Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) is the best-known and most-beloved American writer in the world, and his stature as the quintessential American writer rests in large part upon his "westernness." Born at the edge of the frontier, schooled along the great divide between East and West--the Mississippi River--and apprenticed in his craft in Nevada and California, Twain's personality was shaped and his art defined by his western experiences, and even when he wrote works not concerned with the American West, attitudes, methods, and comic devices in his writings bore the unmistakable mark of a western mindset.


In the spring of 1835 John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton Clemens loaded up their four children in Tennessee and joined the great migration of the westward movement in nineteenth-century America, heading for fortune and affluence in Missouri, at the edge of the jumping-off point for the frontier. Jane was pregnant with a son who was born prematurely on 30 November 1835; he was named Samuel Langhorne Clemens. His birth, he was later to brag, increased the population of his hometown by one whole percent, an accomplishment that few in the world could claim.

Prosperity was as elusive in Florida, Missouri, for the Clemens family as it had been on the eastern seaboard, and in 1839 the family moved to the more prosperous town of Hannibal, on the banks of the Mississippi, where young Sam was to store up the memories that have become an integral part of the American imagination. Although larger and more settled than Florida, Hannibal nevertheless had the flavor of a frontier town. Gamblers and confidence men practiced their trades on the steamboats that stopped there; slave traders with their "wares" in tow held auctions in the center of town; and frontiersmen passed through on their way to Saint Joseph, Missouri, the beginning of the Overland Trail. Violence was common; death was frequent; and authority was unpredictable. Comedy, sentimentality, and individualism were various antidotes to the stark reality of Sam Clemens's world.

John Marshall Clemens died in March 1847, when his son was eleven, and the following year the boy began working for the Hannibal Gazette, then for the Missouri Courier, and finally for his brother Orion on the Hannibal Western Union in 1851 and the Hannibal Journal later that year. As a typesetter and assistant editor, Clemens began adding contributions of his own to several eastern newspapers, beginning with "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" in 1852. From 1852 to 1856 he produced a spate of comic sketches and burlesque travel letters for Orion's newspapers in Hannibal and for periodicals in Muscatine and Keokuk, Iowa. Many of these juvenilia contain facets of what readers now think of as western comic techniques: the frame narrative, the bumpkin in conflict with the eastern establishment, and the use of colloquial, ungrammatical language in the mouths of commonsensical yokels.

In 1857 Clemens became a cub pilot under the tutelage of master pilot Horace Bixby on the Mississippi. He received his own license in 1859 and remained on the river, piloting between Saint Louis and New Orleans, until the blockade by Union forces at the outbreak of the Civil War ended his profession. His memories of characters, incidents, and settings from this period would surface in much of his major fiction.

On 18 July 1861 Clemens left with Orion for the Territory of Washoe (later to become Nevada) on the Overland stage. While Orion served as secretary to Gov. James W. Nye, the younger brother prospected for silver, speculated in wildcat mining stock, and wrote occasional articles of comic journalism for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. The editor, Joseph T. Goodman, was so impressed with Clemens's talents that he offered the budding humorist a position on the newspaper in 1862. Clemens moved to Virginia City, joined the staff of the Enterprise, and--for the first time, on 3 February 1863--signed a contribution with the pen name Mark Twain. Until 29 May 1864 Twain produced a constant stream of both comic and factual material for the Enterprise, gaining a fame (or notoriety) that extended as far west as metropolitan San Francisco.

Twain moved to that city in mid 1864 and became a correspondent and contributor to the San Francisco Morning Call, the Golden Era, the Alta California, the Californian, and the Sacramento Union. He leaped into national celebrity when "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" was published in the eastern Saturday Press, and he made the first of his many trips outside the continental United States (even farther westward) when the Sacramento Union commissioned him to write a series of travel letters describing a trip to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). Clemens returned from that trip on 13 August 1866 and delivered more than a dozen lectures on the Sandwich Islands in California and Nevada before leaving the West forever (except for short visits to San Francisco in 1868 and Seattle in 1895) on 15 December 1866.

Twain's five-year sojourn in the West gave him an arsenal of insights and methods that were to impress practically all of his major works. One such device was a frame technique common to writers called the Old Southwestern Humorists that utilized a genteel, literate, "eastern" narrator who permitted a vulgar, semiliterate, commonsensical "western" character to usurp the narrative briefly to provide comic incongruity. In the early use of the device, the eastern character would retrieve the narrative voice and conclude the fiction, frequently with a disavowal of the bumpkin backwoodsman. However, as the form evolved in the first half of the nineteenth century, the values of the common man became more amenable to American readers than those of the eastern egghead. The backwoodsman became the hero of these frame narratives, and the gentleman became the comic foil. Twain experimented with this East/West dichotomy in his letters from the Sandwich Islands, in which a vulgar character named Mr. Brown constantly deflates the sentimental and literate narrator, and in two additional series of travel letters published after Twain left the West. Several of Twain's finest short works, "The Jumping Frog," "Grandfathers Old Ram", and "Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," employ this frame technique with genius. But even when not encased in the traditional frame, characters such as literate Tom Sawyer and vulgar Huck Finn and (paradoxically) literate Huck Finn and vulgar Jim (in episodes on the raft) in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) utilize the polar character types to produce comic fiction.

Another component of Twain's western heritage is provided by the hoax and tall tale. Although not limited to the West, the form found a receptive audience there, where life was an unpredictable gamble, nature was hostile, and man had to survive on his physical prowess or his guile and cunning. The hoax reduces an unstable and capricious universe to comic proportions; it tests an audiences gullibility and provides its gifted narrator with authority over "fact" and "truth." Likewise, the tall tale establishes its author as a sort of creator who can move his story from realistic accuracy into the fantastic and the absurd without his audience's knowledge until he springs his trap and it is too late for the audience to escape embarrassment--"being sold," as Twain says in "Grandfathers Old Ram." This mode of humor is in effect a duel of wits (rather than a shoot-out) between speaker and listener in which narrative artistry rather than bloodshed determines the winner.

Like many other western and local-color writers in the nineteenth century, Twain rejoiced in colloquial language: slang, vernacular, regionalism, and argot. Such language had an honesty, a virility, and a masculinity lacking in classic eastern American literature; in addition, it permitted some of the boldest uses of language imaginable: the homely comic simile, the burst of wild hyperbole, malapropisms, and terribly mangled quotations. In Roughing It (1872) Mark Twain recollects vividly when he "first encountered the vigorous new vernacular of the occidental plains and mountains," and that vernacular became his own most significant contribution to the liberation of American literature from rigid formality.

From the beginning, with "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter," Twain championed the common man, the underdog, the uneducated opponent to the highbrow, college-educated, intellectual easterner. Almost instinctively, he both spoke to and spoke for a national equivalent of the westerner. His concerns with paradoxes inherent in rugged individualism as opposed to a social contract, in common sense and instinctive morality versus law and order, and his championing of a pragmatic morality rather than wisdom and tradition--all are facets of his westernness. The courageous man who faces down a thoughtless mob fascinated him, most notably in Colonel Sherburn in Huckleberry Finn. Even in his cynical and misanthropic old age Twain retained a thin sliver of hope in the native intelligence of at least part of mankind, and his egalitarian sympathies for the downtrodden could not be completely smothered by his determinism.

By the same token, Twain's own brashness, his "vulgarity," his willingness to deal with what were considered sordid, grotesque, and distasteful subjects distressed the eastern seaboard literary establishment for all of the author's life. Finally, even in his bitter and pessimistic old age, he continued to rely upon the techniques and methods of western literature to express his contempt for "the damned human race." His audiences often became foils for a cosmic hoax; reality was a solipsistic tall tale; life was a cruel dream; and God was a trickster or confidence man, playing cruel jokes on unsuspecting humanity.

After he left the West, Twain toured Europe and the Near East, producing his first best-seller, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress (1869). He continued his career as a newspaper humorist, married Olivia Langdon in 1870, and settled in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1871. He and Olivia had four children: Langdon, Susan, Clara, and Jean. In Hartford and Elmira, New York, he produced the full-length works that established his reputation. He left Hartford after declaring bankruptcy in 1894 and spent the last fifteen years of his life--during which all of his family except daughter Clara died--in an increasingly pessimistic attitude, when many of the thoughts he put on paper were consigned to a pile not to be published until after his death. In 1907 Oxford awarded him an honorary Litt. D. degree, and he spent his last years as the social gadfly of the American conscience, writing caustic essays against imperialism, royalty, and human cowardice. At his death on 21 April 1910, his position as the quintessential American author was secure.

The two-volume Early Tales & Sketches (1979, 1981) has collected all of Twain's known works written between 1851 and 1865. Many of the items are highly topical, factual, repetitious, or strained in their attempts at humor. From his youth and western years only a few pieces stand the tests of durability and permanence. Indeed, if they were not the apprentice works of the writer who later established international fame, there would be little reason to rescue them from oblivion. Of special interest are "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" (1852), Twains first known piece of humor; two successful western hoaxes, "Petrified Man" (1862) and "A Bloody Massacre near Carson" (1863); and "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (1865).

"The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" was written when Clemens was only sixteen years old, and it shows all the marks of juvenilia. But it is interesting in its use of the frame technique and the confrontation between "a spruce young dandy, with a killing moustache, &c., who seemed bent on making an impression upon the hearts of the young ladies on board" and "a tall, brawny woodsman". The dandy confronts the backwoodsman with a phony recognition and threat: "Found you at last, have I? You are the very man I've been looking for these three weeks! Say your prayers! . . . You'll make a capital barn door, and I shall drill the key-hole myself!" The squatter calmly watches the dandy brandish his pistol, "and then, drawing back a step, he planted his huge fist directly between the eyes of his astonished antagonist, who, in a moment, was floundering in the turbid waters of the Mississippi." As the defeated dandy swims back to the steamboat, the backwoodsman calls out to him, "I say, yeou, next time yeou come around drillin' key-holes, don't forget your old acquaintances!"

Even this early the basic East/West dichotomy is evident. The dandy is well dressed, speaks proper English, and feels an obvious snobbish superiority to the unprepossessing rustic. But surfaces disguise the true capabilities of the two men; the dandy is all bluff, and the squatter is all action. Their polished language and colloquial drawl ("yeou") provide a comic contrast, and the result gives the squatter the victory over pretension, foppishness, and a failed attempt at superiority. Rudimentary as the sketch is, it outlines in miniature the basic tensions which separated an easterner from a westerner.

Once he took up his duties on the Territorial Enterprise, Twain honed his skills at western humor, usually satisfying but occasionally mystifying his Nevada audience. Sometimes, however, he was so successful that his readers swallowed a hoax as literal reporting. Twice in his Nevada years Twain succeeded in hoodwinking a major portion of his readership with hoaxes that were taken for literal truth. The earlier of the two hoaxes, "Petrified Man," suggests the formula for a successful hoax: told completely straight-faced ("deadpan" is the comic term), it must recount an increasingly preposterous tale with the intention of persuading a credulous reader or audience to accept it as literal truth. The account must contain clues to its exaggeration and comic intention, however, so that the auditor ultimately realizes that he has been trapped." "Petrified Man" was so successful (or unsuccessful, according to the formula) that it was reprinted as literal truth in at least eight other West Coast newspapers.

The single paragraph opens with the announcement that "a petrified man was found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect." An extended description of the corpse returns frequently to the position of its two hands and its nose between depictions of the rest of the body. Only if an attentive reader accumulates the descriptions of the hands and nose will he realize that the corpse is actually petrified thumbing its nose at the careless reader. In the final sentences Twain explains that the townfolk wished to give the corpse a decent burial but that a judge named "Sewell or Sowell" refused their request because dynamiting the corpse loose from the bedrock on which it sat would be a sacrilege. Twain was ridiculing G. T. Sewall, a judge for whom he had developed an aversion, but the story rises above the specific sarcasm of the occasion to become a hoax upon scientific marvels which were, according to Twain, flooding newspapers at the time.

The other hoax was even more notorious. "A Bloody Massacre near Carson" appeared in the Territorial Enterprise on 28 October 1863 and caused an immediate furor. The article tells of a Philip Hopkins, who "dashed into Carson on horseback, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and bearing in his hand a reeking scalp from which the warm, smoking blood was still dripping." The sheriff dashed to the Hopkins house with a group of concerned citizens and discovered that

the scalpless corpse of Mrs. Hopkins lay across the threshold, with her head split open and her right hand almost severed from the wrist. . . . In one of the bedrooms six of the children were found, one in bed and the others scattered about the floor. They were all dead. Their brains had evidently been dashed out with a club. . . . The eldest girl, Mary, must have taken refuge, in her terror, in the garret, as her body was found there, frightfully mutilated, and the knife with which her wounds had been inflicted still sticking in her side.


Twain continued the story, explaining that Hopkins had become deranged from making unsound investments in mining stocks and a water company, but, as he later pointed out, readers "never got down to where the satire part of it began" and did not see the piece as an attack on stock speculation. Although he had placed clues in the story to designate it as a hoax, a torrent of criticism poured down on him from gullible readers who read the widely reprinted story. The following day Twain printed "I Take It All Back," but duped newspapers found the retraction even worse than that published yesterday. As Branch and Hirst point out, "for more than a year negative comments continued to appear in the local press." "A Bloody Massacre near Carson" reveals a significant vein in Twain's writing, the exploitation of the grotesque. He mused in 1868, "To find a petrified man. . . . Or massacre a family at Dutch Nick's, were feats and calamities that we never hesitated about devising when the public needed matter of thrilling interest for breakfast. The seemingly tranquil Enterprise office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days."

In late 1863 Twain met Charles Farrar Browne, whose fame as humorous writer "Artemus Ward" far outshone Twain's at the time. Browne encouraged him to contribute something to a forthcoming volume of humorous sketches on several occasions, but Twain moved abruptly from Nevada to San Francisco on 29 May 1864 and wrote extensively for local newspapers and magazines as well as for the Territorial Enterprise. In January 1865 he visited Angel's Camp, California, and heard a series of tales told by master yarn spinners, including one about a jumping frog. Later that year, he wrote the first of his several versions of that story and submitted it to Ward. On the next day he wrote to his brother Orion that he had "had a 'call' to literature, of a low order--i.e. Humorous." Although his own verdict on "The Jumping Frog" fluctuated wildly, apparently he realized at the time that the story was the masterpiece which it has since been judged.

Originally written as a letter to Ward, the story shows the skillful combination of most of Twain's favorite techniques--the frame narrative, humanized animals, deadpan narration, and the tall tale and hoax. The author of the letter is a humorless reporter who has been sent to inquire about a Leonidas W. Smiley. Instead, his interviewer, Simon Wheeler, takes over the narration and tells a series of marvelous tales about Jim Smiley and his penchant for gambling. Twain calls the story as long and tedious as it should be useless to me and leaves abruptly before Wheeler can continue his narrative about Smiley's "yaller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail only just a short stump like a bannanner." Wheeler tells his story in complete deadpan: "'He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the quiet, gently-flowing key to which he turned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm--but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity.'" This apparently humorless narrator tells a humorless auditor a series of increasingly implausible stories about Smiley's compulsive gambling and three animals who become increasingly human in their qualities.

The first animal is the fifteen minute nag, who could win her horse races "just about a neck ahead" even though she "always had the asthma, or the distemper, or the consumption, or something like that." In spite of her unlikely appearance, "always at the fag-end of the race she'd get excited and desperate-like, and come cavorting and spraddling up, and scattering her legs around limber, sometimes in the air, and sometimes out to one side amongst the fences, and kicking up m-o-r-e dust, and raising m-o-r-e racket with her coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose."

Equally unprepossessing is Smiley's bulldog, Andrew Jackson, and "to look at him you'd think he warn't worth a cent, but to set around and look ornery, and lay for a chance to steal something." In a dogfight, however, Andrew would wait for his chance "and then all a sudden he would grab that other dog just by the joint of his hind legs and freeze to it--not chaw, you understand, but only just grip and hang on till they throwed up the sponge." One day Smiley puts Andrew up against a dog "that didn't have no hind legs, because they'd been sawed off in a circular saw." When Andrew tries to "make a snatch for his pet holt" he fails and gives up the fight. Realizing that Smiley is responsible for his shame, "he limped off a piece, and laid down and died" of a broken heart. Wheeler admires Andrew because he "would have made a name for hisself if he'd lived, for the stuff was in him, and he had genius--I know it, because he hadn't had no opportunities to speak of, and it don't stand to reason that a dog could make such a fight as he could under them circumstances, if he hadn't no talent."

Wheeler admires Smiley's third animal, Daniel Webster the jumping frog, even more: "You never see a frog so modest and straightfor'ard as he was, for all he was so gifted." Daniel's gift was catching flies. Smiley would put Daniel on the floor "and sing out, 'Flies! Dan'l, flies,' and quicker'n you could wink, he'd spring straight up, and snake a fly off'n the counter there, and flop down on the floor again as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn't no idea he'd done any more'n any frog might do." Modesty, genius, and straightforwardness do not help, however, when a stranger arrives in camp. While Smiley searches for another frog for the stranger to bet on, the stranger fills Daniel "full of quail-shot-filled him pretty near up to the chin," so that when Smiley commands him to jump, "the new frog hopped off lively, but Dan'l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulder--so--like a Frenchman, but it wasn't no use--he couldn't budge; he was planted as solid as an anvil."

Wheeler is interrupted in his comic bestiary, and Twain takes the opportunity to flee before Wheeler can tell him about the one-eyed cow with the tail no longer than a banana. There are clues, however, that the narrator has been the victim of a complex hoax. As the tales get taller and taller, he begins to suspect that a trick has been played on him. "I have a lurking suspicion," he tells Ward, "that your Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth--that you never knew such a personage, and that you only conjectured that if I asked old Wheeler about him it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscences of him." Indeed, at this level the story is not about Jim Smiley and Daniel Webster at all. It is a confrontation, a comic shoot-out with Wheeler testing the patience of the dull-witted Twain to see how long it will take to vanquish him. Wheeler might have gone on with increasingly absurd anecdotes, and even if readers are left to conjecture what Jim Smiley might have done with a one-eyed, bob-tailed cow, they are also left with the sly, western genius of a storyteller triumphant over a stodgy, humorless narrator.

During his days as a western comic journalist, Twain contemplated several times collecting his sketches to make a book-length publication. But as his career swerved eastward, he delayed those plans in favor of continuing a career as newspaperman. His trip to Europe and the Holy Land, his courtship of and marriage to Olivia Langdon, his duties as columnist for the Buffalo Express and The Galaxy, and his revision of his overseas letters into his first national success, The Innocents Abroad, all intervened before he found time to return to his memories of the Far West and begin work on his major western work, Roughing It, published in 1872.

As early as 1869 and 1870 Twain printed sketches and anecdotes--Bakers Cat, Pocket Mining, Silver Land Nabobs, and The Facts in the Great Land-Slide Case--that were to become parts of Roughing It ; on 4 September 1870 he reported to his publisher that he had written the first four chapters of the book, and almost a year later, on 8 August 1871, he delivered 1,830 holograph pages and earlier scissored-and-pasted columns to the American Publishing Company in Hartford, Connecticut. On 30 January 1872 the first copies of the book arrived at the publishers office, and by the end of the year just over sixty-five thousand copies had been sold.

The composition of the book had been long and arduous, competing for Twain's attention with editorial duties on the Buffalo Express and The Galaxy; with the birth of his first child, Langdon; with the death of his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon; and most significantly with the entire eastern value system represented dramatically by his wife. Prior to his marriage Twain had been a wandering vagabond for more than a decade; his reputation as a heavy drinker and a vulgar westerner disturbed both his fiancĂ©e and his prospective mother-in-law, who acknowledged in a letter that Clemens "seemed to have entered upon a new manner of life, with higher & better purposes actuating his conduct," but she was nevertheless not sure whether "this change, so desirably commenced, make[s] of an immoral man a moral one." His own westernness, in short, was being challenged by the straight-laced, decorous eastern cultural establishment, and Roughing It is his response to that criticism.

Although Roughing It does not use the frame-narrative technique, it does adapt one of the major strategies of that form. The narrator is deliberately made more naive, more romantic, less world-wise than the author had been in 1861. He announces in the first paragraph, with breathless envy, that his brother was going to travel to the West. His knowledge of the "Noble Red Man" comes from books, the novels of James Fenimore Cooper primarily. As he begins his journey, he does not know what a "thoroughbrace" is, assuming that it is a part of a horse. He carries a six-pound unabridged dictionary with him and "swallow-tail coats and white kid gloves to wear at Pawnee receptions." When Brigham Young meets Twain and his brother Orion, "he put his hand on my head, beamed down on me in an admiring way and said to my brother: 'Ah--your child, I presume? Boy, or girl?'" Not only is he younger, more innocent, more romantic, and more ignorant of reality than Twain actually was, but also he becomes aware that he is an outsider as well: "we were wretchedly ashamed of being 'emigrants,' and sorry enough that we had white shirts and could not swear in the presence of ladies without looking the other way."

He remains the eastern outsider when he reaches Nevada, buying a Genuine Mexican "plug," unaware of its worthlessness; he finds his first "gold," only to discover that it is "nothing but a lot of granite rubbish and nasty glittering mica"; and his romantic illusions about the Noble Indian are shattered by his confrontation with the Goshoots. Although in one sense he remains an "outsider" throughout the book, the story is also the record of an initiation. Twain becomes a westerner, seeing realistically, and recounting in a relaxed, informal prose, the truth about his original ignorance. Having left home for the first time to seek romance, success, wealth, and fame in the West, the narrator finds instead cold-blooded murders, rigged juries, paper speculation in stocks, and blighted hopes, including his own. After failing to find silver, he announces, "So vanished my dream. So melted my wealth away. So toppled my airy castle to the earth and left me stricken and forlorn." Later he must go to work as a common laborer, and he also relates a story (apparently true) of how he missed becoming a millionaire through bad luck and missed communications.

By chapter 42 the narrator even reinvents his own biography. "I had gone out into the world to shift for myself, at the age of thirteen," he relates, even though he enjoyed "a sumptuous legacy of pride in . . . fine Virginian stock and its national distinction." He catalogues ten different occupations, mostly fictional, at which he had failed and "amounted to less than nothing in each." Finally, at the conclusion of chapter 69, Twain tells his reader, "If you are of any account, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are 'no account,' go away from home, and then you will have to work, whether you want to or not."

The admission is more than an act of personal contrition to his wife and the Langdon family. The narrator repeatedly measures the distance between life as he imagined it in the West and its depressing reality. Greeley's injunction to "Go West, young man" turns for Twain into an adventure in poverty, homelessness, and emotional chaos. The geography is usually desolate; democratic institutions are corrupt; the wave of civilization brings, even in the Sandwich Islands chapters, corruption rather than enlightenment. Roughing It is, in fact, the announcement of the end of the antebellum myth of the Garden of Eden regained on the American frontier. Chance deaths, chance fortunes, and chance failures permeate its pages. The illusion of freedom, independence, democracy, and self-reliance is splintered over and over by harsh reality.

That subtext of disillusionment is veneered, nevertheless, with some of Twain's finest western humor. Following his usual practice, he alternated factual and historical information with self-contained anecdotes which both he and later editors published separately as short stories. Among the best of these are the description of the coyote in chapter 5, the tale of the Mexican plug in chapter 24, Buck Fanshaws funeral in chapter 47, and the tale of Grandfathers Old Ram in chapter 53. As Henry Nash Smith notes in Mark Twain, The Development of a Writer (1962), the description of the western coyote that confronts a "dog that has a good opinion of himself, and has been brought up to think he knows something about speed," "embodies a view of the relation between vernacular and conventional values." The coyote's appearance is as disreputable as that of any westerner:

The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. . . . He is always poor, out of luck and friendless . . . And he is so homely!--so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.


But when a dog from a wagon train pursues him the coyote's gifts come to the front. Teasing the dog by keeping just a few feet ahead of him, the coyote plays a practical joke on his antagonist. The dog "begins to get aggravated, and it makes him madder and madder to see how gently the cayote glides along and never pants or sweats or ceases to smile." Finally the coyote "turns and smiles blandly upon him once more. . . . And forthwith there is a rushing sound, and the sudden splitting of a long crack through the atmosphere, and behold that dog is solitary and alone in the midst of a vast solitude!" Thoroughly beaten by the vagabond coyote, "for as much as a year after that, whenever there is a great hue and cry after a cayote, that dog will merely glance in that direction without emotion, and apparently observe to himself, 'I believe I do not wish any of the pie.'" In other words, the conventional expectations are turned upside down in the Far West, where external appearances are no indication of merit and skill.

In the same way, the innocent Twain in the story of the Mexican plug "yearns to have a horse to ride. I had never seen such wild, free, magnificent horsemanship outside of a circus as these picturesquely-clad Mexicans, Californians and Mexicanized Americans displayed in Carson streets every day. . . . I had quickly learned to tell a horse from a cow, and was full of anxiety to learn more."

Unfortunately, he does not know enough about horses to know what the Mexican plug actually was and purchases one at auction for twenty-seven dollars. Every attempt to ride him ends in miserable failure: "He placed all his feet in a bunch together, lowered his back, and then suddenly arched it upward, and shot me straight into the air a matter of three or four feet!" Further attempts produce no better results, and Twain finally decides, "I never tried to ride the horse any more. Walking was good enough exercise for a man like me, that had nothing the matter with him except ruptures, internal injuries, and such things."

In "Buck Fanshaw's Funeral" it is not Twain but another newcomer to the Far West who is the outsider to the community, "the minister, a fragile, gentle spirituel [sic] new fledgling from an Eastern theological seminary, and as yet unacquainted with the ways of the mines." Scotty Briggs, a miner, volunteer fireman, and gambler, confronts the new minister in order to schedule the last rites for his buddy Fanshaw. Each speaks in the vocabulary of his profession and position, and neither man can understand a word the other says:

"Are you the duck that runs the gospel-mill next door?" "Am I the--pardon me, I believe I do not understand?" With another sigh and a half-sob, Scotty rejoined: "Why you see we are in a bit of trouble, and the boys thought maybe you would give us a lift, if wed tackle you--that is, if I've got the rights of it and you are the head clerk of the doxology-works next door." "I am the shepherd in charge of the flock whose fold is next door." "The which?" "The spiritual adviser of the little company of believers whose sanctuary adjoins these premises."


The conversation continues for pages, with Scotty using the slang and argot of the mines and the minister speaking in literate, dignified English. Finally, the minister guesses that Buck is dead: "Ah--has departed to that mysterious country from whose bourne no traveler returns," he proposes, paraphrasing Hamlet. "Return!," Scotty answers, "I reckon not. Why pard, he's dead!" Ultimately, the funeral is arranged and occurs, but the linguistic confrontation between East and West produces a delightful comedy of misunderstanding.

In "Grandfathers Old Ram" Twain employs a more complex frame-narrative technique to produce two different varieties of humor in the one story. The other miners "used to tell me I ought to get one Jim Blaine to tell me the stirring story of his grandfather's old ram . . . They kept this up until my curiosity was on the rack to hear the story." Finally, one evening Blaine is in the proper state of intoxication to narrate his tale. Twain relinquishes narrative control of the anecdote, and Blaine narrates a deadpan, wandering tale that moves by free association from one incident to another with, as in Simon Wheeler's story of the jumping frog, total indifference to economy, coherence, or straightforwardness. Blaine remembers Miss Jefferson, who would lend her glass eye to Miss Wagner, whose eye socket it did not fit so that "it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t'other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn't mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary." He moves to the story of Jacops, the gambling undertaker who loses betting that Robbins will die. Next Blaine tells the story of the Hogadorn family, eaten by cannibals while missionarying. Then comes the story of Uncle Lem and the Irish bricklayer who fell on him from the third story of a construction site. And he concludes with the tale of William Wheeler, who "got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to 'tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece." Wheeler explains, as he gradually goes to sleep, "they didn't bury him--they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument."

These stories of comic mayhem become more outrageous and surreal as Blaine tells them in his humorless, drunken condition. But once Blaine is asleep Twain resumes the narration, and he learns that he has been the victim of a hoax: "The tears were running down the boys cheeks--they were suffocating with suppressed laughter--and had been from the start, though I had never noticed it. I perceived that I was 'sold.' I learned then that . . . the mention of the ram in the first sentence was as far as any man had ever heard him get, concerning it. He always maundered off, interminably, from one thing to another. . . . What the thing was that happened to him and his grandfather's old ram is a dark mystery to this day."

Although these self-contained tales all favor the disreputable and vulgar westerner over the conventional, uninitiated easterner and suggest Twain's endorsement of the western side of the dichotomy, it is curious that after he left California for the last time on 6 July 1868, he returned infrequently to his western memories and experiences for his fiction. Once Roughing It was published he almost literally turned his back on his apprentice days as a source for his humor. Three items deserve mention, however. On 17 December 1877 William Dean Howells invited Twain to deliver one of the after-dinner speeches at the celebration of the seventieth birthday of John Greenleaf Whittier. In his "infamous" narrative--a "hideous mistake," Howells called it--Twain returned to the form of the tall tale, the frame narrative, the setting of the West, and the attitude of scorn toward the eastern establishment. He began the story in his own voice, explaining that fifteen years earlier, when his pen name was beginning to be known in the Far West, he went on an inspection trip in southern California:

I was callow and conceited, and I resolved to try the virtue of my nom de plume. I very soon had an opportunity. I knocked at a miner's lonely log cabin in the foothills of the Sierras just at nightfall. It was snowing at the time. A jaded, melancholy man of fifty, barefooted, opened to me. When he heard my nom de plume, he looked more dejected than before. He let me in--pretty reluctantly, I thought--and after the customary bacon and beans, black coffee and a hot whiskey, I took a pipe. This sorrowful man had not said three words up to this time. Now he spoke up and said in the voice of one who is secretly suffering, "you're the fourth--I'm a-going to move." "The fourth what?" said I. "The fourth littery man that's been here in twenty-four hours--I'm a-going to move." "You don't tell me!" said I; "who were the others?" Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson and Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes --dad fetch the lot!"


With Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes in the audience, Twain narrated the miner's story, in which the three men are drunken, gambling, thieving con artists. His description of the physical characteristics were caricatures of the three poets at the dinner table: "Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon--he weighed as much as three hundred, & had double chins all the way down to his stomach." Holmes quotes "The Chambered Nautilus" to criticize the miner's cabin; Emerson quotes "Mithridates" to criticize the food. Each continues quoting famous lines from his own poetry--and that of Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant as well. They get drunk, cheat one another at cards, and start to fight: "Emerson claps his hand on his bowie, Longfellow claps his on his revolver, and I went under a bunk. There was going to be trouble; but that monstrous Holmes rose up, wobbling his double chins, and says he, 'Order, gentlemen; the first man that draws, I'll lay down on him and smother him!'" The trio finally leaves at seven oclock the next morning, and Longfellow takes the miner's boots with him, reciting about leaving "Footprints on the sands of Time." Twain recaptures the narrative voice to explain to the miner that this trio was a set of impostors, "not the gracious singers to whom we and the world pay loving reverence and homage."

There was an instantaneous outcry from New England newspapers about the vulgar western humorist ridiculing the saintly authors whom he parodied, and Twain wrote letters of abject apology to each of the men he had "insulted." Nevertheless, the rollicking burlesque was a hilarious story, using a perfectly fine premise before the wrong audience. Twain wavered in his own verdict about the speech. But literary historians and critics have used its date to mark a sort of literary declaration of independence of western literature from the control of eastern "umpires of taste," as Emerson himself called literary critics. Irrepressible in his iconoclasm, Twain in the "Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech"--either consciously or semiconsciously--took his stance with western values once more, in spite of all that his wife, Howells, and the literary community of Hartford could do to restrain him.

In April 1878 Twain moved his family to Europe, partly because of his chagrin at having delivered the "Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech". The group lived in Germany and France, and traveled throughout Europe, returning to Hartford in late October 1879. While overseas Twain worked on his travel book later titled A Tramp Abroad (1880). Embedded in chapters 2 and 3 of that volume is a western tale embodying all the by now predictable qualities--frame narrative, vernacular language, and humanized animals, but with a twist that suggests Twain's increasing cynicism. Walking in the Neckar woods outside Heidelberg, Twain discovers a raven, and vice versa. For several paragraphs, in his own voice, the humorist muses about how the raven and a friend "sat side by side on the limb and discussed me as freely and offensively as two great naturalists might discuss a new kind of bug."

The event reminds Twain of Jim Baker, "a middle-aged, simple-hearted miner who had lived in a lonely corner of California, among the woods and mountains, a good many years, and had studied the ways of his only neighbors, the beasts and birds, until he believed he could accurately translate any remark which they made." Baker comes onstage and tells the story of "Bakers Blue-Jay Yarn," in which the title bird with an acorn lights on a roof of an empty cabin. "He cocked his head to one side, shut one eye and put the other one to the hole, like a possum looking down a jug." The jay drops his acorn down the hole and then proceeds to try to fill the hole with more acorns. For two hours the jay attempts to fill the hole; other jays come to see the mystery. Finally, one old jay looks in the half-open door: "He flopped his wings and raised a whoop. 'Come here!' he says, 'Come here, everybody; hang'd if this fool hasn't been trying to fill up a house with acorns!'" All of the other jays "fell over backwards, suffocating with laughter," and jays came from all over the United States to see the hole "every summer for three years."

Jays possess not only a sense of humor but also other human qualities as well. Those qualities suggest as much the evils of man as the humanity of jays, however:

A jay hasn't got any more principle than a congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. The sacredness of an obligation is a thing which you can't cram into no bluejay's head. . . . Yes, sir, a jay is everything that a man is. . . . If a jay ain't human, he better take in his sign, that's all.


Throughout the early 1880s Twain misspent much of his energy in business speculation, producing Life on the Mississippi (1883) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before returning for the last time to explicitly western material in an unfinished manuscript, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians , written in 1884 but not published until 20 December 1968 in Life magazine.

Huck concludes his narration of his adventures with the decision to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest" after Tom suggests that he, Huck, and Jim "slide out of here, one of these nights, and get an outfit, and go for howling adventures amongst the Injuns, over in the Territory, for a couple of weeks or two." In this abortive sequel the trio indeed heads west, and on the second day of their journey, they join forces with a wagon containing Mr. and Mrs. Mills, their three sons, and two daughters, seventeen-year-old Peggy and seven-year-old Flaxy. After several weeks, they find their first Indians (like the narrator of Roughing It, Tom Sawyer has a highly romanticized image of the Noble Red Man). After several days of apparent friendship, the Indians attack, killing most of the party and abducting Peggy.

Peggy's sweetheart, Brace Johnson--"big and fine, and brave, and good, and splendid, and all that"--joins Huck and Tom, and the remainder of the fragment details their futile search for Jim, Peggy, and Flaxy. They discover the Indian camp with "four stakes drove in the ground," implying that the band of Indians had gang-raped Peggy. After another short passage, the manuscript ends in midsentence.

Clearly, by the mid 1880s Twain's attitude toward the Indians had hardened, and his Victorian prudishness could not allow him to continue writing on the subject of rape. Such comedy as the fragment contains derives, however, from the comic juxtaposition of Tom's bookish romanticizing of Indians contrasted with Huck's more suspicious and realistic judgment.

The vein of western materials had played itself out in Twain's creative imagination. Regardless of the extent to which his wife's disapproval of his vagabond years might have contributed, his own increasing misanthropy and his impulse to self-censorship combined to make Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians an unfinishable book. For the last twenty-five years of his life he wrote increasingly mordant satire such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), and a series of essays expressing his anti-imperialism. His fame and stature grew, but his creative output was increasingly unfinished, increasingly concerned with the paradox of dream and reality, and increasingly shrill about man's incapacity for choice and free will in a deterministic universe.

Nevertheless, Walter Blair has claimed that those few weeks in Angel's Camp in early 1865--when Twain heard the stories of a jumping frog, a curious blue jay, and an almost nonexistent old ram--"brought a crucial turning point in his artistic development. For it enabled him to discover his happiest style of writing, and its yarnspinning sessions were germinal to at least eight of the best stretches of writing in all his books." He learned his craft, made his decision to become a humorist, and adopted all of his major stances (however elusive and contradictory they might have been) during his western days.


From: Hill, Hamlin. "Samuel Langhorne Clemens (30 November 1835-21 April 1910)." Nineteenth-Century American Western Writers, edited by Robert L. Gale, vol. 186, Gale, 1997, pp. 55-70. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 186.


  • Further Reading


    • Merle Johnson, A Bibliography of the Works of Mark Twain, revised and enlarged edition (New York & London: Harper, 1935).
    • Thomas Asa Tenney, Mark Twain: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977).
    • Alan Gribben, "Removing Mark Twains Mask: A Decade of Criticism and Scholarship," ESQ: Journal of the American Renaissance, 26 (1980): 100-108, 149-171.
    • Gribben, Mark Twains Library: A Reconstruction, 2 volumes (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980).
    • Union Catalog of Clemens Letters, edited by Paul Machlis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
    • Union Catalog of Letters to Clemens, edited by Machlis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
    • The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, edited by J. R. LeMaster and James D. Williams (New York: Garland, 1993).



    • William Dean Howells, My Mark Twain (New York & London: Harper, 1910).
    • Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain, A Biography, 3 volumes (New York & London: Harper, 1912).
    • William R. Gillis, Goldrush Days with Mark Twain (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1930).
    • Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twains America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1932).
    • Minnie M. Brashear, Mark Twain, Son of Missouri (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1934).
    • Ivan Benson, Mark Twains Western Years (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1938).
    • DeLancey Ferguson, Mark Twain: Man and Legend (Indianapolis & New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943).
    • Effie Mona Mack, Mark Twain in Nevada (New York: Scribners, 1947).
    • Kenneth Andrews, Nook Farm: Mark Twains Hartford Circle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950).
    • Dixon Wecter, Sam Clemens of Hannibal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952).
    • Paul Fatout, Mark Twain in Virginia City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964).
    • Margaret Duckett, Mark Twain and Bret Harte (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964).
    • Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966).
    • Hamlin Hill, Mark Twain: God's Fool (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
    • Nigey Lennon, The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California (New York: Paragon House, 1990).
    • Margaret Sanborn, Mark Twain: The Bachelor Years (New York: Doubleday, 1990).



    • Gladys Bellamy, Mark Twain as a Literary Artist (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950).
    • Walter Blair, Mark Twain's West (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley, 1983).
    • Blair, Tall Tale America (New York: Coward-McCann, 1944).
    • Edgar M. Branch, The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950).
    • Richard Bridgman, Traveling in Mark Twain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
    • Van Wyck Brooks, The Ordeal of Mark Twain, revised edition (New York: Dutton, 1933).
    • Louis J. Budd, Interviews with Samuel L. Clemens, 1874-1910 (Arlington: University of Texas at Arlington, 1977).
    • James M. Cox, Mark Twain, The Fate of Humor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966).
    • Paul Fatout, Mark Twain on the Lecture Circuit (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960).
    • Walter Francis Frear, Mark Twain and Hawaii (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1947).
    • Robert L. Gale, Plots and Characters in the Works of Mark Twain, 2 volumes (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1973).
    • Fred W. Lorch, The Trouble Begins at Eight (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1968).
    • Kenneth S. Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959).
    • Arthur G. Pettit, Mark Twain and the South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974).
    • Robert L. Ramsay and Frances G. Emberson, A Mark Twain Lexicon (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1938).
    • David E. E. Sloane, Mark Twain as a Literary Comedian (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979).
    • Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain, The Development of a Writer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).
    • Jeffrey Steinbrink, Getting to be Mark Twain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
    • Albert E. Stone, The Innocent Eye, Childhood in Mark Twain's Fiction (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961).
    • Franklin Walker, San Francisco's Literary Frontier (New York: Knopf, 1939).
    • Henry B. Wonham, Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).