Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 36: Mark Twain, The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls) (#51)

Mark Twain, "The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls)" (1865) from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890:

This is earlyish for Twain, a sketch for the Californian that tells the story of naughty boy Jim, who never gets caught or learns a lesson. It's three pages of pure parody about the sanctimonious moral literature of the time plus one final page of pure righteous indignation at America for holding up Jim as a model for success.

Although Twain is winking at us throughout, there's so much annoyance-to-anger here that I think he reaches his limit at four pages--any more and the feeling would sour. At this short length we can laugh at how Twain sets up what we expect and then undercuts it: when Jim frames good boy George for a stolen penknife, we hear a lot about the justice of the peace who could out the guilty party--if this were some sort of Sunday-school book. He'll go to great lengths to make sure we understand the trope that he's avoiding, telling us what didn't happen:
And then Jim didn't get whaled, and the venerable justice didn't read the tearful school a homily, and take George by the hand and say such a boy deserved to be exalted, and then tell him to come and make his home with him, and sweep out the office...
And what becomes of genre-busting Jim? He gets off scot-free and becomes wealthy and respected even though he's immoral and possibly homicidal. Twain tosses off the rest of this boy's life in a penultimate paragraph that is almost surrealistic in its concentration and juxtaposition:
And he grew up, and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.
There's comedy in there, sure, but it's pretty dark comedy.

No comments:

Post a Comment