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Book Review: How to Tell a Story and Other Essays by Mark Twain

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How Tell StoryMark Twain’s How to Tell a Story and Other Essays was no ordinary book. It was a Hail Mary play. It might be hard to believe, but the Oxford Mark Twain facsimilie edition of How to Tell a Story improves on the original.

Driven to bankruptcy in 1894, Twain set out to pay his debts and rebuild his fortune. He was hampered in that effort by a series of unhappy events, being stricken with grief in 1896 by the death of his most beloved daughter, Suzy, among them.

How to Tell a Story is an attempt at humor, a collection of essays thrown together in the midst of Twain’s emotional moil and published as a book in 1897. Received by the public with middlin’ acclaim, sales of the book nevertheless helped the Twain family sleep under a roof until finally, in 1898, they were rescued from ruin with the help of Mr. H. H. Rogers (on the board at Standard Oil). Not to make too much of that, we see there that some benefits did attach to being ‘America’s most-beloved author’.

As originally published, How to Tell a Story (HTS) comprised eight essays. The first of them is titular: “How to Tell a Story” uses 10 pages to discuss technical differences between writing a shaggy dog for enjoyment by readers and telling a shaggy dog in front of a live audience. The joke there is that the two efforts at telling the same story entail entirely different narrative tactics.

The book’s second offering is “In Defence of Harriet Shelley.” This one is a lengthy demolition of Prof. Edward Dowden’s 1886 attempt at a biography of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Twain’s beef with Dowden was the biographer’s mealy-mouthed attempt to cover Shelley’s sexual misadventures by painting Shelley’s first wife, Harriet (a child bride aged 16) scarlet. Dowden laid all the blame for Shelley’s contemptible excesses at the foot of Harriet’s innocent bed.

In doing so, Twain was justified: Dowden’s treatment of Shelley and his first wife is more than grossly unfair. Dowden’s Shelley is as greasy and craven a piece of hagiography as I’d ever want to see. But (for this writer) beating that same horse over and over across 76 pages made Twain’s case tiresome rather than funny. Long before Twain was done, I began to feel that Twain looked as much the ass as he sought to make of Dowden and Shelley.

The third essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” is truly funny. It is a rich chortle made richer by the fact that its seemingly hyperbolic charges are all perfectly true. I first read James Fenimore Cooper at my mother’s knee. Revisiting that experience some years ago, I couldn’t be sure my ol’ Ma inflicted Cooper upon me because his stories were some of her childhood favorites or if she wanted to scare her little boy away from Walt Disney’s equally awful Davy Crockett.

Be that as it may, many of today’s Americans know Cooper only from watching The Last of the Mohicans, the 1992 romantic film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. Many of today’s readers, never having read his books, probably have no idea how horrid a novelist Fenimore Cooper actually was. For them, Mark Twain explains it all in fine detail across 25 pages. “Literary Offences” is easily the most amusing essay in HTS.

Other works included are “Traveling with a Reformer,” “Private History of the ‘Jumping Frog’ Story,” “Mental Telegraphy Again,” “What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us,” and “A Little Note to M. Paul Bourget.” Of course today’s general readers probably know less about Paul Bourget than they know of the poet Shelley and care no more about Mark Twain’s beef with Prof. Edward Dowden than they care about other 19th-century authorial cat fights. That’s why it’s a good thing The Oxford Mark Twain edition of HTS features an introductory essay by David Bradley and an afterword by Pascal Covici, Jr.

Bradley’s ‘Introduction’ provides a wryly humorous and keenly perceptive take on how childhood exposure to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn set him on a long path that led him (as a young man) to eschew the concoction of racist polemics and become an author, instead. Passionate writers of whatever stripe, if they’re in search of a voice and an audience, should heed David Bradley. Covici’s ‘Afterword’ illuminates the tales and essays that appear in HTS, helping readers make sense of them by explaining the context that sparked their creation.

Solomon sez: The Oxford Mark Twain edition of How to Tell a Story and Other Essays is a useful book even if it isn’t the funniest thing I ever read. As the title hints, HTS is chock-full of good, solid advice for budding writers. But in the year 2012, HTS wouldn’t read near so well without the contributions of Covici and Bradley. It is in their essays as much or more than in the work of Twain himself where the strength of this edition resides.

Four stars for a good, profitable read.

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