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!"
What happened over the summer with regard to this project is not known. In June, Sitting Bull's Sioux wiped out General George Custer's cavalry at Little Big Horn. On the Fourth of July, America celebrated its centennial, and later that month Hayes accepted the Republican nomination. In August, Twain set aside the novel he had been working on for the past month. "I have written 400 pages on it therefore it is very nearly half done," he wrote to Howells. "It is Huck Finn's Autobiography. I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have got, & may possibly pigeonhole or burn the MS when it is done."
He had not cooled off, however, on the novelette scheme. On August 23 he wrote to Howells, "We must get up a less elaborate & a much better skeleton-plan ... & make a success of that idea. David Gray spent Sunday here & said we could but little comprehend what a rattling stir that thing would make in the country. He thought it would make a mighty strike."
Who was David Gray? "The gentlest spirit and the loveliest that ever went clothed in clay, since Sir Galahad laid him to rest," according to Twain. They had begun a lifelong friendship in 1870, when Twain was living in Buffalo, where Gray was an editor at the Buffalo Daily Courier and Twain was a contributor to, and part owner of, the rival Buffalo Express. With $25,000 lent him by his future father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, of Elmira, New York, Twain had bought into the Express in 1869, and settled down into marital life. When Sam Clemens married Olivia Langdon and moved into a Buffalo mansion bought for the couple by Jervis, Gray and his family became the Clemenses' only intimate friends in that city. The Buffalo roots did not hold: Jervis Langdon came down with stomach cancer and died; Olivia fell ill and nearly died; her houseguest Emma Nye stayed on to nurse her and came down with typhoid fever and died; and Olivia delivered a premature and never healthy child, Langdon Clemens, who would live for only nineteen months. Twain sold out his interest in the Express at a loss of $10,000 and moved the family to Hartford. But they remained close friends with the Grays. Why, then, would Twain appropriate David's name, in this "mighty strike" of a story, for an "irascible," "generally detested" murder victim?
Let us note that the narrator of Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court lassoes Galahad off his horse. The real-life David Gray was pious and neurasthenic, but a good sport. He was also, like Orion Clemens, a Tilden supporter. In their correspondence Twain and Howells joked that this was a sure sign Tilden would lose. Gray wrote poetry rather like the example of Emmeline Grangerford's given in Huckleberry Finn. He must have been the sort of innocent, like Orion but with money, whose chain Twain loved to pull. Gray seems to have been the first person to whom he showed a sketch he had written, set in the court of Queen Elizabeth, "which shook ... Gray's system up pretty exhaustively." This sketch would be printed privately in 1880 as "1601 Conversation, As It Was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors," a bit of ribaldry that is pretty much one fart joke after another. Then, too, "gray" is an uninspiring mixture of black and white.
In October, Howells wrote that he wasn't having any success generating interest among other writers. He suggested that Twain simplify the plot. Twain said he would: "All it needs is that the hanging & the marriage shall not be appointed for the same day. I got over that difficulty, but it required too much MS to reconcile the thing so the movement of the story was clogged." Later that month Twain wrote again.
I see where the trouble lies. The various authors dislike trotting in procession behind me. I vaguely thought of that in the beginning, but did not give it its just importance. We must have a new deal. The Blindfold Novelettes must be suggested anonymously. [Charles Dudley] Warner says, let this anonymous person say his uncle has died & left him all his property this property consisting of nothing in the world but the skeleton of a novel; he does not like to waste it, yet cannot utilize it himself because he can't write novels ... in which way he hopes to get 6 or 8 novels in place of one, & thus become wealthy.
Now I would suggest that Aldrich devise the skeleton-plan, for it needs an ingenious head to contrive a plot which shall be prettily complicated & yet well fitted for lucid & interesting development in the brief compass of 10 Atlantic pages. My plot was awkward & overloaded with tough requirements.
Warner will fill up the skeleton—for one. No doubt Harte will; will ask him. Won't Mr. Holmes? Won't Henry James? Won't Mr. Lowell, & some more of the big literary fish?
If we could ring in one or two towering names beside your own, we wouldn't have to beg the lesser fry very hard. Holmes, Howells, Harte, James, Aldrich, Warner, Trobridge [sic], Twain—now there's a good & godly gang—team, I mean everything's a team, now.
Nearly three years later, in April of 1879, Twain was still writing to Howells, "Can't you get up a plot for a 'skeleton novelette' & find two or three fellows to join us in writing the stories? Five of us would do. I can't seem to give up that idea." Five years after that he was pushing the idea, unsuccessfully, on Century magazine and George Washington Cable. What was the fascination?
He had begun a similar sketch in his notebook in July of 1868 (the same month that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted citizenship to former slaves). The narrator is "John L. Morgan, of Illinois, a farmer & a man of good reputation," who tells of finding, on a plain covered by fifteen inches of snow, an emaciated man who does not look like an American. Morgan thinks, "He was too weak to hold his horse, & has been thrown from a wagon or from the saddle." And yet "there was no sign of wheel, hoof or boot anywhere around."
The stranger is carried to the farmer's house. A doctor is summoned and neighbors gather, advancing theories as to how such a thing can have happened: "The spiritualists came to the conclusion that the spirits brought the man there, & this seeming to be the most reasonable idea yet advanced, spiritualism rose perceptibly in the favor of unbelievers." The stranger awakes and begins to speak in an unknown tongue. The schoolmaster arrives, diagnoses it as French, and translates. The stranger is Jean Pierre Marteau, who ran away from his village home at sixteen and went to sea. Unjustly, he was convicted of a killing. After nearly seven years as a galley slave and several failed escape attempts, he was on a work detail in Paris when, under guard, he came upon a crowd around "an immense balloon swaying about ... made fast to the ground by a rope."
A man was making a little speech. He begged the multitude to be patient ... The balloon was distended with gas, & struggling to get away. An idea flashed like lightning through my brain. I tore loose from the guard, snatched the hatchet from his hand, threw my tools into the car, jumped in & cut the anchoring rope with a single stroke!
Whiz! I was a thousand feet in the air in an instant.
There the entry ends. Later Twain added a note: "While this was being written, Jules Verne's 'Five Weeks in a Balloon' came out, & consequently this sketch wasn't finished."
Too bad, because it has more intrinsic whiz than "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage." Verne's international best-sellerdom began with Five Weeks in a Balloon. Can Twain's obsession with the skeleton-plot project have derived from resentment over Verne's having invented science fiction just as Twain was getting his balloon off the ground? In 1878 Twain tried to discourage Orion from writing an imitation of Verne: "I think the world has suffered so much from that French idiot that they could enjoy seeing him burlesqued but I doubt if they want to see him imitated." Some fifteen years later Twain himself tried to burlesque Five Weeks in a Balloon. In Tom Sawyer Abroad he sent Tom, Huck, and Jim up in a balloon with a character called The Professor, who falls overboard above the Atlantic. It is a bad book. At any rate, Twain was a highly competitive author, much given to putting himself up against others.
Which brings us to that "good & godly gang." In Tom Sawyer, the book that Twain had most recently finished, Tom makes a great production of organizing himself, Huck, and their friend Joe Harper into a band of pirates. They steal away from their homes, commandeer a raft, and float down the Mississippi to an island. Joe and Huck keep getting tired of the game, but Tom rallies them, especially after he slips back home, eavesdrops, and is gratified to learn that everyone in the village thinks the boys have drowned. Instead of showing himself and dispelling poor Aunt Polly's grief, he goes back to the island and keeps the gang together for a couple of days until they can show up triumphantly at their own funeral, just as the entire congregation has been reduced to tears. Tom thereby wins affection from Aunt Polly, the envy of other boys in school, and the heart of Becky Thatcher. At the end of the book Tom is planning a new gang—of robbers. "A robber is more high-toned than what a pirate is ... In most countries, they're awful high up in the nobility—dukes and such." Huck has escaped from the civilizing clutches of the Widow Douglas, but he agrees to give respectability another try when Tom tells him it is the only way he can be included in the new gang.
Huck is Twain's disreputable and good-hearted side, Tom his manipulative, reputation-hungry side. Lowell and Holmes were the crème of eastern literary society, Aldrich a rising figure in those circles, Howells the nation's leading literary arbiter. Harte had been Twain's mentor when Twain was learning to write, out in California, and had preceded Twain to literary recognition and fame in the East. Trowbridge was best known as the author of "Darius Green and His Flying Machine," a whimsical poem about a farm boy trying to impress his peers by constructing a set of wings and trying to fly with them from a barnyard loft. (That poem's last lines, "On spreading your wings for a loftier flight, / The moral is—Take care how you light," rather resemble the last words of "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage.") But Trowbridge was also a longtime contributor to The Atlantic and the author of serious books, including one that recounted his postwar tour of the South, where he saw farmers literally ploughing around corpses. Warner was a co-editor of the Hartford Courant and an established author with whom Twain had recently collaborated in writing The Gilded Age (1873), a satire on Reconstruction-era corruption. If Twain had managed to get all these big and middling fish following "in procession behind me," he would have set himself ahead of just about every considerable literary element in America at the time. Oh, and James was the only young writer who attracted from Howells anything like the fond support he conferred on Twain.
Of all the gang that Twain hoped to enlist in his project, the most unlikely was Henry James. Can any sane person, we may ask, have expected to get Henry James's juices flowing with a plot abounding in bumpkins, spleen, assault, and battery? In a story by Henry James it would be not a European fallen into America but an American popping up in Europe; and if, yet, in some sense, falling, then not onto a prairie of all things but—if alfresco, indeed, must be—into, or rather in, the charming garden of a richly paneled estate of a woman dressed all in black—but a black that strikes the observer's needle eye as light and transparent—a woman, in fine, who knows something that may well be evil, for all that she does not "turn" a "hair"; and if, after all, indeed fallen, not fallen, in any case, from a balloon. People do not fall from, having never had a priori the faintest of inclinations to clamber into, balloons in stories by Henry James. Nor are they stabbed by knives (glances, yes); if they die at all, they expire of causes no more heavily definite than, comme on dit, something sociosomatic, assuming that in any very much more coarsely corporeal sense than the psychological they for that matter have in the first place "lived" at all, if to live is to be negotiably up to whatever it is that Europeans ...
Consider, in Twain's story, this sentence: "It was a man." That, in a story by Henry James, would not, as the master himself might put it, "do." Nothing so rude, nothing so uninflected, nothing so blockily un-ductile—nothing, in short, so short—would serve.
But here we are thinking in terms of the mature James. As of 1876 James was still early. His style had not yet attained the subtlety of even The Bostonians, about which Twain wrote Howells in 1885 that he "would rather be damned to John Bunyan's heaven" than read it—much less the daunting complexity of the later fiction, in which even Howells rather lost interest (as he never did in Twain's). James had published readily readable ghost stories in The Atlantic. What made Henry so fine, that he wouldn't want in on a project of Mark's?
Twain/Clemens had a lifelong fascination with pairs (often a good boy set off against a bad boy), twins (preferably Siamese), dream selves, doubleness, imposters, opposites joined. He and James—who was eight years younger and lived six years beyond Twain's death—were the great heads and tails of American fiction in the late nineteenth century. And neither intended to settle for tails. Twain's personality, prose, and humor were outgoing, broad, and visceral, James's introverted and refined. Twain created a great illusion of speech happening before us on the page, James of cogitation. Twain loved to draw powerful people into his orbit, as James was sensitive enough to realize. The two met several times over the years. After an early encounter, at dinner in London in 1879, James wrote to Howells that Twain was "a most excellent pleasant fellow ... what they call here very 'quaint.' Quaint he is!" This was the year after James published Daisy Miller, portraying a surpassingly charming and above all innocent American girl whose ingenuousness brings her to grief abroad. In 1900 James reported in a letter to his sister, Alice, that in a recent conversation Twain had offered "a muddled and confused glimpse of Lord Kelvin, Albumen, Sweden and half a dozen other things," but the confusion—though Twain's drawl no doubt had a good deal to do with it—was mostly James's: Twain had been referring not to Lord Kelvin but to a fashionable Swedish osteopath named Kellgren.
Leon Edel has written,
A little touch [of this confusion] would be imported into The Ambassadors in the character of the dyspeptic Waymarsh. This hypothesis gains some credence when we discover, in James's original plan for the novel, that the character was first named Waymark. The "sacred rage" of Waymark-Waymarsh has in it perhaps a touch of the sacred rage of Mark Twain.
Lambert Strether, the central character of The Ambassadors (1903), is much like James himself: detached from life but tremulously sensitive to the faintest social vibration, like the boy in school who never quite gets the whole guy thing and therefore notices everything. Sam Clemens was a sickly and bookish child and a nervous, delicately built man. Howells took note of his "taper fingers and pink nails, like a girl's," and of his "sensitively quivering in moments of emotion." Twain's lifelong bent for mischief and adventure may have been a semi-conscious effort not to be such a fellow as Strether.
The rich American woman Strether hopes dispassionately to marry sends him to Paris to see about her son, Chad Newsome, who, she fears, is associating with a Frenchwoman of the world. Waymarsh, his fellow American in Paris, is a gruff, unsubtle ("The only tone he aimed at with confidence was a full tone") former congressman (irony there, Twain having defined Congress as America's only native criminal class) who indeed resembles Twain physically—"the great political brow, the thick loose hair, the dark fuliginous eyes." At one point Strether sees Waymarsh "looking out, in marked detachment, at the Rue de Rivoli ... —it was immense how Waymarsh could mark things."
"Oh, he's much more in the real tradition than I," Strether says, and "He's a success of a kind I haven't approached" (Twain's books made lots of money, James's precious little). Waymarsh "doesn't understand—not one little scrap," one worldly character says. "He's delightful. He's wonderful."
Very belatedly, Strether figures out ("Is she bad?") that Chad is indeed caught up in chic adultery. And although Strether is both shocked and fascinated, he doesn't interfere, though this means sacrificing his own marital future. Realizing that he has missed out on life, he proclaims to youth—in the person of Chad's friend, an icky self-described "little artist-man" named Little Bilham—that a person should go ahead and "Live!" (The Ambassadors, according to James, was inspired by a similar bit of advice that was conferred on a real young man by the comparably timid Howells.) Waymarsh, whom Strether has never quite trusted, blows the whistle on Strether to Mrs. Newsome and winds up as the conquest—in some Jamesian sense—of the unappealing Mrs. Pocock from back home. So it wasn't Twain who managed to co-opt James, but au contraire.
Twain, Edel wrote, was "the historian and embodiment of a kind of American innocence" that James "devoted his lifetime to studying." In "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" the words "innocence," "guiltless," "guiltlessness," "pure," "purity," "purer," "simple-hearted," "unsuspecting," and "artless" appear fifteen times altogether, "guilt" or "guilty" three. A fallen man in the midst of pure driven snow tries to impose guilt on an honest man, but innocence wins out. Twain's first big book was Innocents Abroad; the book of his that he pronounced his favorite, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, celebrated at stultifying length the innocence of the Maid of Orléans. And he dubbed his house in Redding, Connecticut, the one he died in, Innocence at Home—until his daughter made him change it to Stormfield.
Several elements in "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" recur in the second half of Huckleberry Finn. The intrafamily feud evokes the interfamily one between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons; Twain set the novel aside just before that feud flared into violence. The fake Count presages the greatly more memorable King and Duke. Hugh Gregory's belated response to continued insults anticipates Sherburn's shooting of Boggs. The fallen balloonist is in effect a runaway slave. And in both works innocence condemned is vindicated in the nick of time. One moment in the story, inconspicuous as it is, resonates throughout Twain's writing. It is when the preacher brings glad tidings, he thinks, and John Gray responds with an embarrassing silence, and Mrs. Gray begins with "Our great news" and her husband shouts, "Hold your tongue, woman!" And "the simple mother shrank away, dumb ... and then the clergyman made his way out of the place with as little ease and as little grace as another man might who had got a kick where he looked for a compliment."
Innocence slapped down. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck finds Jim weeping with remorse. He is remembering the time when he told his little daughter to shut the door.
"She never done it; jis' stood dah, kiner smilin' up at me. It make me mad; en I says agin, mighty loud, I says:
"'Doan' you hear me?—shet de do'!'
"She jis' stood de same way, kiner smilin' up. I was abilin'! I says:
"'I lay I make you mine!'
"En wid dat I fetch' her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin'. Den I went into de yuther room, en 'uz gone 'bout ten minutes; en when I come back, dah was dat do' a-stannin' open yit, en dat chile stannin' mos' right in it, a-lookin' down and mournin', en de tears runnin' down. My, but I wuz mad, I was agwyne for de chile, but jis' den—
The wind slammed the door shut but the child didn't blink, and Jim realized that scarlet fever had left her "deef en dumb—en I'd been a-treat'n her so!"
Twain's work is full of such moments. Huck's father beats him for no reason. (Huck's response is as affectless as Orion's letter about everyone's walking out on his speech.) Aunt Polly slaps Tom Sawyer when it was his pious brother, Sid, who really broke the sugar bowl. (Tom, characteristically, finds that he is "morosely gratified" by this rare excuse for self-pity—even, in the long run, empowered. Becky Thatcher calls him "noble" for taking a licking in school for something she did.) A late, maudlin story, "A Dog's Tale," is narrated by a dog who drags the family baby away from a fire in the nursery but is beaten by the father (another Mr. Gray), who, not having noticed the fire yet, thinks the dog is hurting the baby. "I did not know what I had done," the dog says, "yet I judged it was something a dog could not understand, but which was clear to a man and dreadful."
Twain's way of telling a story risks deadly silence for the satisfaction of slaying the audience: a benign exploitation of innocence; the pause, while the audience thinks "what th' ... ?"; and then the snapper. That sort of rhythm can be sustained, and renewed, over the course of a sentence, a paragraph, a sketch, a speech, or an episode, but it isn't plot. Plot requires a larger structure and a somewhat quieter and more resounding resolution. What was wrong with Twain's skeleton-novelette project was that plot, the macro-mechanics of a work, is what he was worst at. "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" is the only thing he ever wrote, I believe, in which events are resolved in venerable comic-plot tradition—by marriage. Indeed, the title suggests a traditional three-part structure, and the story seems to bear the title out. But the initial mystery—where the stranger came from—doesn't really have much bearing on the murder or the marriage. After the marriage the restless narrative comes back to the original mystery by taking off after Jules Verne.
Twain's books tend to digress in all directions except when held together for a while by some unimposed force such as the Mississippi River. His stories are sketches or anecdotes, his novels episodic and unshapely. In life he was fascinated by machines, but they did not agree with him: he went broke backing a marvelous typsetting machine that fizzled. He was at his best—America's unequaled comic master—when language carried him along. "As long as a book would write itself," he wrote in one of his autobiographical ramblings, "I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag, but the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures and conducting its conversations, I put it away and dropped it out of my mind."
Perhaps he didn't want anything, even a book, to be what he was afraid everything—the death of his younger brother, the death of his sickly son, the death of his favorite daughter—was: his fault. In his dark moods he would blame God for not existing. (His extremely distant father died when he was eleven.) In general he expected women, and Howells, and America, to coddle him. (His mother was fun-loving and relatively indulgent; his wife called him "Youth.") The humorous storyteller's strategy, as Twain wrote, is to feign innocence so as to trip up the audience's. Perhaps the deeper purpose is to preserve the humorist's own. Was his story project a joke he hoped, consciously or unconsciously, to pull not so much on Jules Verne as on his American literary rivals? Was that why he was so determined to hand them a skeleton—and then stand back, innocently, and watch them wrestle with it? Were they wary of being sandbagged by his balloon?
Or was he struggling with some skeleton of his own? The tone of his story is anything but ingratiating. In the interrupted notebook sketch the townspeople who wonder at the man in the snow are unsophisticated but amiable, and open to outside information. They are not to be dismissed as people whose "hearts," to quote Twain's summary of Deer Lick's citizens, "were in hogs and corn." Laurence McClain, one of the few critics who have given much attention to "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," has argued that it is the turning point in Twain's attitude toward Hannibal, Missouri, the village of his boyhood.
McClain points out that before this story, notably in Tom Sawyer, the fictional small towns that Twain modeled after Hannibal were "drowsy and peaceful," a challenge for a mischievous boy but infused with "communal virtue and harmony," in the light of which the boy hero wins universal approval. In The Gilded Age the inhabitants of Hawkeye, Missouri, are, in Twain's words, "uncouth and not cultivated, and not particularly industrious; but they were honest and straightforward, and their virtuous ways commanded respect." In "Old Times on the Mississippi" he described Hannibal as a "white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning," enlivened suddenly by the gladsome arrival of a steamboat. In the first half of Huckleberry Finn, as Henry Nash Smith has noted, "The image of Hannibal has lost its magical power to generate the sense of security that defines Tom [Sawyer]'s world. The dream of innocence has not entirely vanished, but is now associated not with the town but with the natural setting."
Whereas everything in Deer Lick—except the snow and the featureless young lovers and the nick-of-time reprieve—is squalid. And the villagers that Huck Finn encounters down the river in the second half are mean, cowardly, greedy, lazy ...
Let's take a look at the evolution of Twain's politics. When the Civil War broke out, shutting down commercial steamboat traffic on the Mississippi and ending his career as a pilot (he did not want to be impressed into military transport duty and be shot at from both sides of the river), Twain joined a volunteer brigade of the Confederate Army. After a couple of weeks he lit out for the far western territories, where he stayed until the fighting was well over. His politics right after the war may be inferred from entries in his notebook for 1868, just before and after the interrupted fallen-balloonist sketch. Before it, among notes from his recent voyage to California, we find his free interpretation of an uprising in the Colombian province of Panama (which he had crossed by train). American business interests, afraid that the Colombian government would seize the railroad,
hurried down to Panama with a cargo of wines & liquors, & at the end of 3 days had everybody drunk, a riot under way, the seeds of a promising revolution planted, & the Pres in prison. Result, the renewal of the lease to the Amer Co for 99 years, for $1,000,000. There is nothing like knowing your men.
... all it is necessary to do is to cry Viva Revolucion! at head of street, & instantly is commotion. Doors slammed to, 50 soldiers march forth & cripple half dozen niggers in their shirt tails, a new Presi. is elevated, & then for 6 mos (till next Rev) the proud & happy survivors inquire eagerly of new comers what was said about it in Amer & Europe.
After the sketch, and a joke involving Indians and mustard, comes this with regard to domestic politics:
Political parties who accuse the one in power of gobbling the spoils &c, are like the wolf who looked in at the door & saw the shepherds eating mutton & said—
"Oh certainly—it's all right as long as it's you—but there'd be hell to pay if I was to do that!"
At that time the national political parties were the economy-minded Democrats and the more ideological Republicans. The Democrats were dominated by southerners, big-city political machines, and the Irish and other northerners who had been unenthusiastic about the war effort (the Irish because they couldn't afford to avoid the draft) and had no desire to press Reconstruction. The radical Republicans controlled Congress, which had impeached and nearly deposed Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, because he didn't want to punish the South or grant full citizenship to former slaves. The Republicans elected Ulysses S. Grant, the former commander of the Union Army, to succeed Johnson in 1868. Twain the wild westerner had no dog in that fight.
But then he settled in Buffalo and married a woman from a staunch abolitionist family. For Livy he swore off liquor and tobacco (temporarily). He would "quit wearing socks," he said, "if she thought them immoral." Her father set him up financially. The literati around The Atlantic were solidly radical Republican. And so, by now, was Twain. Grant, whom he may have met briefly in late 1867, became his hero. And in fact he did take an interest in the Hayes-Tilden race—the first presidential campaign, he said, that he had cared about one way or the other. In August of 1876 Howells wrote Twain that he was working on a campaign biography of Hayes, who was his wife's first cousin. Twain wrote back that Hayes's letter to the Republican convention, accepting its nomination, "was amply sufficient to corral my vote without any further knowledge of the man." Twain had been asked by Democrats in Jersey City "to be present at the raising of a Tilden ... flag there & take the stand & give them some 'counsel.' Well, I ... gave them counsel & advice ... as to the raising of the flag—advised them 'not to raise it.'"
"Why don't you come out with a letter, or speech, or something, for Hayes?" Howells replied. "I honestly believe that there isn't another man in the country who could help him so much as you."
Twain wrote back that he might, but not "until the opportunity comes in a natural, justifiable & unlugged way; & shall not then do anything unless I've got it all digested & worded just right ... When a humorist ventures upon the grave concerns of life he must do his job better than another man or he works harm to his cause." But—losing all hesitancy—he urged Howells not to forget the skeleton-plot project. A few days later Twain wrote Howells to joke that Hayes ought to appoint an old poet friend of Twain's—"poor, sweet, pure-hearted, good-intentioned, impotent" Charles Warren Stoddard—to a consulship, because he had "no worldly sense," and advised Howells that Hayes's victory was assured, because the mercurial Orion had suddenly become a Democrat, and possibly a "Mohammedan."
On September 30 Twain did make a brief speech at a Republican rally in Hartford. According to newspaper accounts, he said he represented "the literary tribe," who usually stayed out of politics but were backing Hayes because he stood for good government and a civil-service system based on merit, not political connections.
Our present civil system, born of General Jackson and the democratic party, is so idiotic, so contemptible, so grotesque, that it would make the very savages of Dahomey jeer and the very god of solemnity laugh ... We even require a plumber to know something [Laughter, and a pause by the speaker] about his business [More laughter], that he shall at least know which side of a pipe is the inside ... [Yet] we put the vast business of a custom house in the hands of a flathead who does not know a bill of lading from a transit of Venus [laughter and a pause]—never having heard of either of them before, [and entrusted the Treasury Department to] an ignorant villager who never before could wrestle with a two-weeks' wash-bill without getting thrown.
The diplomatic corps, he said, spoke only English, and that by way of "flourishing the scalps of mutilated parts of speech." There was even an ambassador "whose moral ceiling has a perceptible shady tint to it."
Howells wrote him that he had made a big hit. Republican and Democratic newspapers alike had quoted his speech, and "Lowell was delighted with your hit at plumbers."
"Of course the printers would leave off the word 'gas-' from 'pipe' in my remark about the plumbers," Twain responded, "thus marring the music & clearness of the sentence."
On Election Day, Twain wrote Howells that the inconclusive returns coming in made him "lift up my voice and swear." Bret Harte, who had been his houseguest off and on for months (they had been writing a play together, and wearing out their friendship), astonished Twain by appearing to be "the only serene and tranquil voter in the United States." Harte's explanation was appalling: through connections he had been promised a consulship by both Hayes and Tilden. He couldn't afford to vote at all, he said, because he might by chance vote for the loser, and the winner might find out. That was his only interest in the matter. Twain remained "an ardent Hayes fan." Howells wrote to his father that Twain was "the most comfortable Republican I have met in a long while; hereabouts, you know, they are a very lukewarm brotherhood."
Indeed they were, with regard to Reconstruction (if not plumbers). By 1876 the Republican Party had already lost interest in imposing that skeletal plot on the South. Hayes's nomination-acceptance letter, which had so impressed Twain, made that clear even as the election campaign began. Hayes campaigned for reconciliation, which meant letting the North and the South get together again on grounds of white supremacy.
In The Gilded Age, Twain and Warner had portrayed the character Colonel Sellers as delighted by the opportunities Reconstruction opened up—for graft. He wants to sell some Tennessee land to the government to build a college for freed slaves. As Ward Just has written about the novel's portrait of the period, "There's public money available for any project with 'Negro' or 'Indian' attached to it. The mantra throughout the book is the cry, 'There's millions in it!'" Twain might blame corruption in government on Jacksonian Democrats, but the public quite reasonably associated it with the scandal-ridden Republican Administration under Grant. In 1873 the sort of corruption and greed satirized in The Gilded Age had contributed to a financial panic and a severe national depression. Accordingly, voters in the 1874 congressional elections had replaced a 198-88 Republican majority in the House with a 169-109 Democratic one. In 1876 the Republicans were running scared. And as David W. Blight puts it in his new book, Race and Reunion, "No true national consensus ever gathered around the cause of black liberty and equality except as it was necessary to restoring and reimagining the republic itself. But Americans generally had run low on imagination about racial matters by ."
W hat the Republicans wanted was to reconstruct their party. What white America wanted was to reconstruct the Union. And what Mark Twain wanted was to reconstruct himself.
As soon as Hayes was declared the winner, Twain started trying to lobby the White House, through Howells, for political appointments for people he knew (upstanding ones, to be sure). None of his candidates got anything. And when Twain heard that Harte, whom he had come to despise, was indeed under consideration, he denounced him in a letter he asked Howells to forward to Hayes. Howells, taking care that Twain should not hear about it, in fact put in a good word for Harte, who got a consular position in Germany. Twain was beside himself. "Harte," he wrote to Howells, "is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery, & he conceals his Jewish birth as carefully as if he considered it a disgrace ... To send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much." He felt "personally snubbed" that the President had "silently ignored my testimony."
In fact, Harte's character (and writing) had deteriorated considerably, and would continue to do so, but Harte needed a job. Twain's needs were greater—he needed America to hang on his word, which meant working out some sort of politics higher-minded than resentment of Bret Harte but less quixotic than demanding to know whatever happened to the goals of Reconstruction.
In office Hayes bore out Henry Adams's assessment of him as a "third-rate nonentity." When the Republicans nominated James Garfield, in 1880, Twain made a speech for him. After the election Twain wrote to remind Garfield that he had backed him, and to urge that the great runaway slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass, whom he described as "a personal friend of mine," be kept on as marshal of the District of Columbia. Douglass, who did get another federal job, wrote Twain to thank him. In a speech to the Republican convention of 1876 Douglass had asked, "Do you mean to make good to us the promises in your constitution?" By 1880 he knew the answer: no. He described himself as a "field hand" for the Republican Party. Twain, for his part, had positioned himself well.
Then Garfield was assassinated and replaced by his Vice President, Chester A. Arthur—whose involvement in civil-service corruption Twain had mocked, implicitly, in his 1876 speech for Hayes. In 1884 Twain found a stance from which he could make fun in all directions: he became a Mugwump.
The Republican candidate for President, James Blaine, had been implicated in shady financial dealings. His Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland, had fathered a child by a woman to whom he wasn't married—which disqualified him in Howells's eyes. But Twain wrote Howells,
To see grown men, apparently in their right mind, seriously arguing against a bachelor's fitness for President because he has had private intercourse with a consenting widow! Those grown men know what the bachelor's other alternative was [prostitutes, presumably]—& tacitly they seem to prefer that to the widow. Isn't human nature the most consummate sham & lie that was ever invented?
Be that as it might, Twain (though generally, in public, blue nosed about sex) forsook his party to vote for Cleveland, whom he chose to see as the candidate of reform. In so doing he joined a good and godly gang indeed. It included President Charles W. Eliot, of Harvard, and Charles Francis Adams, of the Boston Adamses. Derided in the press as "little Mugwumps," mugquomp being an Algonquin Indian word for "chief," they began to call themselves Mugwumps with pride. The label suited Twain right down to the ground: it had a funny sound to it, and it connoted innocence. "We, the mugwumps, a little company made up of the unenslaved of both parties," he recalled in his Autobiography, "had no axes to grind."
Cleveland won, and Twain paid him a visit. Cleveland told him a joke. In A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court the narrator, Hank Morgan, hears the same joke from a knight.
It was one which I had heard attributed to every humorous person who had ever stood on American soil, from Columbus down to Artemus Ward. It was about a humorous lecturer who flooded an ignorant audience with the killingest jokes for an hour and never got a laugh; and then when he was leaving, some grey simpleton wrung him gratefully by the hand and said it had been the funniest thing they had ever heard and "it was all they could do to keep from laughin' right out in meetin'." That anecdote never saw the day that it was worth the telling; and yet I had sat under the telling of it hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of times, and cried and cursed all the way through.
Morgan has the knight hanged.
Twain had a friend in the diplomatic corps whom he wanted to recommend to Cleveland—but how could he do so and "save my mugwump purity undefiled"? His solution was to write in his friend's behalf to Cleveland's daughter, Ruth, not yet two years old. Cleveland assured him in a personal letter that his friend would keep his post.
When Twain's favorite daughter, Susy (on whom he modeled his portrait of Joan of Arc), was writing, in her teens, a biography of her father, she asked him for a statement about himself. He said, "I am a mugwump and a mugwump is pure from the marrow out." In a speech in 1900 he would refer to himself in the third person as the last mugwump left—"a Grand Old Party all by himself." By that time the Republican President was a whippersnapper named Teddy Roosevelt, whose imperialism Twain scorned (he called TR a Tom Sawyer type). Democratic-leaning publications that had tended to give Twain little attention were now asking for interviews on issues of the day, which he granted liberally. Sometimes, in interviews and in writing, he vented outrage against the oppression of the weak, but generally the oppressors he attacked were in other countries. His "The United States of Lyncherdom" was a blistering book-length attack, but he agreed with his publisher that he'd better not put it out in his lifetime, for fear of alienating southern book buyers. (It came out in 1923.)
By 1906, when he was dictating the long autobiographical ramblings that still have not been published in full, his aspersions were on mankind in general—though he argued that human nature couldn't help it, that mankind was a machine shaped by forces it couldn't control. His thinking on the 1876 election had swung around to the point where he looked on its outcome as "one of the Republican party's most cold-blooded swindles of the American people, the stealing of the presidential chair from Mr. Tilden, who had been elected, and the conferring of it upon Mr. Hayes, who had been defeated." He wrote, "I have since convinced myself that the political opinions of a nation are of next to no value, in any case."
Reconstruction didn't figure into his recollection. After he died, in 1910, muttering something about Jekyll and Hyde, the nation mourned. The last words of Howells's tribute, My Mark Twain, set him not among but above all the writers Twain could have wanted to gang up with: "Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes—I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature."
But by failing to respond as we might expect to the historical moment of 1876, hadn't our literary Lincoln failed to carry on the truth of the Emancipation Proclamation? No. In 1876, as a national consensus sloshed a reconciliationist glaze over the issues left unresolved in the aftermath of slavery, Mark Twain's writing began—in "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage." He began to acknowledge that the roots of his innocence were in a village corrupted by slavery. In the second half of Huckleberry Finn good-natured people are abused over and over again by meanness, callousness, and violence. Throughout the rest of his writing career the great pursuit of America's greatest humorist was to snatch empathetic comedy from the jaws of intentional and unintentional cruelty. Many of his contemporaries achieved great popularity by writing nostalgically about the culture of slavery. We can see right through their work today. And by today's standards Twain's racial attitudes were often embarrassingly still under construction—but his writing hangs on to a raw innocence that burns away smugness. The radical-Republican Reconstruction was an imposed plot that wouldn't take hold. Mark Twain's personal reconstruction is tricky, awkward, and still alive.
In Huckleberry Finn, just before Twain's writing hiatus, Huck plays a mean trick on Jim. Huck has been separated from the raft in a storm, and Jim has gone to sleep grief-stricken because he thinks Huck has drowned. When Jim wakes up and finds to his delight that Huck is back on the raft, Huck convinces him that he dreamed the entire episode. When Jim realizes that his good nature has been taken advantage of, he tells Huck that "trash ... is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed ..."
"It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it,"Huck says, "and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards."
Jim's joy, Huck's cruelty, Jim's credulousness, Jim's indignation, Huck's pride, and Huck's apology and relief—all different forms of innocence bouncing off one another on a field of shame.
Why, after all, was Twain so obsessed with purity? Some childhood issue, no doubt—and for him that's what slavery was. One night when he was four he was kept awake by the groans of a runaway slave who had been captured, beaten, and tied up in a shack near his house. While still a boy he was out in a boat on the river when the mutilated body of another slave rose to the surface before his eyes. In 1896 he was checking into a Bombay hotel when "a burly German" who worked there saw a hotel servant doing something to his dissatisfaction.
Without explaining what was wrong [he] gave the native a brisk cuff on the jaw and then told him where the defect was ... The native took it with meekness ... not showing in his face or manner any resentment. I had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back to my boyhood, and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the usual way of explaining one's desires to a slave. I was able to remember that the method seemed right and natural to me in those days ... but I was also able to remember that those unresented cuffings made me sorry for the victim and ashamed for the punisher ... When I was ten years old I saw a man fling a lump of iron-ore at a slave-man in anger, for merely doing something awkwardly ... It bounded from the man's skull, and the man fell and never spoke again. He was dead in an hour. I knew the man had a right to kill his slave if he wanted to, and yet it seemed ... somehow wrong ... Nobody in the village approved of that murder, but of course no one said much about it ...
For just one second, all that goes to make the me in me was in a Missourian village, on the other side of the globe ... and the next second I was back in Bombay, and that kneeling native's smitten cheek was not done tingling yet!
Murder, mystery, and—between North and South, black and white, First World and Third—a marriage of sorts. After the Civil War, Twain moved, through his connection with The Atlantic, to purge himself of the stigma of Southernness—not his fault—that tainted him in the eyes of respectable literary society. Then he found that America, from Boston on out, wanted to forget the shame of slavery. Deftly though he maneuvered to fix himself thereafter in the national mind, in his mind the shame rose more and more to the surface. "The skin of every human being," he wrote, "contains a slave." He could at least make America flinch before it laughed. He kept trying to reconstruct and deconstruct the smiting of innocence, and the shuddering silence that follows it.