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Review: Mark Twain's short stories stand the test of time

Mark Twain's voice and spirit still have a place in our fast-paced world.

June 10, 2012|By Laura Skandera Trombley, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain.
Author Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain. (Associated Press )

The Complete Short Stories

Mark Twain

Introduction by Adam Gopnik

Everyman's Library: 716 pp., $28

Mark Twain was on the lecture circuit for over three decades. He would take the stage feigning bemusement at discovering his audience and stand silently smoking one of the 30 cigars he would enjoy that day. He was a solitary performer working in dusty, drafty, dimly lit halls, sans audio equipment, Twain knew every trick to keep his audiences engaged. His delivery, emotion, intelligence and humor would bring crowds to their feet. The power was in his voice and that doesn't imply high volume, but his expressed genius.

"The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain" published in a new edition this month by the Everyman's Library, is reminiscent of Twain in performance. He is talking directly to you and determined to keep you entertained.

While there are no previously unpublished stories in this edition, there are well-known riches. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik's misguided assertions in his introduction to this volume aside, Twain was a master at the short story. With his carefully developed plots, delightful, unexpected conclusions and his distinctive voice bell-like in its clarity, his shorter works were more tightly crafted than his novels.

In his longer works he was prone at times to either questionable elaborations, the ending of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which scholars are still arguing about comes to mind, or he simply ran out of energy and left incomplete manuscripts — "Pudd'nhead Wilson" and "Those Extraordinary Twins" are two examples. This collection, since it provides his entire oeuvre, offers the interested reader insight into Twain's growth not just in terms of his craft but his sophistication as a satirist as well.

Certainly at this juncture in America's literary journey there is no need to expound upon why Twain is one of our greatest writers. We should simply recall Hemingway's pronouncement regarding Missouri's favorite son: "The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That's not the order they're good in."

What might be best then is to road test Twain, so to speak, under current operating conditions to see how well his prose and wit stand up to our multi-tasking, multi-social media, multi-distracted world. To that end the 60 stories ranging from Twain's first hit, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," to his unfinished novel, "The Mysterious Stranger," in this edition were read by this reviewer in various locations throughout Los Angeles County both silently as well as out loud.

Ever the control freak, Twain thoughtfully provided instructions for interacting with his prose: "It is so unsatisfactory to read a noble passage and have no one you love at hand to share the happiness with you. And it is unsatisfactory to read to one's self anyhow — for the uttered voice so heightens the expression." Thus, let the experiment begin.

First stop, a couch in Claremont on a weekday evening. With a busy cat kneading away on a blanket and an impatient, distracted teenager who lives to text his friends sitting in a nearby easy chair, a random opening turns to "Cannibalism in the Cars" (1868). Hysterically funny, this trenchant commentary about the culture of "Congressional affairs" features a delicious riposte of parliamentary procedure. The conclusion arrives with Twain's trademark snapper where the reader is left with a conundrum of deciding whether the former Congressman is a babbling lunatic or a bloodthirsty cannibal. Either possibility comes replete with its own rich satiric implications. Read aloud, Twain best holds the 16-year-old's attention when the bodies start disappearing and the possible implications are realized.

A late spring day on the beach in Malibu. Plopping down on the sand with crying seagulls overhead, "A Ghost Story" (1888) is the day's selection. Every scary, gothic cliche imaginable is employed to tell the tale. An abandoned building in Manhattan, a dark and stormy night, cobwebs in the face, invisible fingers tugging down the blankets, heavy footsteps — enough prompts for an entire Tim Burton film. Then the joke arrives when the terrified boarder tells the ghost of the Cardiff Giant, a.k.a. the Petrified Man, who is on display in the museum across across the street: "Why you blundering old fossil, you have had all your trouble for nothing — you have been haunting a plaster cast of yourself. . . ." In short, the ghost should have been in Albany where the "real" Petrified Man was kept. There is, though, the double joke for readers in the know. The petrified man in Albany was a fake as well, and Twain's entire story is a tall tale based on a real hoax.

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