Monday, November 30, 2009

Birth of Mark Twain

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"?
So says Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel L. Clemens). Twain was born on November 30, 1835. He never knew Poe (he was 13 when Poe died) but both writers were pursuing a national identity in American literature. Twain, however, thought Poe had failed miserably (he thought so about many authors). A day before Poe's centennial in 1909, he wrote to William Dean Howells and told his fellow novelist his opinion of the master of the macabre: "To me his prose is unreadable—like Jane Austen's. No, there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's."

It's unclear what kind of salary Twain got for reading Poe or for writing an obscure short story called "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut." Scholar Robert Comeau identified this story by Twain as borrowing themes from Poe's "William Wilson," a character from "Hop-Frog," and a device from "The Raven."

Poet-turned-Poeist Daniel Hoffman wrote: "In Poe's own country the only thing like 'William Wilson' is by that other demon-haunted genius, Mark Twain. But where Poe's tale is taut with demonic intensity, there is a wonderful hilarity in 'The Facts Concerning A [sic] Recent Carnival of Crime In Connecticut.'" In the story, a character is tortured by his Calvinist conscience, but outwits his tormentor (e.g. his conscience) by murdering him. Suddenly conscience-free, the character goes on murdering, cheating, and generally indulging in mischief.

For a time, the character's conscience is perched on a bookshelf. According to Comeau, this serves as the same symbolism as the bust of Pallas in Poe's "The Raven."

Happy birthday, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain.


Gina said...

Happy birthday to Mr. Twain -- I still like him, even though he had no taste! :-)

Rob Velella said...

The real question is, would Twain have read more Austen if there were zombies involved?

Gina said...

HA! Good point!

Anonymous said...

I adore Twain. Part of it is we are both Missouri homegrown boys, but also because the man can write, and totally hilarious!