Monday, August 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 118: Mark Twain, A Presidential Candidate (#112)

Mark Twain, "A Presidential Candidate" (1879) from The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion:

For his senior year quote, a high school friend of mine had "Brevity, soul, wit." Sometimes Twain might have ignored that motto--sometimes his longer wit marched, at length, into the territory of the outright monologue, screed, or position paper. (See "Sixth Century Political Economy" from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a chapter that might as well, be called "What's the Matter with Camelot?", after Thomas Frank's book on people voting against their economic interests for bugaboo reasons.)

Today's entry, at three pages, doesn't come close to wearing out its welcome; and plays again in the shadow between the macabre and the mirthful that Ambrose Bierce played in just last week. It's a list of all Twain's faults, given to deprive his political enemies of ammunition to surprise him with. For that reason he talks about frightening his grandfather, running away from battle, burying his aunt to fertilize his grapes, contemplating cutting up the poor to sell to cannibals, and wanting money of all kinds (both coin and paper money*).

*Oh boy, can we talk about money in the 19th century some time? It is wonderful and fascinating and weird.

What makes this piece work so well, I think, is that Twain nicely specifies particular--hard coin vs. rag money isn't an issue that we care about today--while keeping the general issues so broad as to be clearly relatable: greed, cowardice, anger. Add in lust and gluttony and we've got almost a full set of sins. As many of my improv teachers noted, one of the keys to comedy is being specific; so when Twain notes that he treated a dead body poorly, we might go "ick." But when he adds that he used that dead body to fertilize his grapevine, that's comedy.

Also, there's something almost Larry Davidian in Twain's turning this around on us:
No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?
Or as Larry David would put it: Fuck me? No, fuck you, sir.

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