What was Mark Twain writing in his old age? I have to make a list. It is a complex subject. He lost interest in books, but he wrote an immense amount of stuff.
I am thinking of approximately 1900 through 1910. Twain has returned from his successful world tour (written up as Following the Equator, 1898) which make him a mountain of money. But his daughter died, his wife was ill, his nation won a war and its leaders chose to become the kind of imperial power Twain so despised in Europe, and Twain was finding the limits of being the world’s most famous writer.
For my own sake, some categories:
1. The so called “dark writings,” a series of dream narratives involving ships on endless journeys, dogs dying in fires, and strange microscopic worlds that look like attempts to cope with trauma. I read a chunk of this material in a collection titled The Devil’s Race-Track, and wrote a bit about it. The writing is rough, not just unfinished but unfinishable – stories about endless entrapment present narrative difficulties – but the imagery and vision are original.
2. Similarly, Twain returned several times to a cluster of ideas that emerged posthumously as The Mysterious Stranger (1916) but can now be read in the three distinct manuscripts that were mashed together to create the “novel.” In each case, a boyish Satan figure – Satan’s 44th son, or a nephew – comes to town and upends things with his magic powers and view that humans are a kind of animal.
3. Twain becomes obsessed with Satan, “a sacred character, being mentioned in the Bible” (“The Chronicle of Young Satan,” Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, p. 41), and he becomes a frequent mouthpiece, a suitably distant observer of the follies of mankind. Adam and Eve are also recurring figures. Just as the “Mysterious Stranger” story is tied up with Twain’s Hannibal childhood, the satirical use of the Old Testament stories is a return to the Sunday school of sixty years previous. The Sunday schools I attended in the 1970s do not sound much different that Twain’s from the 1840s.
As long as Twain did not get into sex, as in “Letters from the Earth” (1909), these stories were publishable. Twain put a letter in Harper’s Weekly in 1905 in the voice of and signed by Satan (“A Humane Word from Satan”).
4. Twain’s philosophy, most tediously expressed in What Is Man?, a Platonic dialogue about a purely deterministic universe. This pamphlet, published anonymously, was dull but helpful, since it clearly states the metaphysical position that shows up everywhere in this period. Reading this, I knew that Twain meant it. Some of it.
5. On the other hand, this is the time of Twain’s most active political involvement, writing scathingly and hilariously against American control of the Philippines, Christian missionaries in China, and the Belgian atrocities in the Congo. All of this in public. The pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule (1905) is a terrific piece of rhetoric, an inhumane word from a human Satan.
6. “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), “The $30,000 Request” (1904) – stories about how money – the possibility of money – ruins lives. Published in popular magazines, and again in best-selling collections. Highly effective. Abolished greed for a time. Not sure what happened since.
7. Did everyone else know about Twain’s Sherlock Holmes story, A Double Barreled Detective Story (1902)? How did the copyright work? Similarly curious is A Horse’s Tale (1906), much of it from the point of view of Buffalo Bill’s horse, a nasty shocker apparently designed to terrify children.
8. Once in a while, Twain felt the urge to write a perfect, signature humor piece, just like in the old days. Something like “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” (1906):
I followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of the United States one morning, because I believed in her and could not think she would deceive a mere boy, and one who was trusting her and considering her honest.
Maybe some kind of allegory in there.
I don’t know why anyone else would read this, but it was helpful to write. I’ll poke at some of these over the next couple of days.