Sunday, October 19, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 248: Mark Twain, Playing Courier (#248)

Mark Twain, "Playing Courier" (1892) from Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels:

Let's talk about the word "lesser" as it pertains to writers' work. When I say a story is "lesser Hawthorne" or "lesser Lovecraft" or "lesser Poe" (which I would never say, since Poe is never lesser), I generally mean something like:

  1. this story isn't as stylistically or technically perfect as their other work; or 
  2. this story doesn't capture some theme that seems important to the core of the author's work; or
  3. this story doesn't add anything new to what we see elsewhere.
Now, if you squint, (2) and (3) can seem a little contradictory. Take, say, Lovecraft: if you think of his work as being irreducibly about cosmic nihilism (that's a core theme in his work) and then you read, oh, I don't know, let's say "The Cats of Ulthar," with its story of revenge against people who are mean to cats. Not so much cosmic nihilism in that story (unless you think that cats are avatars of cosmic nihilism, in which case, you are correct). In fact, you could say that "Cats" does add something new that we don't see often in Lovecraft: a sense of cosmic justice.

So, on one hand, it misses something core to Lovecraft; and on the other, it adds something that seems peripheral--but it's still added. Is "Cats of Ulthar" "lesser" or not?

Which brings me by a roundabout way to talking about Mark Twain's story of European misadventure, "Playing Courier." This story/anecdote is about a time when Twain tried to move his family along on their European travels and failed. It's apparently fictional, but you could've fooled me.

You couldn't have fooled me if you told me this was an important work of Twainiana. It's not that this is a badly written story. I mean, this is Twain: he is almost always in control of his technique, and if nothing else, his use of under- and over-statement can get a smile.

But there's just no there there to this story. The narrator bumbles around, failing to deal with train tickets, trunks, cabs, local authorities, and etc. And then there's some more bumbling around. Followed by a little more. Some of it is humorous, but ultimately... yeah, it feels like lesser Twain.

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