Category Archives: “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)
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 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
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.