Monday, April 21, 2008

Twain, Mystery, and Fate

by Julia Buckley
On this day in 1910, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, died and fulfilled a prediction that he had made about his own demise: that because he was born with the first appearance of Halley's Comet in 1835, he would die when it next appeared in 1910. So, to his own satisfaction, he arrived and departed with the comet. As Twain put it, both he and the celestial event were "unaccountable freaks."

This interesting prediction may have been fed by Twain's love of the mysterious, which was well known to his intimates. He was offended, though, by some of the fictional detectives of his time and their pompous natures. He once wrote: "What a curious thing a ‘detective’ story is. And was there ever one that the author needn’t be ashamed of, except ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’"*

Twain once wrote a satire of the Sherlock Holmes stories called "A Double-Barrelled Detective Story." The story begins this way:

"It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of unnumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God."

This paragraph makes me laugh because it so highlights Twain's gift for parody and exaggeration. A side note is that the "solitary oesophagus" is a bird of Twain's own creation, and he was surprised that few readers ever asked him about the fictional creature.

In any case, many of Twain's works reference mystery or contain a mysterious element. One of my favorites is Huckleberry Finn's "murder," which he fakes for himself in order to escape detection from his father, The Widow Douglas, and pretty much anyone else who might come looking for him. Huck makes it look as though he's been horribly murdered with an axe, remembering to pull out some of his hairs and place them in the pig's blood that is carefully smeared on the weapon. Those are details painstakingly noted by a man who enjoyed a good crime story.

Twain's death was a sad loss to the world of literature. He penned his thoughts on the notion of passing while lying on his deathbed: "Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all--the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved."

*Notebook 30, TS, p. 32, quoted by F. R. Rogers, Simon Wheeler, Detective (New York: New York Public Library, 1963--qtd in Howard G. Baetzhold's Of Detectives and Their Derring-Do: The Genesis of Mark Twain's 'The Stolen White Elephant.')

* Hendrickson, Robert. American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Penguin, 1990.]


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Let's not forget that Twain is responsible for the durable one-liner, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." He also allowed Huck Finn to realize a fantasy many people have had at some time: he gets to attend his own funeral.

Julia Buckley said...

Although my source (American Literary Anecdotes) says that we are all misquoting that "death" line. I have to look up the actual quote, but the reason we misquote it is that the misquote is actually a bit more clever--as though we've honed it with time.

Darlene Ryan said...

Oh! Oh! Oh! (the keener shouts from the front row) I know this.

"The report of my death is an exaggeration."

Julia Buckley said...

Correct, Darlene. I guess people must have re-told it orally and found that they preferred the other version.

We humans are so unreliable. :)

paul lamb said...

Twain came back with the next arrival of the comet. In the novel I been there before by David Carkeet Twain gets a one year visit back on earth.

Kim Smith said...

Wow. I didn't know this. Twain is one of my favs.

Jess Lourey said...

Julia, do you research these blogs, are you naturally such a wellspring of literary knowledge? You're setting the bar kind of high for us English teachers, you know.

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain! And isn't Shakespeare's bday coming up here pretty quick?

Julia Buckley said...

Jess, Shakespeare's birthday is Wednesday, and I'm planning a party that really only I care about. :)

I know a lot about Twain from years of teaching American Lit, but as you see I used two resources.

Paul, I'll have to look up that book! It sounds very promising.

Kim, the great ones have endless dimensions. :)

Julia Buckley said...

PS Jess, it's actually his death day. :)