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Mark Twain rises again

By Professor Pete Messent
University of Nottingham

Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain

They can't keep Mark Twain quiet.

The centenary of his death takes place next year but he is in the news again with the publication of a "new" short story, The Undertaker's Tale in The Strand magazine.

This in turn heralds a new whole new collection of fiction and non-fiction, Who is Mark Twain?, to be published next month.

Thirteen years ago, Twain made the headlines (and a special feature in the New Yorker) when a new "comprehensive" edition of Huckleberry Finn was published, including such previously unseen material as the Jim and the Dead Man sequence.

And in 2003, Shelley Fisher Fishkin published her edition of Twain's comic play, Is He Dead?

Never previously seen in print or on stage, that has now appeared in both media, with a successful Broadway debut in 2007 following book publication.

Where does all this material come from? Well, mostly from the Mark Twain Papers in Berkeley, with its wealth of Twainiana.

Jeremy Spenser as Tom Sawyer, Orlando Martin as Jim the runaway house slave and Colin Campbell as Huckleberry Finn

Twain wrote compulsively in his lifetime: fiction, non-fiction, plays, letters, and autobiography (much of the latter, in fact, dictated), and there is still a mass of material yet to be published. It's not many one-man industries that will turn a profit a century after that individual's death.

And, though, as one would expect, much of this work tends not to live up to the standard of the work published in his life-time, it is still well worth reading. So the new Undertaker's Tale story has a nice line in black humour, with the boy who tells it - as a type of undertaker's assistant - describing how as business prospers, he and Grace (the daughter of the undertaker's family) are "as blithe and happy as birds" as Grace meanwhile, "wrought with her nimble needle upon a shroud".

This is a macabre humour right in line with the south-western frontier tradition which initially fostered the author.

I have been working on Twain now for the last decade or so, and I still find him very funny. He must surely have been one of the wittiest writers there have been - an American Oscar Wilde, but with a more down-to-earth and democratic nature. "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" (or words very close to these) was his well-known quick-fire reply in 1897 when the press mistook his cousin's serious illness for his own.

And "man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to," provides an ironic tag to a chapter to his late travel book, Following the Equator.

Here we go again

The new Undertaker's Tale story has a nice line in black humour.

The boy who tells it is working as a type of undertaker's assistant, describing the prospering business - the deaths in the community - in terms of his and the undertaker's families' own happiness and contentedness.

Indeed the strand of macabre humour that runs right through the story is in line with the south-western frontier tradition which initially inspired the author.

I'd defy anyone not break into precisely the smile that undertaker lacks when reading it.

So here we go again: more Twain stuff appears. I'm sure it will be a mixed bag but even if it is, his mixture of coruscating social criticism, of thought-provoking non-fiction, and of joyful and - finally - deeply humane comedy, is sure to be well worth the read.

The short story appearing in the Strand magazine will be published in the book Who Is Mark Twain




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