Mark Twain's Reconstruction

"A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" and its moment in history 

There's a nub or snapper for you—dumping the burden of guilt into the lap of Jules Verne, and Verne overboard into thin air, and leaving open the possibility of a sequel set in either hell or France, which in Twain's Francophobic mind were similar. Postmodern, we might call this fusion of unrealistic fiction and unobjective criticism.

And yet that snapper has been followed by 125 years of silence. If by any chance Twain has found himself, to his surprise, in heaven, he may be looking down on us now, irritably, wondering whether he will ever be able to look up from that story with mock-innocent surprise, triumphant in having sprung true surprise upon the unsuspecting.

As it is, the reader may just be left wondering what Twain had against Jules Verne. We will come to that. The reader may also be wondering why the whole story is marked by ill (in more than one sense) humor. It hardly seems to have sprung from the same imagination that had so recently been producing the friendship of Huck and Jim and the following portrait, in Huck's words, of the late teenage mortuary poet Emmeline Grangerford:

Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker—the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme for the dead person's name, which was Whistler. She warn't ever the same, after that; she never complained, but she kind of pined away and did not live long.

What was bugging Mark Twain in 1876, to make him think up the benighted village of Deer Lick? He was already perhaps the nation's most famous writer. He was ensconced—happily, for a time—in a mansion resembling a steamboat in Hartford, Connecticut, with his well-born, wealthy wife and his first two daughters. Thanks to the influential Howells, Twain had also won critical recognition as far more than a wild western humorist.

In 1869 Howells, then an assistant editor, had taken the unusual step of reviewing in The Atlantic Monthly, with great enthusiasm, a book distributed not by a respectable publishing house but by the more commercial means of advance subscription peddled door to door. Aside from a collection of sketches that had attracted little notice, it was Twain's first book, and one of his best: Innocents Abroad. "I had the luck," Howells later recalled, "if not the sense, to recognize that it was such fun as we had not had before." Twain, clad in a sealskin coat with the fur side out, paid an unannounced visit to the staid Boston offices of The Atlantic to thank the anonymous reviewer, and a warm friendship commenced that would last until Twain's death.

Howells also drew Twain's work into the pages of The Atlantic, which Twain appreciated because, as he put it, the magazine "don't require a 'humorist' to paint himself striped & stand on his head every fifteen minutes." Aside from publishing "A True Story" and other short pieces, Howells encouraged Twain to write for The Atlantic a series of reminiscences about his days as a riverboat captain, "Old Times on the Mississippi," which would later make up the best part of one of his best books, Life on the Mississippi. Howells vetted the manuscript of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which would be published (and praised by Howells in The Atlantic) in 1876.

It was probably during Howells's visit to Hartford the weekend of March 11 (a day or two after Alexander Graham Bell, incidentally, had gotten the first telephone to work) that Twain proposed an editorial package. He and Howells would work up a "skeleton" plot and have twelve authors each "write a story, using the same plot, 'blindfolded' as to what the others had written." On April 2 Howells wrote to the novelist Thomas Bailey Aldrich, another friend of Twain's, who would become Howells's successor as editor of The Atlantic: "I send also a scheme of Mark Twain's which we shall carry out if we can get any one to help. That is he and I will write a story on the proposed basis, if you and two or three others will do so."

On April 22 Twain wrote to Howells that he had gone ahead and composed, in two days, a full-blown version of the story. On April 26 he wrote again to Howells, saying, "Mrs. Clemens says my version of the blindfold novelette ... is 'good.' Pretty strong language for her. However, [her remark] is not original. God said the same of another Creation."

On April 28 Howells wrote back, "Aldrich was here today, and we talked over the Blindfold Novelette business. But we've neither of us begun ours. Can't you send me yours?"

Twain's May 1 reply was both a bit pushy and defensive:

Here is the "Blindfold Novelettes." You will see that I have altered it as we contemplated. The most prominent features in the story being the Murder & the Marriage, the one name will aptly fit all the versions. Then the thing will read thus in the headings:

"A Murder & a Marriage. Story No. 1 ..."

You could add to this screed of mine an editorial bracket to this effect—

"Messrs. Howells, [John T.] Trowbridge, etc., have agreed to furnish versions of this story, but it is also desirable that any who please shall furnish versions of it also, whether the writers be of literary fame or not. The MSS offered will be judged upon their merits & accepted or declined accordingly. The stories should be only 8 or 10 Atlantic pages long.—Ed. Atlantic."

Something of that sort, you know, to keep people from imagining that because my name is attached to the proposition, the thing is merely intended for a joke.

Presumably, what Twain sent then was the skeleton outline, because on May 4 he wrote again that he was coming to Boston and "I'll bring my Blindfold Novelette, but shan't exhibit it unless you exhibit yours. You would simply go to work & write a novelette that would make mine sick. Because you would know all about where my weak points lay. No, Sir, I'm one of these wary old birds!"

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