An inauspicious debut

One of the virtues of the Oxford Mark Twain — maybe its greatest virtue — is that the series photographically reproduces the earliest published texts of books that Twain completed in his lifetime. The Mark Twain Project at the University of California is attempting to produce definitive scholarly versions of all of Twain’s surviving texts and letters, and they’re having a slow go of it, but the Oxford series in contrast presents Twain’s work as it was first presented to American readers from 1867 to 1910, Twain’s death. Reading through the 29 volumes of the Oxford series, one familiarizes oneself with Twain’s own self-presentations during his lifetime, and comes to them, in a way, as his first American readers did. The series also reproduces the original illustrations that accompanied the text, along with introductions from Twain enthusiasts and contextualizing essays from Twain scholars. The series was first published in hardcover in 1996, and a paperback edition appeared in 2010, but the latter is available only as a set; individual volumes are not available for purchase from the Oxford University Press. This is a little unfortunate; in the absence of a complete edition from the Mark Twain Project the Oxford series has become the unofficial standard edition, despite a few critical quibbles, and its $355.00 recommended retail price puts it beyond the budgets of most casual but engaged readers.

But individual books from the series are available if one hunts around enough; various vagrant volumes can be found on Amazon and in larger used book stores. I found the Oxford edition of Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867), at the Strand. The Jumping Frog was issued to cash in on the phenomenal success of the title short story, which first appeared in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, and was quickly reprinted in other newspapers around the country. Twain’s friend, publisher Charles Henry Webb, gathered the frog story and 26 other parodies and short essays by Twain dating from 1863 in a volume that enjoyed what Richard Bucci in his afterword describes as only a “modest performance in the marketplace.” Twain himself was dissatisfied with the book. Only 4,076 copies were printed, and in December 1870 Twain bought and destroyed the typesetting plates.

Reading it in 2017 — this year marks the 150th anniversary of its publication — I can see why. Like any book of comic essays, it’s not a good idea to read it straight through, and among the few bits of gold there’s quite a lot of dross. One joke about the commonality of the name “John Smith” (and it’s the first joke of the book, in the dedication) is more than enough, but coming across it six or seven times strains one’s patience to the snapping point. In 2017, jokes about insurance companies may not read as fresh as they did 150 years ago.

But the best of the sketches and stories still shine. The title story, of course, remains something of a milestone in American literature — the first literary work from the American West to succeed in the East, and subversive enough in both form and vernacular. “The Jumping Frog” is the relation of several anecdotes from a poker-faced man named Simon Wheeler rendered as a monologue which, with utter seriousness, trades in the palpably absurd, a pointless meander that nonetheless draws some wonder in its imagination and language. But several other sketches retain their attractiveness too. “Aurelia’s Unfortunate Young Man” describes a young man’s slow but sure physical disassembly through the eyes of an advice columnist (a precursor perhaps to Lemuel Pitkin of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million and the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail); “Lucretia Smith’s Soldier” is a caustic parody of a sentimental Civil War romance, years before Gone with the Wind; “The Story of the Bad Little Boy who Didn’t Come to Grief,” as Roy Blount says in his introduction, “[is] not at all outdated at a time when The Book of Virtues sells in the millions.” Its final paragraph is one for the ages:

And he grew up, and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an ax one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality, and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

But far be it from me to discuss Donald Trump any further here.

Most of the best pieces in the volume were originally published in the Californian, a San Francisco newspaper started in 1864 and edited by the Jumping Frog‘s publisher, Charles Henry Webb. The Californian was a serious effort to produce a genuinely literary magazine in San Francisco, and Webb himself was a member of the New York circle of self-styled “Bohemians” before travelling west. He had been a regular visitor to Pfaff’s, the New York beer cellar and meeting place for some of the most experimental and avant-garde writers of the day, including Walt Whitman. The experiment attempted to extend humor into more serious literary endeavors, and Webb encouraged Twain to extend himself from the rough, quick journalistic satires of his early work into something more lasting and ambitious. The “Jumping Frog” story was among the first results.

Reading early Twain today is not unlike watching Chaplin shorts from the Keystone and Essanay eras. The character of Twain, like the character of the Tramp, is there in broad outline — more violent and less subtle than later iterations of the same character, but in stories like the “Jumping Frog” and others in this first collection, the reader can recognize intimations of the later complexity of Twain’s comedy and satire. There are worse ways to spend an hour or two of reading (and the Oxford Mark Twain edition is still a bargain; first editions of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, a very rare volume, fetch up to $31,000 at abebooks).

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014) is an essential guide to understanding the cultural milieu in which Twain began to reach his aesthetic maturity, and I can highly recommend that as well.