Monday, November 30, 2009

Twain, The Comet, and Mystery

by Julia Buckley
I once blogged here about Mark Twain and his relationship to the mystery novel. Twain is on my mind again, because he was born on this day in 1835. His birth coincided with the appearance of Halley's Comet in the night sky, and Twain always predicted that, because he "came in with the comet," he would go out with the comet, as well. That prediction came true in April of 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."

It makes one wonder if Twain was a bit of a mystic, along with his many other talents.

In any case, because I am buried under a mound of research papers, I will share with you some of the information on that long-distant Twain blog. Hopefully it will be new to you! Perhaps his 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.]

10 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love Twain. He was wise but human. I haven't thought much about his connection to mysteries--thanks for making the connection, Julia!

Elizabeth Mystery Writing is Murder

Paul Lamb said...

David Carkeet wrote a novel about Twain returning when the comet came back (early 80s?) called I been there before. He may ridicule the detective stories of his age, but that was in the early days when the genre was new and writers were still figuring out how to do it.

Julia Buckley said...

I think there must have been things Twain admired about mysteries for him to acknowledge them at all.

Sandra Parshall said...

Twain was a genuine national treasure -- and the US hasn't had many of those. I wonder if he had any inkling of how enduring his work would be. I had the pleasure of seeing Hal Holbrook's one-man Tawin show years ago and loved every minute, even though he kept blowing cigar smoke into the audience and we were close enough to the stage to get the full effect. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra,
I heard Hal Holbrook interviewed just today on NPR's Fresh Air. He chatted about playing Twain (he's amazing--he quoted some of Twain's writings and discussed the difficulties of memorizing them) and also about playing Deep Throat in All the President's Men, and of course about his new film--I forgot the title--in which he plays a farmer.

His wife, Dixie Carter, plays his wife in the film.

kathy d. said...

What a good reminder to read some words by Twain. He was a brilliant social commentator.

Besides "King Leopold's Soliloquy," about Belgium's oppression of the Congo, I'm just remembering that Twain did not like Jane Austen.

It may be time to revisit some of his writings.

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