Many readers find Mark Twain most successful in briefer works, including his narratives, because they were not padded to fit some extraneous standard of length. His best stories are narrated by first-person speakers who are seemingly artless, often so convincingly that critics cannot agree concerning the extent to which their ingenuousness is the result of Twain’s self-conscious craft. While deeply divided himself, Twain seldom created introspectively complex characters or narrators who are unreliable in the Conradian manner. Rather, just as Twain alternated between polarities of attitude, his characters tend to embody some extreme, unitary state either of villainy or (especially with young women) of unshakable virtue. Therefore, they too seldom interact effectively. Except when adapting a plot taken from oral tradition, Twain does better with patently artificial situations, which his genius for suggesting authentic speech make plausible enough. In spite of their faults, Twain’s stories captivate the reader with their irresistible humor, their unique style, and their spirited characters who transfigure the humdrum with striking perceptions.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is generally regarded as Twain’s most distinctive story, although some readers may prefer Jim Baker’s bluejay yarn, which turns subtly on the psyche of its narrator, or Jim Blaine’s digressions from his grandfather’s old ram, which reach a more physical comedy while evolving into an absurdly tall tale. In “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Jim Smiley’s eagerness to bet on anything in the mining camp may strain belief, but it is relatively plausible that another gambler could weigh down Smiley’s frog, Daniel Webster, with quailshot and thus win forty dollars with an untrained frog. Most attempts to find profundity in this folk anecdote involve the few enveloping sentences attributed to an outsider, who may represent the literate Easterner being gulled by Simon Wheeler’s seeming inability to stick to his point. The skill of the story can be more conclusively identified, from the deft humanizing of animals to the rising power and aptness of the imagery. Especially adroit is the deadpan manner of Wheeler, who never betrays whether he himself appreciates the humor and the symmetry of his meanderings. Twain’s use of the oral style is nowhere better represented than in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which exemplifies the principles of the author’s essay “How to Tell a Story.”
“A True Story”
In 1874, Twain assured the sober Atlantic Monthly that his short story “A True Story” was not humorous, although in fact it has his characteristic sparkle and hearty tone. Having been encouraged by the contemporary appeal for local color, Twain quickly developed a narrator with a heavy dialect and a favorite folk-saying that allows a now-grown son to recognize his mother after a separation of thirteen years. While she, in turn, finds scars confirming their relationship on his wrist and head, this conventional plot gains resonance from Rachel’s report of how her husband and seven children had once been separated at a slave auction in Richmond. Contemporaries praised “A True Story” for its naturalness, testimony that Twain was creating more lifelike blacks than any other author by allowing them greater dignity, and Rachel is quick to insist that slave families cared for one another just as deeply as any white families. Her stirringly recounted memories challenged the legend of the Old South even before that legend reached its widest vogue, and her spirit matched her “mighty” body so graphically that “A True Story” must get credit for much more craftsmanship than is admitted by its subtitle, “Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.”
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Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”
In “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” in which Twain again uses first-person narration with a flawless touch for emphasizing the right word or syllable, the main character closely resembles the author in age, experience, habits, and tastes. Of more significance is the fact that the story projects Twain’s lifelong struggles with, and even against, his conscience. Here the conscience admits to being the “most pitiless enemy” of its host, whom it is supposed to “improve” but only tyrannizes with gusto while refusing to praise the host for anything. It makes the blunder, however, of materializing as a two-foot dwarf covered with “fuzzy greenish mold” who torments the narrator with intimate knowledge of and contemptuous judgments on his behavior. When beloved Aunty Mary arrives to scold him once more for his addiction to tobacco, his conscience grows so torpid that he can gleefully seize and destroy it beyond any chance of rebirth. Through vivid yet realistic detail, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut” dramatizes common musings about shame and guilt along with the yearnings some persons feel for release from them. If it maintains too comic a tone to preach nihilism or amorality, it leaves readers inclined to view conscience less as a divine agent than as part of psychic dynamics.
“The £1,000,000 Bank-Note”
The shopworn texture of “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note” reveals Twain’s genius for using the vernacular at a low ebb. Narrated by the protagonist, this improbable tale is set in motion by two brothers who disagree over what would happen if some penniless individual were loaned a five-million-dollar bill for thirty days. To solve their argument, they engage in an experiment with a Yankee, Henry Adams, a stock-broker’s clerk stranded in London. Coincidence thickens when, having managed by the tenth day of the experiment to get invited to dinner by an American minister, Adams unknowingly meets the stepdaughter of one of the brothers and woos and wins her that very night. Having just as nimbly gained a celebrity that makes every merchant eager to extend unlimited credit, he endorses a sale of Nevada stocks that enables him to show his future father-in-law that he has banked a million dollars of his own. The overall effect is cheerfully melodramatic and appeals to fantasies about windfalls of money; the reader can share Adams’s pleasure in the surprise and awe he arouses by pulling his banknote out of a tattered pocket. It can be argued that the story indicts a society in which the mere show of wealth can so quickly raise one’s standing, but Twain probably meant Adams to deserve respect for his enterprise and shrewdness when his chance came.
“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”
“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is one of the most penetrating of Twain’s stories. It achieves unusual depth of character and, perhaps by giving up the first-person narrator, a firm objectivity that lets theme develop through dialogue and incident. It proceeds with such flair that only a third or fourth reading uncovers thin links in a supposedly inescapable chain of events planned for revenge by an outsider who had been insulted in Hadleyburg, a town smugly proud of its reputation for honesty.
Stealthily he leaves a sack of counterfeit gold coins which are to be handed over to the fictitious resident who once gave a needy stranger twenty dollars and can prove it by recalling his words at the time. Next, the avenger sends nineteen leading citizens a letter which tells each of them how to claim the gold, supposedly amounting to forty thousand dollars. During an uproarious town meeting studded with vignettes of local characters, both starchy and plebeian, eighteen identical claims are read aloud; the nineteenth, however, from elderly Edward Richards, is suppressed by the chairman, who overestimates how Richards once saved him from the community’s unjust anger. Rewarded by the stranger and made a hero, Richards is actually tormented to death, both by pangs of conscience and by fear of exposure. Hadleyburg, however, has learned a lesson in humility and moral realism and shortens its motto from the Lord’s Prayer to run: “Lead Us into Temptation.”
“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” exhibits Twain’s narrative and stylistic strengths and also dramatizes several of his persistent themes, such as skepticism about orthodox religion, ambivalence toward the conscience but contempt for rationalizing away deserved guilt, and attraction to mechanistic ideas. The story raises profound questions which can never be settled. The most useful criticism asks whether the story’s determinism is kept consistent and uppermost—or, more specifically, whether the reform of Hadleyburg can follow within the patterns already laid out. The ethical values behind the story’s action and ironical tone imply that people can in fact choose to behave more admirably.
In printing the story, Harper’s Monthly may well have seen a Christian meliorism, a lesson against self-righteous piety that abandons true charity. The revised motto may warn that the young, instead of being sheltered, should be educated to cope with fallible human nature. More broadly, the story seems to show that the conscience can be trained into a constructive force by honestly confronting the drives for pleasure and self-approval that sway everyone.
Many of these same themes reappear in quasi-supernatural sketches such as “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.” Twain never tired of toying with biblical characters, particularly Adam and Eve, or with parodies of Sunday-school lessons. He likewise parodied most other genres, even those which he himself used seriously. In his most serious moods he preached openly against cruelty to animals in “A Dog’s Tale” and “A Horse’s Tale,” supported social or political causes, and always came back to moral choices, as in “Was It Heaven or Hell?” or “The $30,000 Bequest.” Notably weak in self-criticism, he had a tireless imagination capable of daringly unusual perspectives, a supreme gift of humor darkened by brooding over the enigmas of life, and an ethical habit of thought that expressed itself most tellingly through character and narrative.