Mark Twain’s Nonfiction by Richard Russo
The novelist William Dean Howells once famously remarked that his friend Mark Twain was not a writer who performed so much as a performer who wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, this astute observation also holds true in Twain’s nonfiction, a form that would seem to put less of a premium on both invention and performance. To read the passages from The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi collected in this volume is to understand that Twain didn’t lose much sleep over the idiosyncratic demands of fiction versus nonfiction. Both offered numerous and varied opportunities to an inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter. To be sure, many of the set pieces that are included in the Everyman’s Library volume of The Complete Short Stories — “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “The Story of the Old Ram”—turn up in this volume as well. Classifying Twain’s work into fiction or nonfiction is something we do for our own convenience; his convenience was to ignore ours.
So, are the events chronicled in Roughing It — which details Twain’s journey by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, his stint there as a silver miner, and his apprenticeship to the newspaper trade — true? Once asked that same question about one of his own stories, David Sedaris replied, “They’re true enough,” and it’s easy to imagine Twain saying the same thing about his youthful adventures in the American West. We know he traveled to Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of what he reports in The Innocents Abroad actually happened. I suspect, however, that the literally true parts are those he wasn’t able to improve on through embellishment or outright invention. For Twain, “truth” was not just elastic but indeed designed to be stretched. He learned this lesson early on, writing for western newspapers. He explains the job to great comic effect in Roughing It, where, as a cub reporter, he wrote a story about a wagon full of immigrants attacked by Indians. At first, fearing that other reporters might recount the same story, he sticks pretty close to the facts, despite his conviction that the story could be improved upon by straying from them. Later, though, when he learns that the owner of the wagon meant to continue his journey the following morning (leaving no one to contradict Twain’s account), all bets are off . His next draft describes an Indian fight that “to this day has no parallel in history.” This is Twain we’re talking about, so it’s likely that he also exaggerated the extent of his exaggerations, but still. Buoyed by praise from the paper’s editor, he expresses a willingness to murder every immigrant on the plains with his pen if “the interests of the paper demanded it.” Thus the low bar of truth is established: true enough. For him. For his editor. For the paper’s readership.
ONCE ASKED THAT SAME QUESTION ABOUT ONE OF HIS OWN STORIES, DAVID SEDARIS REPLIED, “THEY’RE TRUE ENOUGH.”
His approach to fiction was basically the same. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that readers may have heard of him if they’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which “was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” That first assertion, it’s worth remembering, was both the truth and a lie. The book was actually “made” by Samuel Clemens, and the parts Mr. Clemens “stretched” were the parts that needed stretching, beginning with his own identity as Mark Twain. Again, Twain is not so much a writer, at least as the term is used today, as a storyteller whose primary duties are to the narrative and its audience. No story is likely to be instructive if it isn’t entertaining, and the best way to gauge whether it’s working or not is to watch it land with an actual audience, a lesson Twain learned long before he gave his first public lecture.
In A Tramp Abroad he recounts his first ride on a Mississippi steamboat as a ten-year-old boy. Falling asleep, he has a terrifying dream that the boat is ablaze, and he rushes into the ladies’ salon, still under the nightmare’s influence, screaming “Fire!” The ladies there knew better, of course, and they advised him to return to his cabin and dress, lest he catch cold. It’s a revealing memory. The humiliation of his story playing so badly, his audience rejecting both the tale and the teller, is still fresh in Twain’s mind twenty-five years later as he’s writing Tramp. Just as telling is the reason he recalls the episode in the first place. He’s in Germany watching a production of King Lear, where the actor playing the title role “raged and wept and howled” across the stage. Twain admires the performance but feels sorry for the actor, who has to wait until the end of the act for his applause.
Writers, by contrast, are used to silence. Their applause, if they’re lucky enough to get any, comes long after their “performance” has concluded, in the form of reviews. True, authors who publish serially may to some degree interact with their audience. When readers loved Sam Weller in an early installment of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was happy to expand his role as the novel progressed, but that’s hardly akin to telling the same stories on stage night after night, as Twain did on his public speaking tours. Each audience provided him with valuable insight into what worked and why, allowing him to revise the material accordingly. His first public lecture triumph near the end of Roughing It is described almost completely in terms of the crowd’s appreciation. The audience is with him from the start, he tells us, even the jokes he’d judged to be inferior faring “royally.” Near the end, though, the material grows more somber and serious, and Twain tells us that the “absorbed hush” that fell over the audience “gratified me more than any applause.” Indeed, he’s so pleased by the reaction that he can’t help but smile, which the crowd took as a cue to laugh, thus ruining the moment.
Later in life, Twain’s relationship with his audience would grow more complex. In Life on the Mississippi, he admits that being a river pilot was the best job he ever had, because the steamboat pilot has no master, whereas writers were “manacled servants of the public.” That said, no writer ever courted his audience more assiduously nor drew more confidence and pleasure from public adulation (Twain courted honorary degrees, too, and shamelessly.) Indeed, one suspects that it was from his audience, as much as the work itself, that Twain derived his sense of accomplishment and well-being.
WRITERS, BY CONTRAST, ARE USED TO SILENCE. THEIR APPLAUSE, IF THEY’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET ANY, COMES LONG AFTER THEIR “PERFORMANCE” HAS CONCLUDED, IN THE FORM OF REVIEWS.
It’s worth pointing out that the world has changed since Twain left it, and our attitudes towards “truth” and “fiction” have become more rigorous and stern. Mislabel your novel as a memoir (or allow your publisher to do so) and you’ll likely find yourself in a world of hurt. Twain was no great fan of fraud and deception, but like Melville he understood that the world was steeped in both, and moreover he harbored more than a little admiration and affection for its charlatans. Reading Huckleberry Finn I often wonder if I judge the King and the Duke more harshly than their creator intended. At the very least Twain would’ve understood that people who get conned are often complicit in their own deception. Just as important, he would have recognized the paradox inherent in labeling some stories “made up” ( fiction) and others “true” (nonfiction). Interestingly, audience often plays a role here, too. When you claim that a story is invented — especially one as elaborate as Twain’s were — people will naturally suspect you of telling the truth (Come on! You couldn’t have made that up!). Conversely, when you claim to be telling the truth, those same folks shift gears and suspect you of lying (Surely you embellished this!). Storytelling thrives in this fundamental para- dox and often resists any attempts at clarification.