It was Ernest Hemingway who said, ‘all modern American literature comes from one book called Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain’. As well as being a great novelist, Mark Twain was a brilliant and prolific writer of short stories, using them to capture a dazzling variety of characters, landscapes and registers. This edition gathers together nearly 50 of his greatest tales, revealing his extraordinary versatility: humorous and satirical pieces, parodies, shaggy-dog stories and darker, more suspenseful tales. In three beautiful volumes, illustrated by Roger Fereday and with an introduction by Robert McCrum, this is a collection to savour.
Mark Twain first came to the attention of the reading public in 1865, with a short story entitled ‘The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. With its easygoing, colloquial wit and its authentic rendering of the California setting, it was an overnight sensation. Twain had managed to capture the American humour and vernacular in literature as no other writer had done before. As his career progressed, his short stories roved further afield, from New York and Ohio to the Arctic Circle and the French Riviera. Though Twain is the quintessential American writer, his short fiction reveals him as a citizen of the world. Whether his topic is a frog-jumping contest in the Wild West or strange events in an Austrian village, Twain’s powers of storytelling are irresistible, and he sweeps the reader along with him from the arresting opening to the final audacious twist.
The stories in this collection span Twain’s entire career, from the ‘Jumping Frog’ of 1865, to ‘The Mysterious Stranger’, published posthumously in 1916. Some are satirical: ‘The Story of the Bad Little Boy’ subverts the moralistic children’s tales of the day while ‘A Day at Niagara’ examines the dubious delights of Niagara Falls and lampoons the mythology of the ‘noble Red Man’. Some would appear to be partly autobiographical: ‘Playing Courier’ is a heartfelt account of the difficulty of travelling in Europe (or anywhere) with a large and unwieldy group, while ‘Hunting the Deceitful Turkey’ describes a distinctively American childhood memory with equal humour and vividness.
In many of these tales the author’s imagination simply takes wing, with beguiling results. ‘Legend of the Capitoline Venus’ tells of a struggling sculptor whose statue is mistaken for a Roman original. ‘The Belated Russian Passport’ is a shaggy-dog story which follows a hapless student’s misadventures in Europe in the company of a persuasive but unreliable companion. Twain was equally intrigued by and sceptical of religion: ‘The Diary of Adam and Eve’ manages to be both satirical and serious, while ‘Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven’ suggests that the hereafter might be disappointingly similar to life on Earth.
Says I, ‘Old man, I’ll be frank with you. This ain’t just as
near my idea of bliss as I thought it was going to be, when I used
to go to church’
CAPTAIN STORMFIELD'S VISIT TO HEAVEN
I lay on the floor in the mistress’s work-room and slept, she gently using me for a
foot-stool, knowing it pleased me, for it was a caress…
A DOG'S TALE
With the skill of a ventriloquist, Twain deploys a dazzling variety of registers, dialects and literary styles, switching between them even in a single story. In ‘Political Economy’, the narrator’s desperate attempts to write a serious, learned essay are drowned out by the hypnotic patter of a salesman determined to sell him a lighting rod (or several). In ‘A True Story’, Aunt Rachel, the narrator’s servant, tells of her experiences of slavery, punctuated by her catchphrase, ‘I’s one o’ de ole Blue Hen’s Chickens, I is!’. Twain’s narrators even extend to the animal kingdom, as in ‘A Horse’s Tale’, told by the favourite horse of Buffalo Bill, and ‘A Dog’s Tale’, a heart-rending story of canine loyalty that touches on the emotive subject of animal experimentation.
Few writers have ever been funnier than Mark Twain, and there are many passages here that will make the reader laugh out loud. But this collection also shows a darker, more unsettling side of Twain’s work. ‘The Invalid’s Story’ tells of a man tasked with a grim legacy to bury a friend’s body, and is as macabre as anything in William Faulkner’s oeuvre. ‘A Double-Barreled Detective Story’, a chilling, suspenseful tale of marital cruelty and revenge, features a cameo appearance by Sherlock Holmes. All of these diverse and unpredictable tales bear Twain’s hallmark. Reading them, it is easy to see how he has influenced the work of great American writers from Ernest Hemingway to J. D. Salinger.
I mightily wanted to peer under his hood and
speak to him, but when he turned and smiled
upon me with his cavernous sockets and his
projecting grin as he went by, I thought
I would not detain him
A CURIOUS DREAM
His mouth was open, but his tongue wouldn’t work; he tried
to shout ‘Stop him,’ but his lungs were empty; he wanted to
pursue, but his legs refused to do anything but tremble; then
they gave way under him and let him down into his chair
THE BELATED RUSSIAN PASSPORT
This new three-volume edition contains a specially commissioned introduction by critic and author Robert McCrum, which examines Twain’s short stories in the context of his life and times and explains why these tales reveal their author’s ‘true character’. Illustrator Roger Fereday has created 27 delightful illustrations that show the key moment of the tale in question and communicate the period and verve of Twain’s stories.
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, in the ‘almost invisible’ village of Florida, Missouri, and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the great Mississippi river. He worked as a printer’s apprentice, steamboat pilot and miner before beginning to write sketches and stories under the pen name ‘Mark Twain’. He married Olivia Langdon in 1870, and the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain wrote his most famous novels. He published prolifically until his death and cultivated both a public persona – complete with white suit and cigar – and an immediately recognisable tone: deadpan, colloquial, unselfconscious. His later years were marked by the death of his wife and two of his children, and by disastrous investments, but he remained beloved by the reading public all over the world.