Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CII

“Sketches New and Old”

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 judge. — M. T.)

“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 interest.

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 petition.

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.88

88 [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.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00