Get the NewsHour History:
Mark Twain: an Online NewsHour Special Report
Fisher Fishkin discusses her Mark
NewsHour coverage of
It took 125 years, but Mark Twain finally got his story published. Most people know Twain as the author of "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Now, American readers are seeing a new side of Twain in a mystery story that he wrote between his two greatest works but which was lost in private collections until now.
A new old story
"A Murder, A Mystery, and A Marriage" appears in the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly -- the magazine that Twain originally hoped would print it in 1876. The 8-page love story and murder mystery makes fun of social stereotypes, along with country people easily taken in by rich impostors. Like "Tom Sawyer," the story is set in small 19th century village in Missouri (Twain's home state).
Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly describes it as a humorous love story with a surprise ending. The most interesting thing about the story, he said, is a darkness not found in Twain's other early works.
"The people he's describing in this small town, there's a lot of what comes up later in 'Huckleberry Finn,'" Kelly said in a NewsHour interview. "It's a really new and honest and in some ways very tough view of what people do."
Twain planned to use the story as a basis for a writing contest. Famous writers of the day would take the outline of his story, and write their own versions, to be printed in the Atlantic then published by Twain's friend William Dean Howells.
Unfortunately, none of the other writers wanted to rewrite something a master had already written. So the contest never happened. Twain tried to get his version published while he began work on "Huckleberry Finn" but the magazine never printed it.
In the meantime, Twain was dissatisfied with his "Huck Finn" text and lost interest in completing it, even threatening to set the papers on fire. Eventually, of course, he did finish it, but scholars can only guess how literary history would have changed if his short story had been published. Would Twain have been inspired to write more short fiction, and given up on his difficult masterpiece? We'll never know.
But scholars of literature hope this long lost story will help readers better understand Twain -- a writer who is sometimes thought of as a kindly children's author but who also had a more serious, even angry, side to his writing.
"Huckleberry Finn" for example includes vivid portrayals of southern culture that are not always flattering. He went out of his way to criticize social conventions, exaggerate characters and make fun of things he thought were wrong or foolish. His straightforward writing (including the now-forbidden N-word) make some modern readers uncomfortable. Some school districts have even banned Huck Finn.
Still, many literary scholars consider "Huckleberry Finn" one of the most important novels in American literary history. Ernest Hemingway, author of "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms," said in 1935 that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.... all American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
Twain's book introduced a new voice for American literature. The narrator, Huck Finn, embodies the American spirit--creative and accepting of all humans, even caught-up in the dehumanizing institution of slavery. It also moved away from classical European novel structure and language.
Stirring up trouble
Twain himself was no stranger to controversy. Late in his life he wrote a series of anti-religious essays that were so shocking his own daughter Clara kept them secret for almost 30 years. She said they didn't accurately reflect the ideas and opinions of the kindly man who created Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
The essays describe humans as long-suffering victims deluded by their own ludicrous religious beliefs. The essays were written during a period of personal sadness for Twain, after he lost his wife, a daughter, and a lot of money.
Twain's daughter eventually released the stories in 1962 to counter Soviet claims of American censorship. Twain was considered a literary hero in the Soviet Union and they seized upon the suppression of those stories as an example of American censorship.
Twain himself would probably laugh at the controversy his writing sometimes stirs. But even he knew that one of the purposes of writing is to create a slice of life, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.
As Twain once wrote, "The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice."
What do you think? What conclusions could be drawn about Twain almost burning the Huck Finn text while pushing to have his short story published? Were Twain's daughter and local school boards protecting people or harming them?
-By Samara Aberman, NewsHour Extra
All photographs are from the Mark Twain Collection (#6314), Clifton Waller Barrett Library, The Albert H. Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library.
Copyright © MacNeil-Lehrer Productions All Rights Reserved