In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

On the surface, the sketch is rather light and entertaining, if effective at its joke of infecting the reader with its jocular jingle.  Still, coming when it does in Twain’s career and in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, the story seems to contain a seed of both cultural awareness of the influence of humor and of Mark Twain’s anxiety with the place of such humor in the august realm of American high culture.  If the mere jingle of entertaining words can infect not only the novelist but the minister, the student, and the reader of the Atlantic, then the role of the popular entertainment that the poem represents can be seen as a danger to both the literary and religious realms of culture, where many viewed their role as protectors of cultural values.

An 1878 collection of Mark Twain's sketches.

An 1878 collection of Mark Twain’s sketches.

The ability of an ephemeral scrap of popular culture to infect the interconnected realms of literary and religious culture represented a danger to the serious moral purpose of the very magazine that Twain was writing for.  Mark Twain’s mock serious purpose, to warn readers to avoid the very poem to which he had just exposed them, comments on his own position as a humorist.  In order to fulfill the moral function of the humorist, Twain warned them against the infection of the merely humorous entertainment that had flooded popular culture, of which Mark Twain was often seen as a primary example.

Mark Twain, “A Literary Nightmare,” Atlantic Monthly, 37:220 (February 1876).

(also titled “Punch, Brothers, Punch”; text from Alonzo Fitz and Other Stories)

Will the reader please to cast his eye over the following lines, and see if he can discover anything harmful in them?

d
Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

CHORUS

Punch, brothers! punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare

d
I came across these jingling rhymes in a newspaper, a little while ago, and read them a couple of times. They took instant and entire possession of me. All through breakfast they went waltzing through my brain; and when, at last, I rolled up my napkin, I could not tell whether I had eaten anything or not. I had carefully laid out my day’s work the day before—thrilling tragedy in the novel which I am writing. I went to my den to begin my deed of blood. I took up my pen, but all I could get it to say was, “Punch in the presence of the passenjare.” I fought hard for an hour, but it was useless. My head kept humming, “A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, a buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,” and so on and so on, without peace or respite. The day’s work was ruined—I could see that plainly enough. I gave up and drifted down-town, and presently discovered that my feet were keeping time to that relentless jingle. When I could stand it no longer I altered my step. But it did no good; those rhymes accommodated themselves to the new step and went on harassing me just as before. I returned home, and suffered all the afternoon; suffered all through an unconscious and unrefreshing dinner; suffered, and cried, and jingled all through the evening; went to bed and rolled, tossed, and jingled right along, the same as ever; got up at midnight frantic, and tried to read; but there was nothing visible upon the whirling page except “Punch! punch in the presence of the passenjare.” By sunrise I was out of my mind, and everybody marveled and was distressed at the idiotic burden of my ravings—”Punch! oh, punch! punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

d
Two days later, on Saturday morning, I arose, a tottering wreck, and went forth to fulfil an engagement with a valued friend, the Rev. Mr.———, to walk to the Talcott Tower, ten miles distant. He stared at me, but asked no questions. We started. Mr.——— talked, talked, talked as is his wont. I said nothing; I heard nothing. At the end of a mile, Mr.——— said “Mark, are you sick? I never saw a man look so haggard and worn and absent-minded. Say something, do!”

d
Drearily, without enthusiasm, I said: “Punch brothers, punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

My friend eyed me blankly, looked perplexed, then said:

“I do not think I get your drift, Mark. There does not seem to be any relevancy in what you have said, certainly nothing sad; and yet—maybe it was the way you said the words—I never heard anything that sounded so pathetic. What is—”

But I heard no more. I was already far away with my pitiless, heartbreaking “blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, buff trip slip for a six-cent fare, pink trip slip for a three-cent fare; punch in the presence of the passenjare.” I do not know what occurred during the other nine miles. However, all of a sudden Mr.——— laid his hand on my shoulder and shouted:—

“Oh, wake up! wake up! wake up! Don’t sleep all day! Here we are at the Tower, man! I have talked myself deaf and dumb and blind, and never got a response. Just look at this magnificent autumn landscape! Look at it! look at it! Feast your eye on it! You have traveled; you have seen boasted landscapes elsewhere. Come, now, deliver an honest opinion. What do you say to this?”

I sighed wearily; and murmured:—

“A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare, a pink trip slip for a three-cent fare, punch in the presence of the passenjare.”

Rev. Mr. ——— stood there, very grave, full of concern, apparently, and looked long at me; then he said:—

“Mark, there is something about this that I cannot understand. Those are about the same words you said before; there does not seem to be anything in them, and yet they nearly break my heart when you say them. Punch in the—how is it they go?”

I began at the beginning and repeated all the lines.

My friend’s face lighted with interest. He said:—

“Why, what a captivating jingle it is! It is almost music. It flows along so nicely. I have nearly caught the rhymes myself. Say them over just once more, and then I’ll have them, sure.”

I said them over. Then Mr. ——— said them. He made one little mistake, which I corrected. The next time and the next he got them right. Now a great burden seemed to tumble from my shoulders. That torturing jingle departed out of my brain, and a grateful sense of rest and peace descended upon me. I was light-hearted enough to sing; and I did sing for half an hour, straight along, as we went jogging homeward. Then my freed tongue found blessed speech again, and the pent talk of many a weary hour began to gush and flow. It flowed on and on, joyously, jubilantly, until the fountain was empty and dry. As I wrung my friend’s hand at parting, I said:—

“Haven’t we had a royal good time! But now I remember, you haven’t said a word for two hours. Come, come, out with something!”

The Rev. Mr.——— turned a lack-lustre eye upon me, drew a deep sigh, and said, without animation, without apparent consciousness:

“Punch, brothers, punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

A pang shot through me as I said to myself, “Poor fellow, poor fellow! he has got it, now.”

I did not see Mr.——— for two or three days after that. Then, on Tuesday evening, he staggered into my presence and sank dejectedly into a seat. He was pale, worn; he was a wreck. He lifted his faded eyes to my face and said:—

“Ah, Mark, it was a ruinous investment that I made in those heartless rhymes. They have ridden me like a nightmare, day and night, hour after hour, to this very moment. Since I saw you I have suffered the torments of the lost. Saturday evening I had a sudden call, by telegraph, and took the night train for Boston. The occasion was the death of a valued old friend who had requested that I should preach his funeral sermon. I took my seat in the cars and set myself to framing the discourse. But I never got beyond the opening paragraph; for then the train started and the car-wheels began their ‘clack, clack-clack-clack-clack! clack-clack!—clack-clack-clack!’ and right away those odious rhymes fitted themselves to that accompaniment. For an hour I sat there and set a syllable of those rhymes to every separate and distinct clack the car-wheels made. Why, I was as fagged out, then, as if I had been chopping wood all day. My skull was splitting with headache. It seemed to me that I must go mad if I sat there any longer; so I undressed and went to bed. I stretched myself out in my berth, and—well, you know what the result was. The thing went right along, just the same. ‘Clack-clack clack, a blue trip slip, clack-clack-clack, for an eight-cent fare; clack-clack-clack, a buff trip slip, clack clack-clack, for a six-cent fare, and so on, and so on, and so on punch in the presence of the passenjare!’ Sleep? Not a single wink! I was almost a lunatic when I got to Boston. Don’t ask me about the funeral. I did the best I could, but every solemn individual sentence was meshed and tangled and woven in and out with ‘Punch, brothers, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenjare.’ And the most distressing thing was that my delivery dropped into the undulating rhythm of those pulsing rhymes, and I could actually catch absent-minded people nodding time to the swing of it with their stupid heads. And, Mark, you may believe it or not, but before I got through the entire assemblage were placidly bobbing their heads in solemn unison, mourners, undertaker, and all. The moment I had finished, I fled to the anteroom in a state bordering on frenzy. Of course it would be my luck to find a sorrowing and aged maiden aunt of the deceased there, who had arrived from Springfield too late to get into the church. She began to sob, and said:—

“‘Oh, oh, he is gone, he is gone, and I didn’t see him before he died!’

“‘Yes!’ I said, ‘he is gone, he is gone, he is gone—oh, will this suffering never cease!’

“‘You loved him, then! Oh, you too loved him!’

“‘Loved him! Loved who?’

“‘Why, my poor George! my poor nephew!’

“‘Oh—him! Yes—oh, yes, yes. Certainly—certainly. Punch—punch—oh, this misery will kill me!’

“‘Bless you! bless you, sir, for these sweet words! I, too, suffer in this dear loss. Were you present during his last moments?’

“‘Yes. I—whose last moments?’

“‘His. The dear departed’s.’

“‘Yes! Oh, yes—yes—yes! I suppose so, I think so, I don’t know! Oh, certainly—I was there—I was there!’

“‘Oh, what a privilege! what a precious privilege! And his last words—oh, tell me, tell me his last words! What did he say?’

“‘He said—he said—oh, my head, my head, my head! He said—he said—he never said anything but Punch, punch, punch in the presence of the passenjare! Oh, leave me, madam! In the name of all that is generous, leave me to my madness, my misery, my despair!—a buff trip slip for a six-cent fare, a pink trip slip for a three-cent fare—endu—rance can no fur—ther go!—PUNCH in the presence of the passenjare!”

My friend’s hopeless eyes rested upon mine a pregnant minute, and then he said impressively:—

“Mark, you do not say anything. You do not offer me any hope. But, ah me, it is just as well—it is just as well. You could not do me any good. The time has long gone by when words could comfort me. Something tells me that my tongue is doomed to wag forever to the jigger of that remorseless jingle. There—there it is coming on me again: a blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, a buff trip slip for a—”

Thus murmuring faint and fainter, my friend sank into a peaceful trance and forgot his sufferings in a blessed respite.

How did I finally save him from an asylum? I took him to a neighboring university and made him discharge the burden of his persecuting rhymes into the eager ears of the poor, unthinking students. How is it with them, now? The result is too sad to tell. Why did I write this article? It was for a worthy, even a noble, purpose. It was to warn you, reader, if you should came across those merciless rhymes, to avoid them—avoid them as you would a pestilence!

 

(c) 2014, Tracy Wuster (the story is, of course, public domain)

 

 

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