Mark Twain Short Fiction Analysis
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” 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.”
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.”
“The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”
In “The Facts Concerning...
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