Mark Twain

The Comedy of Mark Twain

By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 1997

MARK TWAIN, surveying the names of earlier humorists and speculating on why they, who had once been so popular, had fallen from public memory, offered the theory that “they were mere humorists” but that he, Mark Twain, had “always preached.” Twain argued that humor “must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years.”

No one would deny Twain’s genius as a literary artist. No one would accuse him of being a “mere humorist.” Yet without a doubt Twain’s genius rested upon a scaffolding of technique provided by the earlier American comic tradition. He did not develop his humor in isolation from his surroundings, or in isolation from the humorists who plied their trade prior to the Civil War and after. During the ante-bellum period, the techniques of humor–among them, exaggeration, understatement, and anticlimax–were in the air, so to speak. This is due in no small part to the enormous influence of Charles Dickens on the comic tradition in America. Twain, as an inheritor of this tradition, used and improved upon this tradition. An examination of the above-mentioned techniques, and how Twain used them, can give us a glimpse into the genius of Twain’s synthesis of these techniques, as well as help us understand the workings of a first rate literary mind.

1. The Literary Comedians

Mark Twain was trained as a writer during the days of the flowering of old Southwest humor, and rose to prominence as a “literary comedian.” The literary comedians were a crop of humorists who came into their own during and after the Civil War, and exploited several types of literary techniques to create humor. Among these literary comedians were such notables as George Horatio Derby (John Phoenix), Charles Farrar Browne (Artemus Ward), and David Ross Locke Petroleum Nasby). In their own peculiar ways, these comedians also “preached”; it would be an injustice to speak of them as “mere humorists.” The question then arises as to why they were forgotten as humorists, while Twain rose to be one of America’s greatest writers. The most probable explanation is that Twain simply outshone all of these earlier humorists when it came to writing humorous literature. Every now and then one might come across a funny line in the writings of Artemus Ward or Petroleum Nasby, but by and large these humorists never attained Twain’s level. This doesn’t mean they didn’t have their moments. Far from being mere humorists they often targeted some of the very things Twain “preached” against in his own best writings. See, M. T. Inge, The Frontier Humorists (Connecticut: Archon Books, 1975), pp. 233-58; also Blair and Hill, America’s Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 274-99).

Anyone who has ever tried to write humor has discovered the importance of having a target. One can either play the fool and make fun of one’s self, or one can make fun of someone or something else. Humor without a target fires off in all directions and rarely strikes with any impact. The main targets of the literary comedians were pedantry and affectation. “Posing as showoffs, [the literary comedians] intermingled weird wordings, eccentric sentences, and misquotations with learned jargon, purple prose, oratorical flights, and tender tears. The result was hundreds of burlesques and parodies of lectures, orations, plays, poems, and fictional works that readers and their parents had only recently found impressive and touching.” See, America’s Humor, p. 292.

Twain regarded Artemus Ward as a great artist in “the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it,” and in the use of the pause. In his “How to Tell a Story,” Twain said of Artemus Ward: “He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absentminded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine–and it did.” See, J. Kaplan, ed., The Signet Classic Book of Mark Twain’s Short Stories (New York, NY: New American Library, 1985), pp. 666-70. In his lectures Ward rebelled against the pretentiousness of popular speakers. He would relay misinformation with prodigal abandon, misquote Shakespeare or the Classics, and would spout high sounding phrases only to end them with anticlimaxes. He also loved to parody popular romances and sentimental excess. See, America’s Humor, pp. 281, 283.

One technique that Twain did not adapt from the literary comedians was their preponderant use of poor spelling and bad grammar. Nevertheless, even the literary comedians began to drop such techniques after awhile; instead they depended more on queer ways of putting things for comic effect. Blair theorizes that this change came about due to the exigencies of the lecture platform. See, Walter Blair, Horse Sense in American Humor: From Benjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash (New York, NY: Russell & Russell, [1942] 1970), p. 191. One could not use poor spelling when speaking before an audience, and bad grammar did not seem to work very well when spoken. Though Twain didn’t adapt the poor spelling and bad grammar of the earlier humorists, this does not mean he couldn’t use it effectively. In 1857 he wrote this under the pseudonym of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, “It mought be that some people think your umble sarvent has ‘shuffled off this mortal quile’ and bid an eternal adoo to this subloonary atmosphere–nary time. He ain’t dead, but sleepeth. That expreshun are figerative, and go to signerfy that he’s pooty much quit scribblin.” This example from Twain’s early writing, with its mixture of poor spelling, bad grammar, and literary flourish, characterizes the comic writings of the literary comedians just about as well as any other passage from their works.

One of the favorite techniques of the literary comedians is the use of the world simpleton character. In this technique, the comedian uses a character whose persona combines sappy earnestness with a display of idiocy and absurdity. About Artemus Ward’s performance on the lecture platform, the London Spectator said:

“The character he likes best to fill is that of a sort of intellectual Hans–the world simpleton of the old German stories [e.g., Grimm’s Fairy Tales] in the act of confiding himself to the public. In the German stories Hans only makes a practical fool of himself in all sorts of impossible ways. But Artemus Ward intellectualizes him, shows the inner absurdity of his thoughts with pathetic earnestness. . . . He yields a literal obedience to every absurd suggestion of thought and language, just as Hans does to the verbal directions of his wife and mother, and gets into intellectual absurdity just as Hans gets into practical absurdity. This, with the melancholy earnest manner of a man completely unconscious that there is anything grotesque in what he says, conveys an effect of inimitable humor.” (Quoted in, Walter Blair, Native American Humor, pp. 115-16. )

Blair says, “This solemnity of mien, combined with ridiculous mental and grammatical gyrations, was the chief stock in trade of many a melancholy lecturer.” Twain, of course, was a good friend of Artemus Ward and indulged in a few drunken sprees with the noted humorist. “They shared the idea that the basic ingredients for a good party were good fellows and good liquor.” Blair, Horse Sense, p. 197. Twain’s use of the world simpleton character can be seen in Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It, and Innocents Abroad, among others.

2. The Techniques of Humor

David Worcester argues that satire is distinguished from humor in that satire is more directed, while humor is relatively ad hoc and directionless. “If the operations of wit are promiscuous and casual, the presumption is in favor of comedy [i.e., humor]. . . . Swift writes with passion under iron control, and pursues his object relentlessly; hence he belongs to satire.” See, The Art of Satire (New York, NY: Russell & Russell, 1960), pp. 37-38. This definition seems inadequate. It is true that Swift’s cold, sometimes humorless, satire accomplishes its purposes in a direct, relentless manner. Nevertheless, direction does not always have to be so explicit to achieve the same purposes. Twain’s humor, far from being directionless or ad hoc, accomplishes his purposes in degrees sometimes even more compelling than Swift’s. Even though Twain’s humor travels in a much more pleasant, comic manner, such “mere humor” can have devastating results. One cannot read Twain’s “account” of his first duel without realizing that the so-called “gentleman’s code of ethic” has been subtly laughed out of existence See, The Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York, NY: Harper & Row, [1917] 1959, Charles Neider edition), pp. 123-29. The humor is devastating, and contrasts with the so-called satiric style–but it accomplishes better results, in my opinion. It travels in a casual, offhand manner and demonstrates one of H. L. Mencken’s maxims for the iconoclast–one horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.

Major techniques for both “satire” and “humor” are incongruity, exaggeration, invective, reductio ad absurdum, paradox, caricature, understatement, anticlimax, etc. Twain’s “humor” exhausts the techniques available, but three prominent humorous techniques emerge as his favorite and most compelling–namely, exaggeration, understatement, and anticlimax.

3. Exaggeration

To exaggerate is to enlarge beyond the bounds of truth, to overstate or to heap up. A good example comes from Sidney Smith, who, describing what it was like to preach at St. Paul’s in London, achieved comic overstatement: “The temperature is several degrees below zero. My sentences are frozen as they come out of my mouth, and are thawed in the course of the summer, making strange noises and unexpected assertions in various parts of the church.” English critics considered exaggeration to be the essence of American humor, and Twain was a master of exaggeration. One of his most famous exaggerated tall tales occurs in Roughing It.

On their way overland in a stagecoach, Twain describes Bemis’s tall tale. It was full of what Huck Finn would call “stretchers.” Bemis tells how a wounded buffalo bull chases him nearly two miles before he can find a tree to escape the bull.

If I had had a horse worth a cent–but no, the minute he saw that buffalo bull wheel on him and give a bellow, he raised straight up in the air and stood on his heels. . . . Then the bull made a pass at him and uttered a bellow that sounded perfectly frightful, it was so close to me, and that seemed to literally prostrate my horse’s reason, and make a raving distracted maniac of him, and I wish I may die if he didn’t stand on his head for a quarter of a minute and shed tears.

Bemis then describes the bull’s charge and his biting the horse’s tail: “Something made [the horse] hungry for solitude and suggested to him to get up and hunt for it.” Bemis then describes more of the breakneck chase, and how the horse threw him and the saddle into the air, after which he climbed into the nearest tree and felt safe. But then:

I had the bull now, if he did not think of one thing. But that one thing I dreaded. I dreaded it very seriously. There was a possibility that the bull might not think of it, but there were greater chances that he would. . . . But don’t you know that the very thing a man dreads is the thing that always happens? Indeed it is so. I watched the bull, now, with anxiety–anxiety which no one can conceive of who has not been in such a situation and felt that at any moment death might come. Presently a thought came into the bull’s eye. I knew it! said I. . . . Sure enough, it was just as I had dreaded, he started in to climb the tree–

Bemis then tells about how the bull climbed up into the tree, slipping at first, but finally climbing up very close to Bemis. Bemis then says he coiled his lariat around the bull’s neck, shot it with his Allen revolver, full in the face, and left the bull to hang in the tree! Twain and his companions were not entirely convinced about the truthfulness of Bemis’s tale, but the storyteller offers first rate proof for his assertions:

“Bemis, is all that true, just as you have stated it?”

“I wish I may rot in my tracks and die the death of a dog if it isn’t.”

“Well, we can’t refuse to believe it, and we don’t. But if there were some proofs–”

“Proofs! Did I bring back my lariat?”


“Did I bring back my horse?”


“Did you ever see the bull again?”


“Well, then, what more do you want? I never saw anybody as particular as you are about a little thing like that.”

4. Understatement

Twain did not like the sorry sweetness of nursery sentimentality: “A soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty.” This gives a good example of one of Twain’s favorite comic devices: understatement. This technique uses restraint in order to produce a greater effect. It is, essentially, exaggeration in reverse. The non-chalance of understatement–in its peculiar restrained way–refuses to accept the customary. Instead, it draws attention to an aspect of reality often overlooked. If sarcasm is meaning inversion, then understatement is meaning exaggeration. One reads understatement, and comes to understand more than the words would suggest to the literalist. In fact, the careful reader of understatement will easily pick up on the author’s sardonic disdain, and discern the writers satiric target.

Charles Dickens was the master of this brand of humor, but Twain was his equal in many ways. In one place, Twain said he never examined too closely into the traditions concerning his own ancestry, primarily because he was “so busy polishing up this end of the line and trying to make it showy.” But this did not stop him from writing a burlesque autobiography, almost entirely made up of understatement. See, Burlesque Autobiography (Larchmont, Peter Pauper Press, 1930), pp. 7-25. It is as good as any other example of understatement that can be found in his writings. At one point he describes his ancestor, Arthour Twain, as “a man of considerable note–a solicitor on the highway in William Rufus’ time.” Of course, “solicitor” means highwayman or robber, and the “solicitor” spent his time in a “resort called Newgate,” a famous English prison, and “while there died suddenly” (hanged). Of Augustus Twain, we are told, “He was as full of fun as he could be, and used to take his old sabre and sharpen it up, and get in a convenient place on a dark night, and stick it through people as they went by, to see them jump. He was a born humorist.” But the authorities found him and “removed one end of him, and put it up on a nice high place on Temple Bar, where it could contemplate the people and have a good time. He never liked any situation so much or stuck to it so long.” Another ancestor, called Beau Twain, seems to have been a forger. “He wrote a beautiful, beautiful hand. . . . He had infinite sport with his talent. But by and by he took a contract to break stone for a road, and the roughness of the work spoiled his hand. Still, he enjoyed life all the time he was in the stone business [chain gang]. . . . During all those long years he gave such satisfaction that he never was through with one contract a week till government gave him another. . . . [He] died lamented by the government. He was a sore loss to his country. For he was so regular.” The “illustrious” John Morgan Twain appears to have been a thief on board Columbus’s ship, for “it is noted in the ship’s log as a ‘curious circumstance’ that albeit he brought his baggage on board the ship in a newspaper, he took it ashore in four trunks.” John Morgan elevated and civilized the Indians by building a jail and a gallows and “claimed with satisfaction that he had had a more restraining and elevating influence on the Indians than any other reformer that ever labored among them.” But alas, John “went to see his gallows perform on the first white man ever hanged in America, and while there received injuries which terminated in his death.”

5. Anticlimax

A climax is a figure of speech in which a series of phrases or sentences is arranged in ascending order of rhetorical forcefulness, culminating at the point of highest dramatic tension. Naturally, therefore, an anticlimax is just the opposite–a sentence that manages to culminate at the lowest point of dramatic tension. Essentially, anticlimax is the sudden turn of a sentence into an unexpected direction. Such sentences are typical of Twain’s writings. Professor Beers of Yale said, “Mark Twain’s drolleries have frequently the same air of innocence and surprise as Artemus Ward’s, and there is a like suddenness in his turns of expression, as where he speaks of ‘the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.'” Blair, Native American Humor, p. 148. “The calm confidence of a Christian” is usually accompanied by a pious climax such as “with God at his side,” but in Twain’s anticlimax, it goes in the opposite direction. The essence of anticlimax is incongruity. The reader or listener expects a familiar pattern, or, is led along by the logic of the words and sentences; then suddenly, an incongruous word or phrase distorts the pattern and logic. Cliché twisting is a favorite anticlimactic device for some humorists:

Wilde: I am dying beyond my means.

Tallulah Bankhead: There is less in this than meets the eye.

Irvin S. Cobb (upon hearing his mean boss was ill): My God, I hope it’s nothing trivial.

Bernard Shaw: In moments of crisis . . . I size up the situation in a flash, set my teeth, contract my muscles, take a firm grip on myself and, without a tremor, always do the wrong thing.

Some cliché twisting can be humorous (e.g., Mark Twain: “Familiarity breeds contempt–and children”), but the pattern is too familiar, too easily recognizable as a trick of humor. Cliché twisting lacks the creativity necessary for true and sustained humor. Twain had a good eye for the anticlimax and very seldom used cliché twisting, but when he did, it was usually funny. Some examples of Twain’s use of anti-climax are as follows: A literary classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.” In a commencement address he says, “First girls, don’t smoke–that is, don’t smoke to excess. . . . I never smoke to excess–that is, I smoke in moderation, only one cigar at a time.” From Twain’s notebook: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and too wise to do it again.” A history lesson: “Wm Penn achieved the deathless gratitude of the savages by merely dealing in a square way with them–well, kind of a square way, anyhow–more rectangular than the savage was used to, at any rate. He bought the whole State of Pa from them & paid for it like a man. Paid $40 worth of glass beads & a couple of second-hand blankets. Bought the whole State for that. Why you can’t buy its legislature for twice the money now.” From Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar: March–“When angry, count a hundred; when very angry, swear.” April 1st–“This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.” November–“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” Another history lesson: “Adam was but human–this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apples’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” An ethical observation: “The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money.” For more, see, P. M. Zall, Mark Twain Laughing (Knoxville: University Of Tennessee Press, 1985), passim.

6. Mark Twain’s Defense of Humor

Mark Twain’s use of the above techniques was heightened by his stage manner, a deadpan, earnest style. The London Spectator spoke of “the unconscious, matter-of-fact way in which he habitually strikes false intellectual notes, the steady simplicity with which he puts the emphasis of feeling in the wrong place . . . and so glides into sarcasm or caricature, while seeming to pursue . . . the even tenor of his way.” Not everyone appreciated Twain’s style. Dr. Josiah Gilbert Holland, a popular old style lecturer, dedicated to uplift and instruction, argued that serious lecturers were being driven out of the field by “jesters and mountebanks,” “triflers,” and “literary buffoons.” See, J. Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1966), p. 147. Twain responded with a counterblast entitled “An Appeal from One That is Persecuted,” and accused Holland of being an expert at arguing in support of self-evident propositions, and furthermore, being a primary cause of the bankruptcy of the lyceums himself. “[Holland] moves through the lecture field a remorseless intellectual cholera,” a “perambulating sack of chloroform,” and “the very incarnation of the Commonplace.” Twain’s ferocious response indicates how sensitive he was to the charge of being a “mere humorist.” Later, in 1888, while accepting an honorary M.A. from Yale, he would get to the heart of the matter, something he only touched on briefly in his response to Holland–the function and dignity of the humorist:

“[W]ith all its lightness, and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it–the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and . . . whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.”  (See, Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, p. 147.)

All of this, of course, to reemphasize Twain’s point that “mere humor” cannot survive. Humor must be directed at a target, and Twain’s targets tell us something about Twain’s own views of life. Nevertheless, one can engage in social criticism, and still not say anything funny. The ingredients of humor–exaggeration, understatement, anticlimax, and the rest–must be there.

Who knew that the story of a fourteen year old boy floating down the Mississippi River with an escaped Negro slave would revolutionize American literature? Who knew that such a story could be written by a “trifler,” a “literary baffoon” a “mere humorist”? Yet humor combined with literary maturity and reflection can be devastating, and such a combination of technique and vision will last much longer than 30 years, as Twain himself surely realized, and as his own writings have demonstrated.