humorous moralist cannot expect more than thirty years. However, Twain himself has just observed that he has been a professional humorist for forty years, a full decade beyond “forever.” But he is not through with his calculations:
I have always preached. That is the reason that I have lasted thirty years. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not. I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am a dead person speaking from the grave. Even I would be too modest to say them in life. I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead—and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.
In order to be absolutely honest with his readers, Clemens imagines speaking from beyond the grave, bound by neither time nor occasion. The presupposition, of course, is that he is being beforehand with a world not yet born, and he adopts the position of a ghost in the narrative machine of his own making. But behind the undertaking there is also the presumption that Mark Twain will be of continuing interest for generations to come, far longer than the thirty (or perhaps forty) years allotted to him or any other humorist. And, his protestations notwithstanding, Twain remains a humorist to the last. The mysteriously complicated, even irreconcilable, carbon dating of his lasting fame is finally a sly prologue to the punch line—“People ought to start dead.”
The vaunted boast of this self-assessment (at once retrospective and predictive) is in stark contrast to the confession he made to his brother Orion, in an 1865 letter: “I have had a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order—i.e., humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit, & if I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty which says that to do right you must multiply the one or the two or the three talents which the Almighty trusts to our keeping, I would long ago have ceased to meddle with the things for which I was by nature unfitted & turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures. Poor, pitiful business!” When he made this declaration, Clemens was thirty years old, high time for a man to have settled into an occupation, however lowly. It is true that he had turned his hand to other work from an early age. It is probably true that he would have been content to have remained a riverboat pilot, had not the Civil War effectively ended that career; at least he made that claim more than once. It is unfortunately true as well that he did not cease to meddle in things beyond his peculiar ken—as entrepreneur and businessman, publisher and self-appointed philosopher, inventor and investor—and much of this meddling cost him hard coin and caused him grief.
In any event, these two statements, made approximately forty years apart, will serve well enough to bracket the career of Mark Twain. Those same four decades provide a vast reservoir of writings from which to gather up representative features of Twain’s art and genius—secular sermons and tall tales; vicious wisecracks and tender comedy; testaments of political outrage and deep compassion; antic, and sometimes merely silly, comic indulgence. The Portable Mark Twain means to give as complete a picture as possible of Twain’s art and comedy. But the complete corpus of Twain’s prodigious output is anything but “portable.” When one lumps together, in addition to the writings published in his lifetime, the approximately 12,000 extant letters, the voluminous notebooks, the speeches, the unpublished and (in his mind) unpublishable writings, the unfinished manuscripts, not to mention the “Autobiography” itself, some 2,500 pages in typescript, one is tempted to conclude something that is manifestly untrue: Here was a man who had no life apart from writing. But, in fact, for good or ill, he gave over a great deal of time to his business concerns, to his friends and family, to his search for one sort of health cure or another, to his cockamamie schemes for world betterment and personal profit (ranging from food additives to an ingenious bed clamp to keep the baby’s covers on), and to his vast and diverse reading. Add to this the hundreds of thousands of hours of talk, acres and acres of the stuff—spontaneous after-dinner monologues, hundreds of newspaper interviews, peripatetic chatter with comrades, or improvised bedtime stories for the children—and one soon enough recognizes that Twain’s writings formed only a part, and perhaps not the best part, of the man.
Still, as a matter of simple “coverage” of his written work, this anthology casts a wide enough net to catch the flavor and inexhaustible variety of the man at nearly every stage of his life. At the very least, his salient qualities are here. Those qualities are several, and all their possible combinations make them virtually unnumbered. William Dean Howells, in a review of Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old (1875), named the characteristic traits of the humorist. Twain is a master of “burlesque,” though, Howells adds, in its special tendency to double back on itself, his travesty acquires a novel subtlety and suppleness. He has a “fine, forecasting humor,” by which I think Howells meant that the author has an ambulatory style that, on the promise of some joke as yet unspotted, engenders in his readers an eager willingness to follow wherever he might lead. Twain is finely “American” in his boisterous “extravagance of statement”; he is reassuringly trustworthy and amiable in his “incorruptible right-mindedness”; and his delightful “dryness,” his apparent oblivion to his own comedy, permits readers, under the spell of his crafty art, to feel smarter than perhaps they should.
More important than all these, Howells detected a “growing seriousness of meaning in the apparently unmoralized drolling.” In California, Twain had sometimes been called the “Moralist of the Main,” and several of his journalistic pieces left his indignant seriousness in little doubt. However, Eastern readers knew Twain as the literary comedian and not much more. Howells was doing the humorist a service in pointing out this other dimension of the man. In fact, Howells singled out “A True Story” as much the best piece in the collection and a sketch generally misunderstood by critics who, expecting a joke and not wanting to be left out, altogether missed the “rugged truth” of this moving story of slave life. This is a reasonably complete list of Twain’s gifts, and I would add only Louis J. Budd’s identification of a “quintessentially Twainian quality”—“an emotional-intellectual drive, an integrative, pleasure-sharing ability to soar above or outside of commonly accepted experience.” That flight from ordinary experience at times may have been mere escape from trials and tribulations, but as often, as Budd observes, it provided the author a special pleasure that one might justifiably call “ecstasy.”
For several decades, it has been fashionable to think of Clemens as having been cooped up and hemmed in (whether he was restrained by the inheritance of a Calvinist conscience, the pressures of a pervasive Victorian gentility, or some perverse inner check hardly matters). He sometimes complained that the world at large valued him only as a funny man, incapable of deep conviction and firm principle, but that may or may not mean he was disposed to be secretly subversive of the prevailing order. Of course Twain himself invites such psychoanalytical second-guessing when he confesses to his frustration with the occupation of humorist, as he did, for example, in an 1875 letter to Howells, by complaining his customary audience required him to “paint himself stripèd and stand on his head every fifteen minutes.” When Clemens first adopted the pen name “Mark Twain” in 1863, he likely felt some liberation in the persona. Mark Twain appears in a variety of guises (as the tenderfoot, the dandy, the muggins, and so forth) but always in ways that are far less complicated than was the author himself. Still, in disguise, Clemens could speak more forthrightly than he might in his own person. Eventually, however, he began to complain that the public had not got him “focused” right and thought of him as perpetually jolly and decidedly unserious. Humor was his bread and butter, but often it was a bitter portion to swallow. This dilemma must have eventually contributed something to the deterministic philosophy he adopted in later years.
Twain’s late philosophic meditations, expressed in “Corn-Pone Opinions” (1901), What Is Man? (1906), and elsewhere, merely added quasi-intellectual support to a long-standing conviction that conduct and thought are imposed from without. The average man or woman desires above all else, he argued, a sense of self-approval that can only be had by gaining the approval of others. Similarly, the approval of the public required Twain to perform antics of one sort or another that, in their turn, became a humiliation to himself and his family. Small wonder that he should complain that truthful and frank expression is all but impossible. Still, it is at least thinkable that the author’s levity stemmed not simply from a desire to please or to be evasive or to subvert, but because he couldn’t help himself. Perhaps he was addicted to the ecstatic privilege that such flights above and beyond earth-bound decorum and right thinking might afford.
What is more certain, at any rate, is that he was good at it. At a dinner honoring Andrew Carnegie in 1907, for example, Twain gave a speech and found his comic opportunity in Carnegie’s promotion of simplified spelling. “He’s got us all so we can’t spell anything,” Twain fumes. Any rational reformer would address the root of the problem—the alphabet:
There’s not a vowel in it with a definite value, and not a consonant that you can hitch anything to. Look at the “h’s” distributed all around. There’s “gherkin.” What are you going to do with the “h” in gherkin, I’d like to know. . . . Why, there isn’t a man who doesn’t have to throw out about fifteen hundred words a day when he writes his letters because he can’t spell them! It’s like trying to do a St. Vitus’s dance with wooden legs. . . .
It’s a rotten alphabet. I appoint Mr. Carnegie to get after it, and leave simplified spelling alone. Simplified spelling brought about sunspots, the San Francisco earthquake, and the recent business depression, which we would never have had if spelling had been left all alone. . . . Simplified spelling is all right, but, like chastity, you can carry it too far.
Who, in the history of humankind, ever tried to do a St. Vitus’s dance? And did the person who put the “h” in “gherkin” do it as a prank, or was it an act of malice prepense, purposely designed to bring about sunspots? And now that the problem has at last been properly diagnosed, who else but Mark Twain would have the nerve to sic the great Andrew Carnegie on it?
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