One of the key moments in the career of Mark Twain was the tremendous success of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in the Saturday Post on August 12, 1865. The reputation of this magazine as a key New York periodical, different in tone but of similar importance in its own literary culture as the Atlantic Monthly was in Boston, was certainly a boon to Twain’s East Coast reputation. But as James Caron has argued in Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, the importance of the jumping frog story in establishing Twain’s reputation may be overstated. Instead of a sudden burst into public consciousness, the piece represents the culmination of more than a year of success on both coasts, where newspapers had published Mark Twain’s writings for the Californian, a magazine aimed at national and international, rather than regional, audiences.
The chance offering of ‘The Jumping Frog,’ carelessly cast, eighteen months ago, upon the Atlantic waters, returned to him in the most agreeable form which a young aspirant for public fame could desire. The wind that was sowed with probably very little calculation as to its effect upon its future prospects, now enables him to reap quite a respectable tempest of encouragement and cordiality.
Rarely Seen!Can’t be missed! ****
Any time I get the chance to teach American satire, I begin by asserting its power. I use Mark Twain (who else?) to frame the course, taking a line from the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” I imagine many teachers do the same thing. It is a wonderfully useful statement that grants an aura of legitimacy for the course. It is also a rather conspicuous effort, as I fight off a perpetual fear that my students (and my peers) hold fast to an underlying belief that “serious” and “humorous” are opposing forces. I confess also that I add Twain’s line to soften my lurking guilt for being able to do something so thoroughly interesting and fun for a living. Still, I believe Twain’s assertion.
But I am having doubts.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone (29 Sep. 2011), Jon Stewart shares his own misgivings about his role as a court jester and, more specifically, as a satirist. In commenting on the work of The Daily Show, he acknowledges the intent of the writers to engage in social criticism with comedy as their tool. Stewart observes, however, that satire as a weapon for demanding cultural change has significant limitations. In reference to the unique position shared by satirists on the whole as they mock social mores, he claims, “It’s the privilege of satire, and it’s also the albatross around its neck. It can be sharp and it can be pointed and shaming, but at heart it’s impotent and sort of feckless” (47). In his role as writer and host of The Daily Show, Stewart is arguably the most powerful satirical voice in the United States, but he is nonetheless cynical about the prospects of applying whatever power that entails, if any. He continues, “everyone overestimates the power of satire. There’s a great thing Peter Cook once said. Somebody said to him that the most powerful satirists in history were the cabaret artists in Berlin during the 1930s. And Peter Cook said, ‘Yeah, they really showed Hitler, didn’t they?’ In a lot of ways that’s how I feel about it” (47).
At least since the days of Aristotle, and probably long before, lovers of literature have identified tragedy as the pinnacle of literary art. What is Shakespeare’s greatest work? Hamlet, of course. The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice? Very good of their type, but the type itself is not the highest. In this, as in many other things, I stand in the minority; I find it odd that the judgement should favor tragedy.
In my long and not terribly successful career as a writer, I’ve found that tragedy is much easier to write than comedy. Certain situations are a cinch to jerk a tear. Poe mentioned the death of a beautiful maiden as one. Another is the situation in Hamlet itself, or Oedipus Tyrannos for that matter: a man sets out to accomplish a purpose, but just at the moment of achieving victory by accomplishing it, he receives defeat – in Hamlet’s case, the ultimate defeat of death. Nobody I know of, not even Aristotle, has ticked off the number of sure-fire tragic situations, but I suspect that if you have two fully functional hands your fingers are adequate to enumerate them.
On the other hand, I confess that I have not tried very often to write tragedy. It never appealed to me. My most significant venture was the science-fiction story “Hail to the Chief,” which has appeared in four anthologies. “There Are Smiles,” a story in my collection Snapshots of Thailand, is sad, but it’s not really a tragedy. The writers in English who have appealed to me most are Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Fielding, and Mark Twain; I see life pretty much as they did. Of writers in other languages, my favorite is Miguel de Cervantes. So I am predisposed to the comic.
What makes comic writing so difficult? The answer was given by the late Eddie Cantor, who said, “One man’s gag, gags another man.” I can testify that that is true, for when I have read from my books to audiences, sometimes they have laughed at what I thought were the funny parts, and sometimes they have not. Chacun à son goût, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow. Or as Prince Orlofsky said in Die Fledermaus.
President-Elect, Mark Twain Circle of America
The Mark Twain Circle of America, founded in 1986, is dedicated to the study of Mark Twain, his work, and his life and times. It is the largest single-author society in the country. Almost all of the prominent Mark Twain scholars in the U. S. and abroad are members of the organization, but so are many non-academics, humor scholars, Mark Twain impersonators, and lay fans of his writings. Membership costs only $30 a year for U. S. members, and $32 for those from abroad, and for that they receive many benefits. The Web site for the Mark Twain Circle is to be found on the University of Illinois Honor’s Program home site.
The most prominent benefit is receipt of the Mark Twain Annual, a journal dedicated to publishing critical and pedagogical articles, as well as substantive book reviews. The Annual is edited by Ann M. Ryan. The most recent issue for 2010 contained eleven articles by prominent Twain scholars reflecting often in a personal way on earlier scholarship that influenced their own work; three critical essays; two “notes;” and six book reviews. The Annual is published by Wiley-Blackwell in their American Literature Collection, and all articles are peer-reviewed. The 2011 issue is due out in February and will be delivered promptly to all Circle members.
The Mark Twain Circle also publishes a newsletter, called the Mark Twain Circular, which is edited by Chad Rohman. The Circular, published twice a year, typically includes a “President’s Letter,” information about upcoming Circle and other Mark Twain events, and short reviews of recent books on Mark Twain, his life and work. All current members of the Circle receive the Circular, in April and in November.
In addition to its publications, the Circle sponsors panels each year at the MLA (the Modern Language Association) and the ALA (American Literature Association). Anyone may apply to present a paper, but we ask all those chosen to participate to join the society before the conference takes place. At the upcoming MLA conference in Seattle in January of 2012, the Circle is sponsoring two panels, one entitled “Mark Twain: Editing and Editions,” and the second entitled “Mark Twain and ‘The Other.’” The call for papers for Circle-sponsored MLA panels and papers goes out as early as February of the previous year, so watch for the call for next year if you are interested in presenting a paper.
We are also affiliated with the ALA, and that conference takes place each May, alternating between San Francisco and Boston. We always sponsor at least two panels there, as well as a lively reception for all Circle members and friends. Please see the conference program for the 2012 papers. Please check the Circle’s webpage for future CFPs for MLA and ALA.
The Circle is affiliated with all of the key Mark Twain sites in America. These include the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California at Berkeley, The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies, The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, and The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.
We’re a wide-ranging, inclusive organization, and all are welcome to join us. We hope you will consider it. It is hard to imagine an author more central to the study of American humor than Mark Twain.
Editor’s Note: We hope to have a number of academic societies describe their work. If you run a society, or know someone who does, please get in touch with us.
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by Tracy Wuster
On January 11th, 1992, I gathered with a group of friends to watch Saturday Night Live, our usual Saturday night activity as high school sophomores. This was a special night. Nirvana was playing, and we were living just north of Seattle. Grunge was our thing: flannel, mosh pits, and, most of all, music.
This was the episode on which the band played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thrashed their instruments during “Territorial Pissings,” and kissed each other during the closing credits. The band’s anarchic spirit expressed not only our (possibly exaggerated) teen angst but also the humor of destruction, noise, and pissing off parents and other authorities that went hand in hand with the angst.
But, oddly enough, what I remember most from that episode of Saturday Night Live is not Nirvana’s performance but a sketch featuring the host Rob Morrow. The sketch is entitled, “Five Subjects Behind,” but I have always referred to it as “Clam Chow-Dah!”
In the sketch, Morrow is at a diner with two friends–a man and a woman. As the conversation proceeds, Morrow awkwardly and consistently returns to previous subjects with a punchline now hopelessly outdated, interrupting the flow of conversation to the increasing consternation of his friends. At one point, the character played by Mike Myers mentions Boston and clam chowder. After several subjects go by, Morrow bellows out: “Clam Chow-dah!” in a Boston-esque accent, and then awkwardly recreates the context, defeating the humor of the comment and, in fact, forcing an awkwardness that might be described as “anti-humorous.”*
Mark Twain plays a central role in the history of American humor and humor studies. And since I am teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time currently, this week’s productination will be mostly Mark Twain.
Mark Twain achieved scale, with the gusty breadth astir in the country as the Pacific was reached. Huckleberry Finn belongs within the scope of that epical impulse which had taken shape in the ’50’s : it has indeed a cumulative epical power as its main story branches off in innumerable directions under the stress of an opulent improvisation. In this book Mark Twain gave to the great flood of the Mis sissippi its elementary place in the American experience, with the river as a dominating fantasy, with the small human figures as prototypes of those untethered wanderers who had appeared so often on the popular horizon.
–Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study in the National Character (1931)
What made Mark Twain so funny? one answer: cannabis
And a happy birthday to Amy Poehler. If you don’t watch Parks and Recreation, you should catch up in preparation for the new season.