tek's rating: ½

Mark Twain's Best, by Mark Twain (collection pub. 1962; stories pub. 1870-1916)
Amazon; Goodreads; Internet Archive

These eight stories could surely be found in other collections, but this is the book I originally read them in. I don't remember exactly when I first read it; probably the late 1980s, but possibly the early 90s. Either way, it was a long time before I started reviewing things that I read. And I guess at some point I lost track of the book. I mean, it's possible I still have it somewhere, or at least that it's somewhere in my parents' house. It's also possible I no longer have the copy I had back then, whether it was lost or sold or I gave it away or... I don't know. But anyway, I decided to buy another copy of the book in 2015, when I saw it in a thrift store. So now I'm re-reading it, and finally writing a review. (Some of these stories have appeared elsewhere under slightly different titles. I'm going with what they're called in this collection. Also, I've done my best to find out what years the stories were originally published, but I can't promise the information I found is necessarily correct for all of them.) Anyway, I should say that as I read the stories now, most of them don't ring any bells for me at all. But a few kind of do (though not necessarily because of my having read this book before.)

How I Edited an Agricultural Paper (pub. 1870)
A very short (and very funny) story about a man who was given a temporary position while the regular editor was on holiday. I don't want to say anything specific about it. Except that while reading it, I began to think it would be an apt satire of the current state of journalism. Somehow, I don't think it occurred to me that Twain was going for the same point about journalism in his own time, but in the end, it turned out he was. So that was pretty neat, I thought.

The Story of the Good Little Boy (pub. 1870)
A very short (mildly amusing) story about a boy named Jacob Blivens. All I can say is, no good deed goes unpunished.

Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls (pub. 1875)
A rather longer (mildly amusing) story about a group of animals (mostly bugs, actually) who leave their forest on a scientific expedition. They encounter various works of Man, and I guess it's sort of interesting reading their descriptions of things and trying to understand them from their point of view. Though I couldn't always figure out what they were actually describing. But the important point is that the supposedly smartest animals (the professors and such) are actually the most foolish, while the most sensible one (the Tumble-Bug, who was a laborer) was always rudely dismissed by the others. Not that he cared.

The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm (pub. 1882)
A short (and hilarious) story about all that goes wrong with an increasingly expensive and complicated burglar alarm system. I was a bit surprised to learn that such things existed at the time this was written, though of course it's much different from modern alarm systems. I was also surprised at how expensive it was, even at the very start ($325), considering how much more a dollar was worth back then. And a lot goes wrong with it. So hilariously wrong....

The Diary of Adam and Eve (pub. 1904-05)
This story is actually a combination of two separate stories. (There were others in the series, apparently, which aren't included here, so I haven't read them.) The first story is from the perspective of Adam, and the second is mostly from the perspective of Eve. (In 1989, there was a teleplay of The Diaries of Adam and Eve, in which the actors read lines from the stories interspersed, rather than separately. I don't recall whether I saw that before or after the first time I read this story.) Anyway, I suppose the story is somewhat amusing, though I also found it somewhat offensive. Adam and Eve are each clever in their own ways, and each make mistakes and misunderstandings, both about each other and about various aspects of the world. Which is understandable, considering they had to figure everything out for themselves, and many things that seem obvious to us are only so because many generations of people who came before us had thousands of years in which to learn them, so that we could be taught. But that's not really important. The story is about the differences between the sexes, how each of them perceive things in their own way, and have different personalities. I think each of them has their own reasons to consider themselves superior to the other, and in both cases this tends to be a result of their own ignorance and misunderstanding (though sometimes it may be because of the other one's ignorance). Still, it does seem that Eve is more curious, more intelligent, more ambitious than Adam. Of course, part of that may just be that they have different interests (for example, Eve is very interested in anything she finds beautiful), and I don't think it would be accurate to say that one perspective is better than the other. Another obvious difference is that Eve is much more talkative than Adam. And again, this is a matter of personal preference or personality, and I don't think it's objectively better to be more or less talkative. What bothers me is the idea that the personalities of Adam and Eve are apparently meant to be representative of the inherent natures of men and women, respectively, which I think does a terrible disservice to any men and women whose personalities differ from the first man and first woman. Because while there's nothing wrong with these individual characters having the personalities that they do, there's also nothing wrong with people having personalities that don't conform to gender stereotypes. I also have some strong objections to Eve's thoughts on the matter of romantic love (though I'm not sure how much her thoughts are meant to be specifically because she's a woman, even if she herself assumes them to be so). And there are probably some other personality traits of Adam and herself that Eve ascribes to gender, which I again disagree with. (And I can't help but be aware that her thoughts were written by a man, over a century ago. But that's not to say there weren't really women at that time, or even today, who might think the way Eve does in this story. Just that the character might have been quite different if written by a woman. But then again, I suppose it would depend more on the individual writer than on the writer's sex.) There's at least one thing mentioned in passing that I cannot accept under any circumstances, but I suppose most of the things I object to won't bother me if I just think of Adam and Eve as individual characters, and not symbols of their sexes. And maybe I am overthinking it; it's just meant to be a funny story, and even a bit sweet. But I also think it's important not to underthink it. I guess.

The ₤1,000,000 Bank-Note (pub. 1893)
This is probably the story that I remembered best from the book, except... I'm not sure I did remember it from the book. I suspect I read it, or an abridged form of it, elsewhere, possibly in Read magazine. Or maybe somewhere else. In fact, if the name of the story had been mentioned to me before I rediscovered it in this book, and I had to guess at the author, I probably would have said "O. Henry" or someone like that. Also there have been a number of film adaptations of the story, but I don't think I've seen any (unless you count "Trading Places," which isn't a straight adaptation). Anyway... it's about this mining-broker's clerk named Henry Adams, from San Francisco, who often spent his free time on a sailboat. One day he gets lost at sea, and picked up by a brig that was going to London. (I find it very strange that any ship would be going to London from the Pacific rather than the Atlantic, but what do I know?) Anyway, by the time Henry arrives in London, his clothes are rags and he only has a dollar, which is quickly spent. After that, he's homeless and starving. So these two old rich brothers make a bet with each other. They have this million pound bank note, and one brother thinks that if an honest, intelligent, poor man were given it, he couldn't survive a month. The other brother thinks such a man could survive. So, they select Henry for their experiment (without telling him the nature of the bet). Then they go away for a month, with no way to reach them. So... at first it seems to Henry that they must have made a mistake, and then his situation seems impossible. But it ends up turning out quite well for him, in large part because of some incredibly unlikely coincidences, but mostly because... well, because of things that are just incredibly unlikely. In any event, I find the story moderately amusing, but more interesting and entertaining than actually funny.

Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (pub. 1907-08)
The story is related by Captain Eli Stormfield, sometime after having gotten to Heaven. (I guess he was a sailor in life, though we don't learn how he died. It's not important.) His story begins when he'd been dead for about thirty years. In all that time, he'd been flying through space, though it's not quite clear how that worked. I reckon he was just a soul, but a soul that had the form of his earthly body. Anyway, there's a bit about him racing an enormous interstellar comet, a diversion that got him a mite off course. Finally he arrives at Heaven, but at the wrong gate. It takes awhile for him to figure out where he belongs, and how to get there. After that, he spends several months or so learning about what (after)life is like in Heaven, and it's not at all what he expected. He talks to a few different people, including a couple of people he'd known in life. But most of what he learns about Heaven is from a friend he makes after getting there, an old man named Sandy McWilliams (presumably a different Mr. McWilliams than the one from the burglar alarm story). Anyway... I was mildly amused by some of the space travel part, since it was in some ways clearly unrealistic, though perhaps a bit closer to reality than one would expect people's understanding of outer space to be in Twain's time. (I'm not sure about that, though.) And of course I found it strange that getting to Heaven would require space travel in the first place. But once he got there, I mostly liked what he learned about the actual nature of Heaven, particularly about how it included people from all the planets of the Universe, not just from Earth. (In fact, Earth is practically unknown and quite unimportant, to most of Heaven's citizens.) There were some bits I didn't like, such as the idea that human beings had been living and dying on Earth for over a billion years. I mean, damn, even evolutionists will tell you homo sapiens originated about 200,000 years ago (as opposed to 10,000 years at most, as believed by Creationists). Then again, maybe the story isn't referring just to homo sapiens, per se. I'm not sure. Another thing I dislike about the story is the fact that everyone in Heaven can only speak and understand whatever language they spoke in life. It seems absurd, particularly because the whole point of the story is describing a Heaven that makes so much more sense than the one Christians generally believe in. (It actually reminded me a bit of Waiting for the Galactic Bus. And a bit of What Dreams May Come.) So if Twain imagined such a sensible Heaven, I just can't believe he'd think people wouldn't just be able to understand one another. Still, I suppose it serves the story, so maybe it's a plot point he knew didn't make sense, but felt he had no choice but to overlook it. (I know the feeling.) One thing I liked is that humankind is an infinitesimal minority in the whole of Heaven, and even in the human region of Heaven, white people are very much in the minority (especially in the part of Heaven modeled after the Americas, seeing as natives had lived there for such a long time- a billion years or more- before Europeans arrived). But in spite of that, there are things in the story that seem racist, which strikes me as strange, since the whole premise seems geared to undermine racist attitudes. (And women are barely mentioned at all.) But despite there being a few such things that bothered me, I will say again that I mostly liked the story. I'm not going to mention all the specific things I liked about it, though, because I don't want to spoil it too much. In any event, it's a fairly fun read.

The Mysterious Stranger (pub. 1916; posthumous)
This is by far the longest story in the book; it takes up at least a third of the book. And it's the one I was most looking forward to re-reading, because for many years now, I have had a vague memory of a story that I thought was this one. Now that I've read it again, I can say it's not the one I was thinking of. The story does have a twist ending (which I am not going to spoil), which vaguely reminds me of the story I was thinking of, while still being significantly different. (I may have been remembering a mixture of this story and another.) So I have no idea what the other story actually is, or who wrote it, or where I might have read it. In fact, I can't say with absolute certainty that I didn't write it, many years ago, and then forgot having written it, and assumed it was something I'd only read. Or it might even be something I only dreamed. I do wish I could know the truth, but... it doesn't matter. This story, the one that's actually in the book, is pretty good, possibly my favorite one in the book, albeit by far the least humorous. (It's certainly the most philosophical, and I think that's a good thing. Though there is some humor in it, too.) It's a shame, then, that it was learned after this collection was published (and even longer after the story's original publication) that parts of it weren't written by Twain at all. (See the Wikipedia entry for details.) I'd really like to know what the story would have been like had Twain completed it before his death. Still, I think that most of it was written by Twain, and it definitely has his sensibility.

It's set in 1590, in the fictional Austrian village of Eseldorf, and is told from the perspective of a boy named Theodor Fischer. He has two close friends named Nikolaus Bauman and Seppi Wohlmeyer. One day, they meet a boy who was a stranger to their village, and they soon befriend him. He claims to be an angel, and says his name is Satan. (He's the nephew of the Satan, but he himself is not fallen, like his more famous namesake.) And he proves that he is an angel by performing various miraculous deeds. (In a way, he kind of reminds me of the spirits from my own book, and I can't help but wonder if when I came up with some of my ideas, my subconscious was recalling this story, without letting my conscious mind realize it.) Satan is sixteen thousand years old, which in angelic terms means he is still a child, hence his appearance. And he had been alive to see the creation of Earth and of humanity, which I find it an interesting contrast to the previous story in the book claiming the human race was at least a billion years old. One thing I found odd about the story is that Satan considers humans to be utterly inconsequential, but also laughable, and horrible, and uninteresting... and yet, he likes Theodor and his friends. There seems to be no particular reason for him to like them, or have any interest in them at all. (The twist ending does make sense of it, though I'm not sure whether Twain wrote it.) Anyway, the boys quickly come to love Satan, and that love never abates, despite the fact that he often says or does things that horrify them.

Well, there are various other characters of some importance. There's a priest named Father Peter, who happens across the three boys during their first meeting with Satan, but he doesn't see Satan (nor even the boys, at first, for Satan had made them all temporarily invisible). Peter loses his wallet, but when he returns he does see the boys, and finds his wallet, which Satan has caused to be filled with 1107 gold ducats, when before he only had four. Later in the story, Father Peter will be accused by an astrologer (a character not created by Twain) of having stolen the money from him. And later still, Father Peter will stand trial. He's defended by a young lawyer named Wilhelm, who seems to be in love with Peter's niece, Marget. (I read her name quite a few times before I realized it wasn't Margret.)

But this is a side issue; the story is mainly about Satan's conversations with the boys. Various things happen in Eseldorf that he uses to illustrate his points, but he also takes them (either together or individually, and most often Theodor) to other places and times (because time and space are immaterial to him). The main thrust of the story is Satan demonstrating that the "Moral Sense," i.e., the knowledge of right and wrong, makes humanity worse than any other animal. Partly this is because there are cruel things humans do that other animals don't, but also it's because when animals do cruel things, they have no way of knowing they're being cruel... they're not choosing to do bad things, as humans do. This means Satan is more like animals than humans, since he also does things we might perceive as cruel or evil, but insists he himself never does anything wrong. Partly this seems to be supported by his later explanation of how humans often mistake good events for bad, such as dying early rather than enduring a long life of suffering. While I agree with that point, and with some of his examples, I'm still pretty sure he's often just plain wrong about some things. I suppose it's possible some of the things Satan says or does that seem wrong- but which he doesn't explain- have similar rationales to the ones he does explain. But I doubt that's true of everything he does. Sometimes I think he's just lazily relying on the idea that because he doesn't have the Moral Sense, doing bad doesn't make him bad. Or rather, doing things that would be sins if he did have the Moral Sense aren't sins when he does them, simply because he doesn't have it. But a lot of the time, I can't help but feel he really does have it, despite his claims to the contrary. (Either way, he's clearly never participated in any social justice discussions. And even if he did, I'm sure the reasoning that one can cause real harm even without meaning to would utterly fail to sway him.) I also often think he simply doesn't think there's anything wrong with harming humans, just because he finds us so insignificant. (A fact that makes his attempts to educate Theodor and his friends seem pointless, at least until the twist ending... I guess.)

He makes various other philosophical points throughout the story, most of which I agree with to one degree or another. I don't want to get into all of that, but I probably agreed most strongly with the idea that it's often the case that the majority go along with certain cruelties that they really don't want to go along with, but because of a vocal minority, they're all afraid not to. (This is another major point I make in my book, and again I'm wondering if my writing has been subconsciously influenced by this story. But probably not, because it's not an uncommon idea.) Another bit I quite liked (which I probably found to be at once the most humorous line in the story, and one of the truest) was when Satan says "Are you so unobservant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination?" And I liked the bit about how laughter is humanity's most effective weapon, and a potential means of destroying the worst parts of human nature. (That part put me in mind of people like Jon Stewart and John Oliver.) Anyway, the final part of the story- the twist ending- seemed to me a bit different than the rest, so... as I said, I'm not sure if Twain wrote it, or if it's one of the parts that the publisher made up after Twain's death. If the latter, then it makes sense that it had a different feel. But then again, it's not that different, and it does make sense of some things. Sort of. (Certainly, it serves to emphasize the insanity of everything, not just in the story but in pretty much the whole of human history.)


humor index
story collections index
(Image taken from Amazon.com.)