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Waiting for the Next Twain

Halley’s Comet appears in 1835; Mark Twain is born.

Halley’s Comet returns in 1910; Mark Twain dies.

Halley’s Comet re-appears in 1986—perhaps to interfere with the course of American humor again.

For all we know, the next great American humorist was born with its return and is now 23 years old. Since Mark Twain didn’t achieve national fame until he was 34, we’ll have to wait for 2020 to see if a comet-influenced successor has arrived.

Until the next Twain shows up, Americans must content themselves with the 24 volumes of the original’s complete works and the scores of books that contain his letters, speeches, and notes. That should be plenty, but it’s not. Even after 99 years, America’s enthusiasm for Twain doesn’t appear to be fading.

Scholars at The Mark Twain Papers, housed at the University of California at Berkeley, have been hunting through his works, which include 600 unpublished manuscripts. But after years of searching, it doesn’t appear that they’ll discover another Innocents Abroad or Huckleberry Finn.

Still, there’s always the hope a new Twain will emerge from America’s young writers.  Again and again, publishers have hailed some new humorist as “the next Mark Twain,” though the reputations of many of these contenders barely outlived them. Who, today, reads George Ade, Irvin Cobb, Kin Hubbard, John Kendrick Bangs, and Ellis Parker Butler?

Will Rogers looked like a promising successor in the 1920s, but he was more of a successful columnist than a “literary humorist.” Then there was H. L. Mencken, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, S. J. Perlman, Dorothy Parker, Art Buchwald, Erma Bombeck, and on, and on—all expected to be the next Mark Twains.

The line of contenders stretches clear out of one century and into another. More recently, critics have nominated humorists like Calvin Trillin, Veronica Geng, Dave Berry, Ian Frazier, Roy Blount, and of course, Garrison Keillor. But Keillor, like the others, doesn’t want to be another humorist’s successor, as flattering as that might be. No humorist wants to walk in another’s shadow any more than they want to be the second person to tell a funny story.

We need to love the humorists we’ve got because we’re not likely to see another Mark Twain. Any successor would have to be truly funny to several generations—and this rules out most contenders. The successor would have to attempt great things and risk failure to make humor do what it had never done before, to raise laughs and raise awareness. Finally, the successor would have to convey Twain’s sense of fresh enjoyment—the way he makes reader feel the joy he experienced when he was writing.

So what is the connection between Mark Twain and the Post?

Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, said The Saturday Evening Post played a vital role in the humorist’s early career. Back then, Sam Clemens was a teenage boy, years away from adopting his pen name. Working for his brother’s newspaper, Paine says, when he inserted a poem without his brother’s permission:

“It was addressed ‘To Mary in Hannibal,’ but the title was too long to be set in one column, so he left out all the letters in Hannibal, except the first and the last, and supplied their place with a dash, with a startling result. Such were the early flickerings of a smoldering genius. Orion returned, remonstrated, and apologized. He reduced Sam to the ranks. In later years he saw his mistake.

“‘I could have distanced all competitors even then,’ he said, ‘if I had recognized Sam’s ability and let him go ahead, merely keeping him from offending worthy persons.’

“Sam was subdued, but not done for. He never would be, now. He had got his first taste of print, and he liked it. He promptly wrote two anecdotes which he thought humorous and sent them to the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post. They were accepted—without payment, of course, in those days; and when the papers containing them appeared he felt suddenly lifted to a lofty plane of literature. This was in 1851.

“‘Seeing them in print was a joy which rather exceeded anything in that line I have ever experienced since,’ he said, nearly sixty years later.”

We must thank Mr. Twain for the compliment, but it never happened. When he dictated his memoirs to Paine in 1907, the Post was the nation’s most successful magazine, and Twain liked to think it had printed his fledgling work long, long ago.

Alas, the Post didn’t have that honor. By way of reparation, we now offer the piece we should have run in 1851. It tells of a fire that started next door to the newspaper office and the gallantry of the printer’s “devil” (apprentice). You may find the voice of the 16-year-old Sam sounds surprisingly similar to the adult Twain.

The Gallant Fireman

At the fire, on Thursday morning, we were apprehensive of our own safety, (being only one door from the building on fire) and commenced arranging our material in order to remove them in case of necessity. Our gallant devil, seeing us somewhat excited, concluded he would perform a noble deed, and immediately gathered the broom, an old mallet, the wash-pan and a dirty towel, and in a fit of patriotic excitement, rushed out of the office and deposited his precious burden some ten squares off, out of danger. Being of a snailish disposition, even in his quickest moments, the fire had been extinguished during his absence. He returned in the course of an hour, nearly out of breath, and thinking he had immortalized himself, threw his giant frame in a tragic attitude, and exclaimed, with an eloquent expression: “If that thar fire hadn’t bin put out thar’d a’ bin the greatest confirmation of the age!”

(from Early Tales and Sketches: 1851-1864 by Mark Twain, University of California Press, 1979.)

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  • Patricia

    You need to have coverage of Twain’s recent autobiography, which is a big hit!

  • Ima Ryma

    Halley’s Comet brought Mark Twain to
    Tell some wonderful tales to last.
    Then came the time as comets do,
    And once again Halley’s had passed.
    I believe that Mark Twain returned,
    And is alive and doing well.
    The world is dif’rent he soon learned.
    Lots of humor has gone to h – l.
    Thar’s trouble in the biz of print.
    Reams of papers and mags bankrupt.
    But still creating is the gent,
    Mark Twain, who Halley’s re-hiccupped.

    Ah yes, Mark Twain is back, I bet,
    And blogging on the Internet.