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Mark Twain's latest short story

Nearly 99 years after his death, an unpublished short story found in his archives will be published in The Strand mystery magazine.

March 07, 2009|Carolyn Kellogg

Almost 99 years after his death on April 21, 1910, Mark Twain will publish a new short story next week in the pages of the quarterly mystery magazine the Strand.

Discovered in Twain's archive -- reportedly the largest collection of personal papers left behind by a 19th century American author -- the never-before-published "The Undertaker's Tale" is a short tale-within-a-tale about a wretched homeless boy who is taken in by a kindly undertaker's family.

According to Strand editor Andrew F. Gulli, who has made a point of publishing classic authors (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ray Bradbury, even P.G. Wodehouse) in his magazine, Twain's "tongue-in-cheek tale about the funeral industry" is as modern as anything being written today.

But lest that seem like Twain was anticipating the glossy HBO mortuary drama "Six Feet Under," it's really more like something by Charles Dickens: His story revolves around a dirty, hungry wretch who finds solace in the undertaker's home; the world is cold, dirty and brutish yet viewed with a wicked sense of humor.

Cheerfully recollecting her father's busiest season, the undertaker's lovely daughter Gracie crows, "There was ever so much sickness, and very few got well."

And a good time was had by all.

Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens in 1835, was widely published during his lifetime. His 1884 novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has been called the greatest American novel by some critics and is widely considered to be the starting point for a distinctly American literary voice: vernacular yet knowing, self-reflective but piercingly observant of the outside world. Now some of his previously unknown material is coming to light

"The Undertaker's Story" will be part of a new book, "Who Is Mark Twain?," that is due out next month. It's the first collection of his unpublished short works and will include 24 stories and essays.

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot," Twain writes, "and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

In the nonfiction pieces, he critiques politicians, the clergy and even Jane Austen. Reading her books, he notes, makes him "feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven . . . because barkeepers are like everybody else -- it humiliates them to find that there are fine things, great things, admirable things, which others can perceive and they can't."

Such a statement might anger avid Austen fans, but for Twain, tweaking the expectations of his readership is nothing new. His outspokenness led his daughter to try to prevent publication of the pieces in the book "Letters From the Earth," posthumously released in 1939, for the way they questioned religion.

"These works are some of his most brilliant and important," says Maud Newton, writer and Twain enthusiast.

"Who Is Mark Twain?" may not be as seminal, but it is a refreshing reintroduction to both his critical analytical thought and his playful sense of humor.

As for "The Undertaker's Tale," it's not his greatest story. But it is notable for witty dialogue that says more than the characters intend. It shows that Twain could write like David Sedaris and Thomas Friedman sharing a single brain.

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Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times' book blog.

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