For most of the eighties, the Mark Twain House seemed to be the only industry that wouldn’t leave Hartford.
NAFTA, white flight, crack epidemic, gang violence and the more benign wounds of strip malls and the Walmartization of America each took a turn in Connecticut’s third-biggest city. But a local group of die-hards—known as “Twainiacs”—kept the kooky history alive. And we salute them this week, when Mark Twain—they call him “Sam” for his real name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens—would have turned 181.
All the schools in my district are in the shadow of that house and I spent my childhood field trips and all my visits home bringing friends and girlfriends to tour the Mark Twain House. And the funny thing is, I go back each time gleefully because I’ve never had the same tour twice. Each guide has a different, enthralling way to take you from room to room. Something that would have made the man himself very proud.
A great storyteller can spin this yarn for ten minutes and at the end of it you’ll be laughing so hard that you’ll have tears running down your face and, probably, sick abs.
Mark Twain’s chief innovation—in the gilded age of railroad barons, gold rushes and patent medicines—was the humorous American story, which he differentiated from the tales of other nations simply: “The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French.”
Here’s one to discuss:
A soldier in war goes up to the front when his comrade gets hit in the leg. He stops the bleeding and shoulders the man to carry him back to the medic. All along cannonballs burst all around them. While walking up to the medic one of the bombs explodes, taking the wounded man’s head off.
The soldier hurries up, still carrying the wounded man on his shoulder to the medic. An officer stops him, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To the medic! This man has a wounded leg!”
“His leg? You mean his head, you idiot.”
The soldier looks at the carcass, “Well, it’s true what you say, sir.” The teller of the story then pauses, and here the Englishman gets ready for a fine finale. “But he TOLD me IT WAS HIS LEG!!!!!”
Twain adds: “Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time through his gaspings and shriekings and suffocatings.”
It’s a joke so dumb that is shouldn’t be repeated. And yet the American version of this is like “The Aristocrats.” You could listen to a hundred great storytellers give it a go. Sometimes the soldier is a farm boy from Oklahoma. He is dull witted and it takes him months to report to the front because he keeps getting lost. A great storyteller can spin this yarn for ten minutes and at the end of it you’ll be laughing so hard that you’ll have tears running down your face and, probably, sick abs.
“This is art—and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the other story.”
You can’t hear an American story by skimming an article on your phone. You have to be seated and comfortable, and you have to let someone else take the wheel. The American story still has that final punch: In this case, the farm boy gets there with the body ten minutes later and says, “…I coulda swore he said it was his leg?” By then his dull-wittedness is almost an inside joke with the listener or reader.
Yes, Mark Twain was probably the first author to write a book on a typewriter. He held several patents. He created the celebrity-persona American style. But his greatest discovery was the power of the American story, a robust tale packing humor and heart and details that bring it to life and make it unforgettable.
The Englishman’s story tells of his class rank, the French of the strength of his wit. But the American story will always be a rising epic, where even the middling Okie farm boy can be a kind of hero.
From all of us in Hartford—where murders are down and jobs are coming back and city life is vibrant and beautiful as ever—we say Happy Birthday, Sam.