Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 189: Mark Twain, Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn (#100)

Mark Twain, "Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn" (1880) from Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels:

As someone who really thinks that all culture is doing some symbolic work or can be mined for some meaning, nothing ruffles my feathers quicker than when someone says, "oh, it's just a joke--just a story--just a movie." That said, that's almost always just a flutter away when discussing Twain or any of the still-read funny-men of the 19th century--and I'm as vulnerable to that instinct as the next bird.

For instance, "Jim Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn" is a pleasant bit of folk comedy, pretty much like the stories you'll find in Kemp Battle's Great American Folklore. So there's a tall-tale frame, where Jim Baker is telling us how blue jays are the all-fire talkingest birds around. They're pretty much feathered people--they curse, laugh, moan, experiment, and flock together. And to illustrate that frame, Jim Baker tells a story about a jay who tried to hide some nuts in a hole--only he was hiding them in an abandoned house, where they disappeared. And then all the jays had a good laugh when they realized what he was doing; and they came from miles around to see this joke, which they all laughed at, except for an owl who was traveling through on his way from seeing Yosemite, who didn't think either this joke or Yosemite was much.

Now the LoA page tries to avoid the "ain't he funny?" reaction by telling us that this is a satire on human perseverance told cleverly in Aesopian beast fable style; and that the owl who didn't see much funny in it might be stand-in for the killjoys at John Greenleaf Whittier's birthday who didn't laugh at Twain's funny speech. But that seems like an awfully tight fit and in any case, this is Twain we're talking about: his life was so full of huge success and huge failure that it seems like we should be able to do better than a speech that didn't go off.

Regardless of all that, while this story may survive because we've all been in that blue jay's... shoes?--it also survives today because it's an authentic bit of frontier tall-tale-telling, constructed very carefully with thesis (blue jays are like people) and data (they do dumb stuff and then laugh).

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