Mark Twain's "Skeleton Novelette"

An introduction to Mark Twain's "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage"—a work written for these pages 125 years ago and published here for the first time

When he was forty, and the nation was exactly a century old, Mark Twain concocted a project in conjunction with The Atlantic Monthly which came to nothing until now. There's a story in that.

"Very often, of course," Twain wrote in "How to Tell a Story," "the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it."

Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.
Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

Twain, far more than Ward, was a master of such deadpan trickery. Once, at a gala banquet, Twain delivered a toast to Ulysses S. Grant that seemed to be a long, drawn-out insult. He paused "for a sort of shuddering silence" (as he wrote exultantly to his wife, Livy), and then he delivered the snapper. Grant cracked up. "The audience saw that for once in his life he had been knocked out of his iron serenity," Twain wrote Livy. "The house came down with a crash."

Another time he came onstage and just stood there, expressionless, as if he weren't even aware that he was supposed to be the speaker, and realized that he could hold people silent on the edges of their seats for about as long as he wanted to without uttering a word. "An audience captured in that way," he wrote home, "belongs to the speaker, body and soul."

But that's not the only silent verdict an audience can render. A few days before the 1876 presidential election Twain's enduringly clueless older brother, Orion Clemens, who had declared himself an abolitionist back in the 1850s, suddenly went over to the other party, and was given a chance to speak at a Democratic rally. Twain said in a letter to his friend William Dean Howells, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, that Orion "wrote me jubilantly of what a ten-strike he was going to make with that speech."

All right—but think of his innocent & pathetic candor in writing me something like this, a week later: "I was more diffident than I had expected to be, & this was increased by the silence with which I was received when I came forward, so I seemed unable to get the fire into my speech which I had calculated upon, and presently they began to get up & go out, & in a few minutes they all rose up & went away."
How could a man uncover such a sore as that & show it to another? Not a word of complaint, you see—only a patient, sad surprise.

Twain, too, could be sadly surprised on a rostrum. In 1877 he mortified Howells and himself by his insufficiently reverent attempt to pull the venerable legs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—honored guests at a banquet sponsored by The Atlantic. After Howells rose to assure the gathering that here was a humorist who was never offensive, Twain proceeded to spin out a long, straight-faced western yarn in which Longfellow, Holmes, and Emerson seemed to appear as ruffians. Then came the pause, and then the snapper, and then ... none of the honorees laughed. (Emerson was not even paying much attention.) The audience sat, Howells said, in "silence, weighing many tons to the square inch, which deepened from moment to moment."

But we're getting ahead of our story. When Twain conceived the project that is just now coming to partial fruition, it was around the Ides of March in 1876. He proposed to Howells that they round up "a good & godly gang" of authors—including the pre-eminent Boston Brahmins James Russell Lowell and Holmes, the recently lionized mining-camp colorist Bret Harte (from Albany, New York), and the young Henry James—who would each write a story based on one "skeleton" plot devised by Twain. The stories would appear serially in The Atlantic, the nation's foremost bastion of literary standards. Throughout the rest of that year Twain urged Howells to get this unlikely project off the ground. Howells sent out feelers (though, evidently, not to anyone so august as Holmes or Lowell; Howells had taken Twain to meet Lowell two years earlier, and Lowell had not been impressed, except that something about Twain's nose gave fuel to Lowell's belief that all humanity was descended from the Jews). "The difficulty" about the stories, as Howells put it, was "to get people to write them."

At that very moment history was holding its breath. Two projects of enormously greater importance than Twain's skeleton novelette were in abeyance. Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden were engaged in a presidential race whose muddled outcome would have to be resolved by dealmaking in and out of the House of Representatives. And Twain got stuck halfway through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—lost interest, and said he might burn the manuscript.

Two great, and not unrelated, turning points in American history and culture. The result of the election of 1876 would be seen as a betrayal of the verdict of the Civil War. Tilden won the popular vote, owing in good measure to the intimidation of southern blacks, who would have voted Republican, and Hayes won the electoral vote, by 185-184—if you counted the contested results in the states where the votes were never going to be recounted impartially. An Electoral Commission was formed; it voted for Hayes, strictly along party lines. Tilden's Democrats in the House mounted a filibuster, so Hayes's Republicans agreed to remove from the South the federal troops that were enforcing Reconstruction. The party of Lincoln thus relinquished its commitment to advancing the rights and opportunities of emancipated African-Americans. The 1876 election has often been cited in connection with our recent chad-splitting presidential imbroglio, whose outcome has led to apprehension or anticipation that affirmative action, a fruit of the civil-rights movement, will be abandoned as a federal goal. If Reconstruction had worked as planned, we wouldn't have needed a civil-rights movement a hundred years after the war.

And what if Twain had neglected to finish his masterpiece? That novel—in which a poor, good-natured white boy from a slave state comes to respect and assist a runaway slave, in defiance of all the dictates of antebellum society—would blend standard English and New World vernacular, black and white, into the template of American narrative. All modern American literature, Ernest Hemingway would say in 1935, began with that book.

If we could come up with a skeleton plot for the quintessential American writer's career, wouldn't it call for him to realize the momentousness of 1876? Twain himself was a refugee from a slave state and, indeed, from the Confederate Army. His earliest storytelling influence was a slave named Uncle Daniel, who would weave a ghostly web and then jump out at the black and white children gathered around him. "A True Story," Twain's first contribution to The Atlantic, published in 1874, was a poignant tale in the form of an ex-slave's monologue. The Atlantic, though traditionally independent of party affiliation, had firmly supported the abolitionist-Republican position before and during the war. Now Reconstruction, along with the Great American Novel, was hanging in the balance. And yet, judging from the letters between Twain and Howells at the time, what was weighing heavily on Twain's mind was "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," the skeletal project that never went beyond the story you are about to read.

He was coy about showing his version to Howells; whether he ever did, and exactly what happened to the manuscript over the next seventy years or so, is unclear. In 1945 two men who had bought the manuscript from an auction house printed up sixteen copies in hopes of establishing copyright, but the Twain estate sued to prevent publication. Last year the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library acquired the publication rights.

This links the story in another way to the separate halves of Huckleberry Finn. In 1885, the year the novel was finally published (Twain didn't return to writing it until 1879 or 1880), the Young Men's Association Library, in Buffalo, New York, which later became the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, asked Twain to donate the manuscript to its collection. Twain, who had lived briefly in Buffalo some fifteen years earlier, replied that as far as he knew the first half had been destroyed by the printer, but he sent the second half on. A hundred and five years later the first half was discovered—in an attic in, of all places, Hollywood. Researchers on the staff of the Mark Twain Project, at the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, then dug up an 1887 letter in which Twain said he had found the first half after all and was forwarding it to the Young Men's Association Library. The curator there meant to have the first half bound but didn't get around to it. When he died, the manuscript was left in a trunk, which his widow conveyed to Hollywood in the 1920s, when she moved there to be close to her daughter. So the two halves of the handwritten Huckleberry Finn are together in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, which is now enabling publication of one of the distractions that kept the writing of them apart.

Over the years "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" has been overlooked almost entirely by the myriad scholars who have scrutinized every other scrap of Twain's voluminous writing. Mark Twain A to Z (1995), a reliable and comprehensive reference book, confuses it with an earlier, unfinished piece that Twain set down in a notebook in 1868. The Atlantic, at any rate, would not likely have published it back in 1876.

Now it seems more interesting. Does it in any way reflect Twain's deepest concerns? What made him want to share it with such a disparate band of writers (particularly Henry James)? Why did Twain call one of its meanest characters David Gray—the name of a sweet-natured friend of his? What was going on in his mind? And what were Mark Twain's politics anyway?

An afterword to the story will fill in the history of Twain's project and attempt to answer the questions it raises, including what Mugwumpery meant to Twain and what his mark may have been on another great American novel, whose plot has to do with determining and influencing the leanings of a dangling or disconnected character named, as it happens, Chad.

But here follows "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," published for the first time, in the pages for which Mark Twain intended it 125 years ago.