A burlesque biography

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MARK TWAIN (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens)


Two or three persons having at different times intimated that if I

would write an autobiography they would read it when they got leisure,

I yield at last to this frenzied public demand and herewith tender

my history.
Ours is a noble house, and stretches a long way back into antiquity.

The earliest ancestor the Twains have any record of was a friend of

the family by the name of Higgins. This was in the eleventh century,

when our people were living in Aberdeen, county of Cork, England.

Why it is that our long line has ever since borne the maternal

name (except when one of them now and then took a playful

refuge in an alias to avert foolishness), instead of Higgins,

is a mystery which none of us has ever felt much desire to stir.

It is a kind of vague, pretty romance, and we leave it alone.

All the old families do that way.

Arthour Twain was a man of considerable note--a solicitor on the

highway in William Rufus's time. At about the age of thirty he went

to one of those fine old English places of resort called Newgate,

to see about something, and never returned again. While there he

died suddenly.
Augustus Twain seems to have made something of a stir about the

year 1160. He was as full of fun as he could be, and used to take his old

saber and sharpen it up, and get in a convenient place on a dark night,

and stick it through people as they went by, to see them jump.

He was a born humorist. But he got to going too far with it;

and the first time he was found stripping one of these parties,

the authorities removed one end of him, and put it up on a nice high

place on Temple Bar, where it could contemplate the people and have

a good time. He never liked any situation so much or stuck to it so long.
Then for the next two hundred years the family tree shows

a succession of soldiers--noble, high-spirited fellows,

who always went into battle singing, right behind the army,

and always went out a-whooping, right ahead of it.

This is a scathing rebuke to old dead Froissart's poor witticism

that our family tree never had but one limb to it, and that that

one stuck out at right angles, and bore fruit winter and summer.
Early in the fifteenth century we have Beau Twain, called "the Scholar."

He wrote a beautiful, beautiful hand. And he could imitate anybody's

hand so closely that it was enough to make a person laugh his head

off to see it. He had infinite sport with his talent. But by and

by he took a contract to break stone for a road, and the roughness

of the work spoiled his hand. Still, he enjoyed life all the time

he was in the stone business, which, with inconsiderable intervals,

was some forty-two years. In fact, he died in harness. During all

those long years he gave such satisfaction that he never was through

with one contract a week till the government gave him another. He was

a perfect pet. And he was always a favorite with his fellow-artists,

and was a conspicuous member of their benevolent secret society,

called the Chain Gang. He always wore his hair short, had a

preference for striped clothes, and died lamented by the government.

He was a sore loss to his country. For he was so regular.
Some years later we have the illustrious John Morgan Twain.

He came over to this country with Columbus in 1492 as a passenger.

He appears to have been of a crusty, uncomfortable disposition.

He complained of the food all the way over, and was always threatening

to go ashore unless there was a change. He wanted fresh shad.

Hardly a day passed over his head that he did not go idling about

the ship with his nose in the air, sneering about the commander,

and saying he did not believe Columbus knew where he was going

to or had ever been there before. The memorable cry of "Land ho!"

thrilled every heart in the ship but his. He gazed awhile through a

piece of smoked glass at the penciled line lying on the distant water,

and then said: "Land be hanged--it's a raft!"

When this questionable passenger came on board the ship, he brought

nothing with him but an old newspaper containing a handkerchief

marked "B. G.," one cotton sock marked "L. W. C.," one woolen one

marked "D. F.," and a night-shirt marked "O. M. R." And yet during

the voyage he worried more about his "trunk," and gave himself more

airs about it, than all the rest of the passengers put together.

If the ship was "down by the head," and would not steer, he would

go and move his "trunk" further aft, and then watch the effect.

If the ship was "by the stern," he would suggest to Columbus to detail

some men to "shift that baggage." In storms he had to be gagged,

because his wailings about his "trunk" made it impossible for the

men to hear the orders. The man does not appear to have been

openly charged with any gravely unbecoming thing, but it is noted

in the ship's log as a "curious circumstance" that albeit he brought

his baggage on board the ship in a newspaper, he took it ashore in

four trunks, a queensware crate, and a couple of champagne baskets.

But when he came back insinuating, in an insolent, swaggering way,

that some of this things were missing, and was going to search

the other passengers' baggage, it was too much, and they threw

him overboard. They watched long and wonderingly for him to

come up, but not even a bubble rose on the quietly ebbing tide.

But while every one was most absorbed in gazing over the side,

and the interest was momentarily increasing, it was observed with

consternation that the vessel was adrift and the anchor-cable hanging

limp from the bow. Then in the ship's dimmed and ancient log we

find this quaint note:

"In time it was discouvered yt ye troblesome passenger hadde gone

downe and got ye anchor, and toke ye same and solde it to ye dam

sauvages from ye interior, saying yt he hadde founde it, ye sonne

of a ghun!"

Yet this ancestor had good and noble instincts, and it is with

pride that we call to mind the fact that he was the first white

person who ever interested himself in the work of elevating

and civilizing our Indians. He built a commodious jail and put

up a gallows, and to his dying day he claimed with satisfaction

that he had had a more restraining and elevating influence on

the Indians than any other reformer that ever labored among them.

At this point the chronicle becomes less frank and chatty,

and closes abruptly by saying that the old voyager went to see

his gallows perform on the first white man ever hanged in America,

and while there received injuries which terminated in his death.
The great-grandson of the "Reformer" flourished in sixteen hundred

and something, and was known in our annals as "the old Admiral,"

though in history he had other titles. He was long in command of

fleets of swift vessels, well armed and manned, and did great service

in hurrying up merchantmen. Vessels which he followed and kept

his eagle eye on, always made good fair time across the ocean.

But if a ship still loitered in spite of all he could do,

his indignation would grow till he could contain himself no longer

--and then he would take that ship home where he lived and keep it

there carefully, expecting the owners to come for it, but they never did.

And he would try to get the idleness and sloth out of the sailors

of that ship by compelling them to take invigorating exercise and

a bath. He called it "walking a plank." All the pupils liked it.

At any rate, they never found any fault with it after trying it.

When the owners were late coming for their ships, the Admiral always

burned them, so that the insurance money should not be lost.

At last this fine old tar was cut down in the fullness of his years

and honors. And to her dying day, his poor heart-broken widow believed

that if he had been cut down fifteen minutes sooner he might have

been resuscitated.

Charles Henry Twain lived during the latter part of the seventeenth

century, and was a zealous and distinguished missionary.

He converted sixteen thousand South Sea islanders, and taught them

that a dog-tooth necklace and a pair of spectacles was not enough

clothing to come to divine service in. His poor flock loved

him very, very dearly; and when his funeral was over, they got up

in a body (and came out of the restaurant) with tears in their eyes,

and saying, one to another, that he was a good tender missionary,

and they wished they had some more of him.
Pah-go-to-wah-wah-pukketekeewis (Mighty-Hunter-with-a-Hog-Eye-Twain)

adorned the middle of the eighteenth century, and aided General

Braddock with all his heart to resist the oppressor Washington.

It was this ancestor who fired seventeen times at our Washington

from behind a tree. So far the beautiful romantic narrative

in the moral story-books is correct; but when that narrative goes

on to say that at the seventeenth round the awe-stricken savage

said solemnly that that man was being reserved by the Great Spirit

for some mighty mission, and he dared not lift his sacrilegious rifle

against him again, the narrative seriously impairs the integrity

of history. What he did say was:
"It ain't no (hic) no use. 'At man's so drunk he can't stan'

still long enough for a man to hit him. I (hic) I can't 'ford

to fool away any more am'nition on him."
That was why he stopped at the seventeenth round, and it was a good,

plain, matter-of-fact reason, too, and one that easily commends itself

to us by the eloquent, persuasive flavor of probability there is about it.
I also enjoyed the story-book narrative, but I felt a marring misgiving

that every Indian at Braddock's Defeat who fired at a soldier

a couple of times (two easily grows to seventeen in a century),

and missed him, jumped to the conclusion that the Great Spirit

was reserving that soldier for some grand mission; and so I somehow

feared that the only reason why Washington's case is remembered

and the others forgotten is, that in his the prophecy came true,

and in that of the others it didn't. There are not books enough

on earth to contain the record of the prophecies Indians and other

unauthorized parties have made; but one may carry in his overcoat

pockets the record of all the prophecies that have been fulfilled.
I will remark here, in passing, that certain ancestors of mine are

so thoroughly well-known in history by their aliases, that I have

not felt it to be worth while to dwell upon them, or even mention

them in the order of their birth. Among these may be mentioned

Richard Brinsley Twain, alias Guy Fawkes; John Wentworth Twain,

alias Sixteen-String Jack; William Hogarth Twain, alias Jack Sheppard;

Ananias Twain, alias Baron Munchausen; John George Twain,

alias Captain Kydd; and then there are George Francis Twain,

Tom Pepper, Nebuchadnezzar, and Baalam's Ass--they all belong

to our family, but to a branch of it somewhat distinctly removed

from the honorable direct line--in fact, a collateral branch,

whose members chiefly differ from the ancient stock in that, in order

to acquire the notoriety we have always yearned and hungered for,

they have got into a low way of going to jail instead of getting hanged.

It is not well, when writing an autobiography, to follow your ancestry

down too close to your own time--it is safest to speak only vaguely

of your great-grandfather, and then skip from there to yourself,

which I now do.

I was born without teeth--and there Richard III. had the advantage

of me; but I was born without a humpback, likewise, and there I

had the advantage of him. My parents were neither very poor nor

conspicuously honest.

But now a thought occurs to me. My own history would really seem

so tame contrasted with that of my ancestors, that it is simply wisdom

to leave it unwritten until I am hanged. If some other biographies I

have read had stopped with the ancestry until a like event occurred,

it would have been a felicitous thing for the reading public.

How does it strike you?


The Humorous Story an American Development.--Its Difference

from Comic and Witty Stories
I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told.

I only claim to know how a story ought to be told, for I have been

almost daily in the company of the most expert story-tellers for

many years.

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind

--the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story

is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French.

The humorous story depends for its effect upon the MANNER of the telling;

the comic story and the witty story upon the MATTER.
The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander

around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular;

but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point.

The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art--high and delicate art

--and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling

the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling

a humorous story--understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print

--was created in America, and has remained at home.
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best

to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is

anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you

beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard,

then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh

when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success,

he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the "nub" of it

and glance around from face to face, collecting applause,

and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.
Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story

finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it.

Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will

divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual

and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it

is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience

presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise,

as if wondering what they had found to laugh at. Dan Setchell

used it before him, Nye and Riley and others use it today.

But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub;

he shouts it at you--every time. And when he prints it,

in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it,

puts some whopping exclamation-points after it, and sometimes

explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very depressing,

and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.

Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote

which has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen

hundred years. The teller tells it in this way:


In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot off

appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear,

informing him at the same time of the loss which he had sustained;

whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate,

proceeded to carry out his desire. The bullets and cannon-balls

were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter

took the wounded man's head off--without, however, his deliverer

being aware of it. In no long time he was hailed by an officer,

who said:
"Where are you going with that carcass?"
"To the rear, sir--he's lost his leg!"
"His leg, forsooth?" responded the astonished officer; "you mean

his head, you booby."

Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood

looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:

"It is true, sir, just as you have said." Then after a pause he added,


Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of

thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time

through his gasping and shriekings and suffocatings.
It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form;

and isn't worth the telling, after all. Put into the humorous-story

form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have

ever listened to--as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.

He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has

just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny,

and is trying to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can't remember it;

so he gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round,

putting in tedious details that don't belong in the tale and only

retard it; taking them out conscientiously and putting in others

that are just as useless; making minor mistakes now and then

and stopping to correct them and explain how he came to make them;

remembering things which he forgot to put in in their proper place

and going back to put them in there; stopping his narrative a good

while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier that was hurt,

and finally remembering that the soldier's name was not mentioned,

and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance, anyway

--better, of course, if one knew it, but not essential, after all

--and so on, and so on, and so on.
The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself,

and has to stop every little while to hold himself in and keep

from laughing outright; and does hold in, but his body quakes

in a jelly-like way with interior chuckles; and at the end of the

ten minutes the audience have laughed until they are exhausted,

and the tears are running down their faces.

The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness

of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result

is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious.

This is art--and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it;

but a machine could tell the other story.
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering

and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they

are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position

is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third

is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it,

as if one where thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.

Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would

begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to

think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently

absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way;

and that was the remark intended to explode the mine--and it did.
For instance, he would say eagerly, excitedly, "I once knew a man

in New Zealand who hadn't a tooth in his head"--here his animation

would die out; a silent, reflective pause would follow, then he

would say dreamily, and as if to himself, "and yet that man could

beat a drum better than any man I ever saw."
The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story,

and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing,

and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must

be exactly the right length--no more and no less--or it fails

of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the

impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine

that a surprise is intended--and then you can't surprise them,

of course.

On the platform I used to tell a negro ghost story that had a pause

in front of the snapper on the end, and that pause was the most important

thing in the whole story. If I got it the right length precisely,

I could spring the finishing ejaculation with effect enough to make

some impressible girl deliver a startled little yelp and jump out

of her seat--and that was what I was after. This story was called

"The Golden Arm," and was told in this fashion. You can practice

with it yourself--and mind you look out for the pause and get it right.


Once 'pon a time dey wuz a momsus mean man, en he live 'way out in de

prairie all 'lone by hisself, 'cep'n he had a wife. En bimeby she died,

en he tuck en toted her way out dah in de prairie en buried her.

Well, she had a golden arm--all solid gold, fum de shoulder down.

He wuz pow'ful mean--pow'ful; en dat night he couldn't sleep,

caze he want dat golden arm so bad.
When it come midnight he couldn't stan' it no mo'; so he git up,

he did, en tuck his lantern en shoved out thoo de storm en dug her

up en got de golden arm; en he bent his head down 'gin de 'win, en

plowed en plowed en plowed thoo de snow. Den all on a sudden he

stop (make a considerable pause here, and look startled, and take

a listening attitude) en say: "My LAN', what's dat?"

En he listen--en listen--en de win' say (set your teeth together

and imitate the wailing and wheezing singsong of the wind),

"Bzzz-z-zzz"--en den, way back yonder whah de grave is, he hear

a VOICE!--he hear a voice all mix' up in de win'--can't hardly

tell 'em 'part--"Bzzz--zzz--W-h-o--g-o-t--m-y--g-o-l-d-e-n ARM?"

(You must begin to shiver violently now.)

En he begin to shiver en shake, en say, "Oh, my! OH, my lan'!" en de win'

blow de lantern out, en de snow en sleet blow in his face en mos'

choke him, en he start a-plowin' knee-deep toward home mos' dead,

he so sk'yerd--en pooty soon he hear de voice agin, en (pause) it 'us

comin AFTER him! "Bzzz--zzz--zzz W-h-o--g-o-t--m-y--g-o-l-d-e-n--ARM?"
When he git to de pasture he hear it agin--closter now,

en A-COMIN'!--a-comin' back dah in de dark en de storm--(repeat

the wind and the voice). When he git to de house he rush upstairs

en jump in de bed en kiver up, head and years, en lay da shiverin'

en shakin'--en den way out dah he hear it AGIN!--en a-COMIN'! En

bimeby he hear (pause--awed, listening attitude)--pat--pat--pat HIT'S

A-COMIN' UPSTAIRS! Den he hear de latch, en he KNOW it's in de room!
Den pooty soon he know it's a-STANNIN' BY DE BED! (Pause.) Den

--he know it's a-BENDIN' DOWN OVER HIM--en he cain't skasely git

his breath! Den--den--he seem to feel someth'n' C-O-L-D, right down

'most agin his head! (Pause.)

Den de voice say, RIGHT AT HIS YEAR--"W-h-o--g-o-t--m-y g-o-l-d-e-n ARM?"

(You must wail it out very plaintively and accusingly; then you stare

steadily and impressively into the face of the farthest-gone auditor

--a girl, preferably--and let that awe-inspiring pause begin to build

itself in the deep hush. When it has reached exactly the right length,

jump suddenly at that girl and yell, "YOU'VE got it!")

If you've got the PAUSE right, she'll fetch a dear little yelp and

spring right out of her shoes. But you MUST get the pause right;

and you will find it the most troublesome and aggravating and

uncertain thing you ever undertook.

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