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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 2: 1866 - 1875|
CII. "Sketches New and Old"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The long-delayed book of Sketches, contracted for five years before, was
issued that autumn. "The Jumping Frog," which he had bought from Webb,
was included in the volume, also the French translation which Madame
Blanc (Th. Bentzon) had made for the Revue des deux mondes, with Mark
Twain's retranslation back into English, a most astonishing performance
in its literal rendition of the French idiom. One example will suffice
here. It is where the stranger says to Smiley, "I don't see no p'ints
about that frog that's any better'n any other frog."
Says the French, retranslated:
"Eh bien! I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each
frog" (Je ne vois pas que cette grenouille ait mieux qu'aucune
grenouille). (If that isn't grammar gone to seed then I count myself no
"Possible that you not it saw not," said Smiley; "possible that you you
comprehend frogs; possible that you not you there comprehend nothing;
possible that you had of the experience, and possible that you not be but
an amateur. Of all manner (de toute maniere) I bet forty dollars that
she batter in jumping, no matter which frog of the county of Calaveras."
He included a number of sketches originally published with the Frog, also
a selection from the "Memoranda" and Buffalo Express contributions, and
he put in the story of Auntie Cord, with some matter which had never
hitherto appeared. True Williams illustrated the book, but either it
furnished him no inspiration or he was allowed too much of another sort,
for the pictures do not compare with his earlier work.
Among the new matter in the book were-"Some Fables for Good Old Boys and
Girls," in which certain wood creatures are supposed to make a scientific
excursion into a place at some time occupied by men. It is the most
pretentious feature of the book, and in its way about as good as any.
Like Gulliver's Travels, its object was satire, but its result is also
Clemens was very anxious that Howells should be first to review this
volume. He had a superstition that Howells's verdicts were echoed by the
lesser reviewers, and that a book was made or damned accordingly; a
belief hardly warranted, for the review has seldom been written that
meant to any book the difference between success and failure. Howells's
review of Sketches may be offered as a case in point. It was highly
commendatory, much more so than the notice of the 'Innocents' had been,
or even that of 'Roughing It', also more extensive than the latter. Yet
after the initial sale of some twenty thousand copies, mainly on the
strength of the author's reputation, the book made a comparatively poor
showing, and soon lagged far behind its predecessors.
We cannot judge, of course, the taste of that day, but it appears now an
unattractive, incoherent volume. The pictures were absurdly bad, the
sketches were of unequal merit. Many of them are amusing, some of them
delightful, but most of them seem ephemeral. If we except "The Jumping
Frog," and possibly "A True Story" (and the latter was altogether out of
place in the collection), there is no reason to suppose that any of its
contents will escape oblivion. The greater number of the sketches, as
Mark Twain himself presently realized and declared, would better have
been allowed to die.
Howells did, however, take occasion to point out in his review, or at
least to suggest, the more serious side of Mark Twain. He particularly
called attention to "A True Story," which the reviewers, at the time of
its publication in the Atlantic, had treated lightly, fearing a lurking
joke in it; or it may be they had not read it, for reviewers are busy
people. Howells spoke of it as the choicest piece of work in the volume,
and of its "perfect fidelity to the tragic fact." He urged the reader to
turn to it again, and to read it as a "simple dramatic report of
reality," such as had been equaled by no other American writer.
It was in this volume of sketches that Mark Twain first spoke in print
concerning copyright, showing the absurd injustice of discriminating
against literary ownership by statute of limitation. He did this in the
form of an open petition to Congress, asking that all property, real and
personal, should be put on the copyright basis, its period of ownership
limited to a "beneficent term of forty-two years." Generally this was
regarded as a joke, as in a sense it was; but like most of Mark Twain's
jokes it was founded on reason and justice.
The approval with which it was received by his literary associates led
him to still further flights. He began a determined crusade for
international copyright laws. It was a transcendental beginning, but it
contained the germ of what, in the course of time, he would be largely
instrumental in bringing to a ripe and magnificent conclusion. In this
first effort he framed a petition to enact laws by which the United
States would declare itself to be for right and justice, regardless of
other nations, and become a good example to the world by refusing to
pirate the books of any foreign author. He wrote to Howells, urging him
to get Lowell, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, and others to sign this
I will then put a gentlemanly chap under wages, and send him personally
to every author of distinction in the country and corral the rest of the
signatures. Then I'll have the whole thing lithographed (about one
thousand copies), and move upon the President and Congress in person, but
in the subordinate capacity of the party who is merely the agent of
better and wiser men, or men whom the country cannot venture to laugh at.
I will ask the President to recommend the thing in his message (and if he
should ask me to sit down and frame the paragraph for him I should blush,
but still I would frame it). And then if Europe chooses to go on
stealing from us we would say, with noble enthusiasm, "American lawmakers
do steal, but not from foreign authors--not from foreign authors,"....
If we only had some God in the country's laws, instead of being in such a
sweat to get Him into the Constitution, it would be better all around.
The petition never reached Congress. Holmes agreed to sign it with a
smile, and the comment that governments were not in the habit of setting
themselves up as high moral examples, except for revenue. Longfellow
also pledged himself, as did a few others; but if there was any general
concurrence in the effort there is no memory of it now. Clemens
abandoned the original idea, but remained one of the most persistent and
influential advocates of copyright betterment, and lived to see most of
his dream fulfilled.--[For the petition concerning copyright term in the
United States, see Sketches New and Old. For the petition concerning
international copyright and related matters, see Appendix N, at the end
of last volume.]