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The Latest from Mark Twain
by Deborah Markus

n trying to elicit excitement about a new book, it's generally considered the kiss of death to describe it as "historically interesting." But I'd be remiss not to use just this phrase in regard to a work that's never seen the light of day, by a classic author. On one level, it doesn't much matter how good the writing is: all that matters is that it exists and is now available to the general public. "Good," though, is exactly the word Livy Clemens, Mark Twain's wife, used to describe Twain's recently released A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage when Twain first showed it to her, fresh off his desk, in April of 1876. "Pretty strong language -- for her," Twain added complacently in a letter to his friend William Dean Howells. "However, [her remark] is not original. God said the same of another Creation." This quote, to be found in Roy Blount's afterword to the work, is the kind of laughjolter -- the "snapper," as Twain liked to call it -- that is exactly why we read Twain, why we ought to read Twain, and why it will never be boring to read Twain no matter how good he is for us. And this book is good, though Twain's part in it is relatively small (44 pages out of a total 112) and he coughed it out in two days. You know you've got a genius when he can write 44 pages of anything in two days and have it be even readable, let alone entertaining.

Legible is another matter, and after glancing at the sample pages of Twain's handwriting this book offers I'd like to send some sympathetic words to whoever had to transcribe the manuscript.

If you pride yourself on never reading introductions, this isn't the book for you. You'll resent paying almost two dollars a page even for Twain, which is how much it comes to (plus tax and minus the illustrations by Peter de Seve) if you opt only for the story. Either don't buy it, or break down for once and read the fore- and afterwords, both by Blount and both eminently enjoyable. Read about how Twain had hoped that this story would be only the first in a series, not by him but by other outstanding writers -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bret Harte, and Henry James among others -- all working from the same "skeleton" plot Twain came up with. His friend Howells was editor of the Atlantic at the time, and Twain was wild to have him run these stories serially. The project never got off the ground. Perhaps there was something less than catchy about Twain's description of it as a "blind novelette." Perhaps the skeleton plot was, as Twain later admitted, too "awkward and overloaded with tough requirements" to entice any other writer to join on. Perhaps, as Twain also began to perceive only when it was too late, the various authors weren't keen on being "trotted in procession" behind Twain.

Or perhaps -- and this is just my own hunch -- the scheme, which Twain badgered Howells about for years (and even tried to push on other editors, when it became clear that Howells couldn't help him), was a passion of Twain's akin to the bizarre bad investments he was famous for making. The man who very nearly lost interest while writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (go ahead and imagine him burning the half-finished manuscript, as he once threatened, and then pour yourself a stiff drink) never tired of throwing money (to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and this was in the nineteenth century, please recall) at dubious inventions. Some of these were products altogether original (which isn't to say good or necessary) -- an elastic adjustment strap for waistcoats, a bed clamp for holding children's sheets in place, and the utterly forgettable Mark Twain's Memory Builder, which The Big Book of Losers describes as testing "players' knowledge of arcane, obscure, and essentially useless history." Some of the inventions were merely new versions of things that already existed, such as steam engines and typesetting machines. All lost Twain money, of which he had quite a lot from his writing. Twain didn't seek business opportunities out of need. He invested when he fell in love, and it's hard to tell whether he was in love with the new gadget or with his own brilliance at investing in it.

Twain never loved by halves. Or hated, either -- read his "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences," or the more serious "In Defence of Harriet Shelley" for a sample of how energetically his venom could flow once he sank his fangs into a subject. Yet even at his most malicious ("Use the right word," he suggests coldly to Cooper, "not its second cousin") there is a certain innocence, a boyishness. We are reminded that this man was at his most brilliant, and most famous, when writing about boyhood.

There are no shades of gray in that happy realm. Love, when it strikes, is consuming, all the stronger for being misguided or even ridiculous. And so Twain, in the midst of political and personal turmoil as well as the greatest novel he would ever write, which some would place among the greatest novels anyone has ever written, became feverishly infatuated with his "blind novelette" project.

And so we have 44 pages of a book whose title says it all and yet doesn't begin to express the convolutions its author was capable of in such a short space. Feuding brothers, star-crossed lovers, a man found unconscious in the middle of deep snow with not a footprint or wheel track to explain how he got there -- this book may not replace Huck Finn as your favorite work by Twain, but you won't be bored, either. So read it. It's good.

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