Monday, December 6, 2010

Short Stories and Tall Tales - Mark Twain

Quote of the book:
“In conclusion, I wish to state, by way of advertisement, that medical colleges desiring assorted tramps for scientific purposes, either by the gross, by cord measurements, or per ton, will do well to examine the lot in my cellar before purchasing elsewhere, as these were all selected and prepared by myself, and can be had at a low rate, because I wish to clear out my stock and get ready for the spring trade” (85).

For my final book to study from Mark Twain, I chose to look at a series of his short stories, including the one titled “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crimes in Connecticut”, which the quote above is pulled from. This short story is about a man who wishes for his worst enemy and finds himself face to face with his Conscience. As a result, the two characters have a dialogue. The quote from this short story that I chose is a concluding sentence that wraps up the entire story. I believe this to be a quote that summarizes Mark Twain’s character. The story itself is a serious subject, one of a philosophical and traditional battle of good versus evil. However, it is told in such a manner that it renders things absurd. When the protagonist kills his conscience, he no longer has that voice lingering over him, and as a result, commits a series of crimes. This ending quote highlights that, but in a satirical and creative manner. We see the narrator describe his newfound life without a conscience and makes mention of what he has done, but in a twisted and lighthearted manner. Mark Twain was known for being a humorist, and this closing quote more than clearly shows his humorous qualities.

Many of Mark Twain’s stories have journalistic qualities. Many of them, unlike “Tom Sawyer”, are told from a first-person point of view, but in the sense that these first-person narrators are the characters and not observers. It is interesting to see this sense of reality that is portrayed, and the way the story is told. I am reminded of the magical realism genre, especially of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”. There is a way that the story is told by Marquez that is eerily similar to many of Twain’s works in this collection. It is like a story being passed on from generation to generation, something that Marquez addresses in his stories. They are both telling stories that are meant to be heard by audiences in social situations, or are stories that are full of some sort of elements that audiences will absorb. Both audiences of the writers however, differ due to the method of storytelling and the content itself. Marquez’s have the elements that make it a story that is going to be repeated generation-over-generation by a grandfather to his grandchildren. Meanwhile, the main difference is that Twain’s would be stories more rather discussed by adults during social gatherings. Returning to the journalistic aspects of Mark Twain, I am reminded of many non-fiction works. Many of his short stories, even with magical elements sometimes appearing, it all seemed realistic, especially as a result of his writing style. They are anecdotes filled with absurdities for the reason of entertainment. Both Twain and Marquez are straightforward in what happens in their short stories, the concise nature makes it very memorable as a result.

One of Twain’s writings included in this collection is “A True Story Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It”. This was one of Mark Twain’s non-fiction works and was an account of a story he heard from a woman who had been a slave. Instantly, I made the historical connection to the Civil War and the atrocities of slavery that went on before and during that war. Many firsthand accounts discuss how families were broken apart by slavery and the punishments that many of them faced. This historical connection was also something that I had seen in a childhood book series I had read at one point in time. This was a part of the “American Girls” series, and focused on one character, an African-American girl named Addie who worked as a slave, and made an escape. The rest of the series focuses on her adaptation in the North, however, the first book documents her escape and her family. She had witnessed her brother getting beaten, and even Addie, working in the fields, had been subject to punishment. The most devastating part of it was watching the separation between her family. Only Addie and her mother arrive in their new home together; it isn’t until December that she finds her brother. Aunt Rachel, the character in Mark Twain’s account also suffers from this, she only gets to see one of her children that she sees sold into slavery.

Visual Representation:

This small street in Tennessee was captured in the early 1900s, back in a time of technological progress. One invention was the steamboat, a symbol heavily carried in Twain’s stories. However, this image of the town evoked a lot for me. This time was post Civil War, and the United States was still in a period of repairing its war damages. There was also a booming period of technology, which through looking carefully, could be seen. In Twain’s stories, we could descriptions of these towns through his character’s travels. In one story “Journalism in Tennessee”, Twain’s character is sent to Tennessee: “I was told by the physician that a Southern climate would improve my health” (27). However, in the story, it ends up backfiring with the editors for the newspapers that he meets, who end up bombarding him and driving him mad. It is a hectic world in reality, which makes the situation incredibly ironic. The image, here, portrays the world that the character was thrown in, is a world that is in fact, not what it seems. This quiet and deserted road instead hides the hectic and stirring world of the South that is going through revolution, similar to Mark Twain’s story itself.

1.How much of these short stories are influenced by Mark Twain’s own life and in what ways?
2. What are Mark Twain’s commentaries on society through these short stories?
3. How important is the setting to the events occurring in this book?
4. Consider the moral of “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime”. What is Twain saying about our Consciences?
5. Are any of the morals and commentaries of his stories applicable to today’s society?

What was interesting about Mark Twain’s short stories was the journalistic tone that made all of these stories seem much more like memoirs than fictional stories. These accounts ranged from people that the narrator had known, such as in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. In this, the narrator listens to the story of Jim Smiley and his frog, who continue to celebrate racing victories until his frog is sabotaged. The story is told through the narrator who hears the story from someone he meets one day. The way that Jim Smiley’s story is told is as if he is a legend, a traditional ballad as if told by Shakespeare or Homer.

Something that goes by unappreciated when it comes down to Mark Twain’s writing is the emphasis on character’s dialects. Twain is aware of the differences in speech that differs across the geography of the United States. For example, many apostrophes are used to show the letters that are dropped, especially in characters whose roots stem back to the South. There are also African Americans who speak in his books that also still carry the accent passed down from generation to generation. Their unintelligible accents that are a challenge to read are what makes the story authentic, showing that Twain well-researched in his own world.

What I was most compelled by was the stories that were much more humorous and satirical had satirical messages. I could imagine that these stories being published in various mediums of press and what sort of ideas must have resulted from the publication of these stories. He managed to capture a post-antebellum American South that was in the process of reconstructing after the Civil War had struck. We still see an animosity towards the newly freed slaves. We also see these slaves starting and struggling to adapt to the ever-changing society. Some of these stories are sad, or carry a heavy weight. One of these stories is about Aunt Rachel, who tells her story. It is a moving portrait of hardships that the she has gone through. Other stories however, are told in a more lighthearted manner. All of this is captured in a way that parodies both the Southern and Northern societies.

I found that some stories actually were somewhat bland. Even using his journalistic tendencies, some events are just too ordinary and have no hook. As a result, I found myself uninterested in certain stories. An example of this was “The Danger of Lying In Bed”, which I found to be as far from compelling as possible.

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