Friday, March 24, 2017

a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought - The Mysterious Stranger as a vehicle for Twain-stuff

For fifty years, The Mysterious Stranger, A Romance (1916) stood as Mark Twain’s final, posthumous novel.  Scholars working on the Twain archives eventually discovered that the novel was something of a fraud, a composite of several unfinished manuscripts with substantial bowdlerization and some bridging passages invented by the editor – not by Twain at all.

I haven’t read that book.  Now – by “now” I mean for the last fifty years, which does include now – the original manuscripts are available and preferable.  The editor of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1969), William M. Gibson, acknowledges that the carpentered version may well make for a better novel, but it ain’t Twain.

Twain messed with the story for over a decade, from 1897 to 1908.  The basic idea is that Satan comes to Hannibal, Missouri circa 1845, where he astounds people with his magic powers and permanently corrupts or enlightens young Sam Clemens.  Everything shifts around in the different versions, though.  The town moves to Austria, where Clemens happened to be when he began writing.  The time moves to the 18th century, or to the 16th.  Twain needs people to be suitably credulous about magic.

Satan becomes his nephew, or Satan, Jr., perhaps Satan’s 44th son, thus “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.”  He always appears as a boy, a companion for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, who appear in the “Schoolhouse Hill” fragment, or their early modern Austrian equivalents.

The Satan figure is always the most interesting – only interesting – character.  He is a mix of theorist, prankster, ignoramus, truth-teller, obfuscator, and paradoxologist.  He is not obviously evil, and is perhaps well-intended.

At some point in each attempt, Twain becomes obsessed and delighted with his angel’s superpowers, and spends too many pages astounding the humans.  Much of this material is inventive – a maid who is turned into a cat in “No. 44” provides a lot of fun – but dramatically static.

Same goes for the satire – the undermining of received religion and glimpses of the future:

“Two centuries from now [i.e., in 1902],” he said, “the Christian civilization will reach the highest mark.  Yet its kings will still be, then, what they are now, a close corporation of land-thieves.  Is that an advance?  England will be prodigious and strong; she will bear the most honorable name that ever a nation bore, and she will lose it in a single little shameful war and carry the blot and stench of it to the end of her days.  To please a dozen rich adventurers her statesmen will pick a quarrel with a couple of wee little Christian farmer-communities, and send against that half dozen villages the mightiest army that ever invaded any country, and will crush those little nations and rob them of their independence and their land.”  (“The Chronicle of Young Satan,” Ch. 9)

None of this is much help in finding out whether good Father Peter will escape the inquisition and bad Father Adolf get his comeuppance, which is nominally the story.  But pretty soon I was not worrying much about story, but reading these texts as a vehicle for Twain-stuff.  There was never going to be a coherent novel.  If Twain had lived longer, there would be a fourth unfinished version, and a fifth.

Twain did write an ending for “No. 44,” even if he never brought the story near it.  Here it is:

“It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell.  It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream.  Nothing exists but You.  And You are but a Thought – a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”

He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.

But that is Satan talking, or a near relative, and we all know how far to trust him; and in fact it is not even Satan but Mark Twain, and we all know how far to trust him.


  1. I have had this on my TBR shelf for some time, partly because I so thoroughly enjoyed The Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi (not Huckleberry Finn so much), and partly because this is one of the books of Twain's on the "Authors" card game that one day I hope to conquer in the deck's entirety ("Idylls of the King"? Really?).

    I find your comment about Twain losing his way late in life to be reminiscent of Melville, although Melville took some comfort in poetry (whether we take comfort in his poetry is another matter). It seems as if Twain reached for bigger and bigger issues, his grasp became weaker and weaker.

    I hope to get to the various versions of The Mysterious Stranger in the next few months. I just can't get ahead of your eclectic reading list, no matter how hard I try.

  2. As the child is the father of the man, I suspect the keys to unlocking Twain's darker works can be found in his biography (not autobiography), especially his agony with family and religion; so, with that in mind and with your insights as catalysts, I'm beginning my own Twain reading adventures. I look forward to following more of yours.

  3. Correction: agon not agony. But I guess both might pertain.

  4. The Mysterious Stranger, in whatever form, is not much like those earlier Twain books. The great Twain voice is muted. He is doing something different.

    The comparison with Melville is perverse in the sense that it compares the world's most famous writer with a man who had an audience of 25. Yet it is a good comparison. All of this fragmented, unpublished writing suggests that for some of what he wanted to do, Twain did not have even 25 readers.

    As for getting ahead, I'm pretty sure you're as well off behind. Idylls of the King is good! Let me refresh my memory with my Tennyson collection - some of it is good! The earlier Tennyson wrote the chapter, the more likely it is to be good. "The Death of Arthur" is good. He wrote that first.

    Tim, I am sure you are right. Twain's obsession with religion - with his sense of the idiocies of other people's religion - drove so much of his final writing.

  5. I have nothing profound to add, but I do have a copyeditor's quibble:

    “Two centuries from now [e.g., in 1902],”

    For e.g. read i.e.

  6. Oh no! I have seen, in internet writing, increasing sloppiness with these terms, and now I am spreading the poison. Thanks - will correct.