Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “How to Tell a Story,” Twain observes that “the humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home.” The distinction Twain makes between comic and witty stories—that is, stories depending on a “punch line” or clever play on words—and the “humorous story” is an important one for appreciating the artistry of “Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn,” as well as for understanding the high value Twain placed on humor as an indigenous American art form.

The humorous story depends for its effect almost entirely on the artistry of a master storyteller. Foremost among the techniques necessary to tell such a story effectively is the characterization of a narrative voice appropriate to the material. Such stories, Twain says, are “told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.” Properly told, the humorous story results in “a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art—and fine and beautiful, and only a master can encompass it.”

Twain was himself such a master storyteller, as he demonstrated in his career as a lecturer. From his work on the stage, as well as from firsthand contact with other storytellers, he mastered not only the art of performing stories but also the art of writing them down as published tales. Few writers have recorded the oral tradition on the page as well as Twain did in such pieces as “Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn.” Reading the story tends to be anticlimactic unless one can, either aloud or in the imagination, read it so that Jim Baker’s voice is heard. In the hands of a fine performer, this simple tale of some silly bluejays can still produce the laughter that it did when Twain himself told it to his audiences.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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