I’m finally getting close to finishing The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, Charles Neider, ed., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957. I’ve been pecking away at this volume over the last six years, reading a short story here and there as I have time.
While Twain generally belongs in the “snacks” category of the literary food pyramid, I do enjoy his work immensely. For some unexplained reason, Jane Smiley in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, thinks that Huckleberry Finn was boring, but I personally find Twain entertaining in all his works. BTW, I thoroughly enjoyed Smiley’s book. It was very informative and enlightening, and this was one of her few points on which I disagree.
One of my favorite comic devices that Twain employs is the dialogue between two individuals on a subject that neither of them knows anything about. For instance, in A Horse’s Tale (1906), two horses are discussing how to classify a dog they both know:
“The Seventh Calvary dog. I mean, if he is a dog. His father was a coyote and his mother was a wild-cat. It doesn’t really make a dog out of him, does it?”
“Not a real dog, I should think. Only a kind of general dog, at most, I reckon. Though this is a matter of ichthyology, I suppose; and if it is, it is out of my depth, and so my opinion is not valuable, and I don’t claim much consideration for it.”
“It isn’t ichthyology; it is dogmatics, which is still more difficult and tangled up. Dogmatics always are.”
This section stretches on into further falacies on the part of both parties, until they conclude that the dog in question must be a reptile.
The humor in this lies in the fact that we have all participated in or witnessed conversations where one or both parties make assertions and deductions that lie well out of their range of knowledge. On another angle, though, many of Twain’s readers didn’t understand these terms, either, and so he may have been playing a joke on them. It seems that he was fond of doing that. In A Double-Barreled Detective Story (1902), he begins section 4 with:
It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.
This prompted a number of letters to Mr. Twain asking for an explanation about the esophagus. Twain wrote a letter to the editor of the Springfield Republican (that first published the story) to respond to these. In it he notes that the readers were completely unaware of all of the other absurdities he managed to sneak into the paragraph, and laments,
Alas, if I had but left that one treacherous word out, I should have scored! scored everywhere; and the paragraph would have slidden through every reader’s sensibilities like oil, and left not a suspicion behind.
And I told him (an inquirer) to carefully read the whole paragraph, and he would find not a vestige of sense in any detail of it.
So it seems that Twain, ever the prankster, likes even better the joke that only he can enjoy. Or did he slip in the word esophagus intentionally so he would be found out, and have the pleasure of revealing the joke?