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From Beyond, Mark Twain Lets Loose

Mark Twain published more than a dozen books and hundreds of shorter pieces during his lifetime.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
Mark Twain published more than a dozen books and hundreds of shorter pieces during his lifetime.

Best known for crowd-pleasers like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and for his lucrative speaking tours, Mark Twain was a writer whose livelihood depended on maintaining enough down-home affability to appeal to the masses. Yet as we see in Who Is Mark Twain?, a new collection of previously unpublished writings, he fantasized constantly about the freedom death would bring.

Among the writings left behind at Twain's death in 1910, at age 74 — in his "large box of Posthumous Stuff" — were squibs, rants, unfinished essays and his most heretical and passionate work, Letters From The Earth, a satirical attack on Christianity so scathing that his daughter forbade its publication until the 1960s.

Who Is Mark Twain? captures the folksy icon's furious but often repressed compulsion to tell the world what he really thought of its tedious platitudes and received wisdom. In "The Privilege of the Grave," Twain writes that the tomb offers its occupant "one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech."

Although it does his "weather-beaten soul good" to write in a rage, he resists publishing the diatribes, lest his career be derailed, his family ostracized and his house transformed into "a despised and unvisited solitude."

Some of the entries are unfinished. "Conversations With Satan," for example, is a hilarious scene in the Letters From The Earth vein — exactly the sort of thing Twain would have been writing with an eye toward storing in his box (read the essay). The narrator, on learning that the Devil is in Vienna, thinks how much he'd like to "have the privilege of interviewing him." Lo and behold, the "slender and shapely gentleman in black" appears. He implores the narrator to treat him as an old friend, since, after all, according to Satan, "that was what he was." Soon the two are bemoaning Americans' elaborate and costly heating furnaces — "all ravenous coal-cannibals, and if there is one among them whose heat-output can be successfully regulated, I have not seen it." Satan, for his part, has not been to the States lately. "I am not needed there," he explains. The piece trails off into some irate musings on cigars.

Although Twain's wit and lethally precise powers of description are on full display in Who Is Mark Twain?, prior posthumous collections have pillaged much of Twain's sharper, weightier stuff. Still, much of the lighter fare here is very funny, and sometimes unexpectedly current. "Happy Memories of the Dental Chair" suggests that the many supposed developments of modern dentistry haven't actually improved the experience of having one's teeth cleaned all that much since Twain's day.

And "When I Am About to Publish a Book" gets in its digs at readers and critics alike. It's not hard to imagine the essay appearing toward the front of the next issue of Harper's.

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Maud Newton
Maud Newton is a writer, editor and blogger. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Newsday and other publications. She is a recipient of the City College of New York's Irwin and Alice Stark Short Fiction Award.