I guess Mark Twain was right in 1897 when he told a London correspondent of the New York Journal, The report of my death was an exaggeration. He's back at least in the form of a short story stretched by the publishers to fit the dimensions of a novella. The story is not the best of Twain, but even mediocre Twain (as long as it's not Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc) is plenty of fun and worth reading. Besides, the foreword and afterword by Roy Blount Jr. is good enough for the $16.95 admission price.
The story behind A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, certainly more interesting than the book itself, goes something like this: During a visit by William Dean Howells, longtime editor at The Atlantic and steadfast friend of Sam Clemens, to Twain's home in Hartford, an evening of friendly conversation and cigar smoking turned (as it often would with Twain) entrepreneurial. Twain proposed he write a skeleton plot and that 12 famous authors of the time write up a story, using the same plot, blindfolded' as to what the others had written. Howells went along with the idea, but rightly called it a scheme in a letter he wrote trying to convince another novelist, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, to join the party. Twain expected Bret Harte, Charles Dudley Warner and Oliver Wendell Holmes to participate. Warner and Harte maybe, but who can imagine Holmes in such a project? Or more inconceivable, Henry James? Roy Blount Jr. says it best and most succinctly in his afterword: Of all the gang that Twain hoped to enlist in his project, the most unlikely was Henry James. Can any sane person, we may ask, have expected to get Henry James' juices flowing with a plot abounding in bumpkins, spleen, assault, and battery? And, basically, that's what the story is, a parable moving toward a punchline. I won't ruin the ending for anyone, because there is a mystery of sorts. It has to do with Jules Verne, whom Twain clearly did not like. But I may have said too much already. Suffice it to say that a young man is found by a Missouri farmer out in the middle of a field. The young man is dressed like an aristocrat, lying full-length in the snow, no footprints around him and speaking French. There's also a girl in this tale, of course, a beautiful one, and a handsome and gentle-spirited young man who is in love with her. In addition, there's a greedy father and a mean-hearted uncle. We end up where we'd expect to be with such ingredients except for the dash of Jules Verne, that is.
Not a plot, certainly, for Henry James. But one, Blount argues in his afterword, for Twain, especially the Twain who was stuck in the middle of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to Blount, this story shows the darker vision of Twain emerging, his newfound politics evolving. As Blount sees it, He began to acknowledge that the roots of his innocence were in a village corrupted by slavery. In the second half of Huckleberry Finn good-natured people are abused over and over again by meanness, callousness, and violence. A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage is worth reading for the simple pleasures it gives, but perhaps more interesting for the complex working of Twain's mind that it suggests at a time when his most famous character, a white boy with a sound heart and a deformed conscience, was floating down the river with a black man and into territory that no American writer had fully explored before.
Michael Pearson directs the creative writing program at Old Dominion University.