31 August 2007

Dubious Documents: The Case of Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger

Samuel Clemens died in 1910, but his greatest creation, the humorist Mark Twain, continued to live on--after a fashion. Stories, articles, and fragments continued to appear over the decades, and even the comic lecturer was briefly reborn in the impersonation of Hal Holbrook. Now any time an author doesn't see his work through the press there are likely to be significant difficulties with the text. (This is one reason why editing Ben Jonson is in many respects easier than editing Shakespeare.) When a work is put out posthumously those difficulties are easily compounded.

In Mark Twain's case there have been some, shall we say, curious decisions made in his posthumous publications. His autobiography has been published twice, for example, in versions completely different from one another and both almost certainly different from anything the author would have approved. (Twain's notions were fantastic and unwieldy anyway, more like a posthumous blog than anything conventionally publishable.) Letters from the Earth was spliced together out of two related manuscripts. But I don't think there is anything comparable to the shenanigans surrounding the 1916 publication of supposed Mark Twain original story, The Mysterious Stranger.

The story is set in Austria, 1590. The main character and narrator is a boy named Theodor Fischer. He and his two friends run into an angel--a being from heaven who has come to visit their small town. The central plot concerns a struggle between a local priest fallen on bad times--Father Peter--and a powerful astrologer whom everyone is afraid of. "Every one knew he could foretell wars and famines, though that was not so hard, for there was always a war and generally a famine somewhere. But he could also read any man's life through the stars in a big book he had, and find lost property, and every one in the village except Father Peter stood in awe of him." As a result of this conflict Father Peter has lost his position (a certain Father Adolf has taken his place) and is suspected of unorthodox views--specifically that God would find a way to save all people, regardless of their sins. When the angel helps Father Peter out by allowing him to find a pouch full of gold coins (which the angel had miraculously created) the astrologer seizes the opportunity to destroy Father Peter once and for all by testifying that the coins were his, and Father Peter had robbed him. By the end of the story the astrologer is defeated, Father Peter is vindicated, and he lives happily ever after--but not in the way we expect. At the moment of triumph the angel strikes Father Peter with insanity. Father Peter believes he is the Emperor--and is now perfectly happy.

A good part of the interest of the story however lies in the angel. Not only does he intervene at various key points in the plot, but he engages in various miraculous activities--creating and then destroying an entire village of miniature people, for example. He comes to the small Austrian village with a distinctly other-worldly view, and his actions do not have the consequences imagined by the three boys whom he befriends. We learn interesting bits of information about the celestial world--for example, this angel is named Satan, after his uncle--the very Satan who had rebelled against God.

The ending of the piece is disquieting. As the narrator gets older, he sees the angel less and less. Finally Satan announces that he will not return again. He tells the narrator that heaven and hell, mankind and the universe, everything there is--doesn't exist. "'It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream--a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought--a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!' He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true."

Some critics objected to the ending, as being out of key with the rest of the book. Another thesis held that Mark Twain had redeemed himself with this last book, finally managing to get out of the tangle of dead ends, false starts, and unpublishable scraps to put it all together again one last time. What the ending meant, exactly, was less clear. At least one reader, as I know from a marginal notation in a library book, concluded that Satan, true to form, was assuring the narrator eternal happiness by striking him mad too. Like Father Peter.

As far as I know nobody (publicly) questioned the story from the time of its publication in 1916 (just in time for the Christmas trade) until 1963, when John Tuckey published his now-classic Mark Twain and Little Satan. His re-examination of the manuscript--or rather manuscripts--showed that the book was a fraud. Oh, it was substantially Samuel Clemens' work all right--but it had been altered in some very questionable ways.

First, Clemens never wrote a piece called The Mysterious Stranger. This is something of a quibble, as I'll show in a moment, but it is symptomatic of the larger problem. The bulk of the book was taken from a piece actually called The Chronicle of Young Satan--and it was never finished. The ending was taken from a substantially different piece--No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger--also about a supernatural figure, and originally supposed to incorporate the story of Father Peter--but that idea was quickly dropped. Instead the action takes place in a print shop, and the plot involves an attempt to ruin the kindly print-shop owner. (Complicating things further Clemens made at least two other attempts--both using Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn--to explore this material.)

Although both Young Satan and No. 44 involve a supernatural figure, there are substantial differences between them. Satan is explicitly described as an angel; No. 44 remains mysterious to the end, until he finally reveals himself as nothing but a figment of the narrator's imagination--like the entire universe. Satan is not an actor, as such, in the main story-line; 44 is, in that it is the printer's decision to take 44 on as an apprentice that leads to the strike that is at the center of the plot. And on a more trivial note, Young Satan is set in 1702, while No. 44 is set in 1490.

So what happened? Whose idea was it to split up and rejoin the narratives in this manner?

Well, the man responsible for this bit of editorial vandalism was Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain's literary executor and biographer. However, Paine tells the story a bit differently. According to his own account the ending turned up separately, in a pile of papers, and to his delight he realized that it was the conclusion to the Young Satan version of the manuscript. it was the discovery of the ending, he said, that allowed the publication of The Mysterious Stranger.

Well, we now know that it was not the ending to the Young Satan narrative, but rather to the No. 44 narrative. So is there any chance that Paine was mistaken? That it was editorial incompetence rather than malfeasance?

The short answer is, no. Clemens wrote the final chapter out of sequence, and it may well have been separate from the rest of the manuscript, but the characters address each other as "44" and "August"--the names of the characters in No. 44--and not as "Satan" and "Theodor" as they are made to do in the published Mysterious Stranger. Paine in other words had to change the names (and did in fact do so) to make this ending fit with the Young Satan narrative that he was having published. He then misrepresented the facts in order to make it appear that the story was in fact what Clemens had written, rather than a patchwork from two different pieces.

It could be argued that by doing this Paine rescued an otherwise unpublishable Mark Twain piece and so made it available to a public that--let's face it--has little interest in a story without an ending. But was it really necessary to engage in out-and-out fakery? Could he not have said openly that this was a posthumous collaboration?

Again, the short answer is no. The reason: Frederick Duneka, an editor at Harper and Brothers. Clemens wrote of him:
Mr. Duneka seems to do four-fifths of the editing of everything that comes to Harper & Brothers for publication, and he certainly has a good literary instinct and judgement as long as his religion does not get into his way.
Duneka was a Roman Catholic. And he had a problem with this particular story. This problem led to the most egregious editorial meddling with the text.

You see, in The Chronicle of Young Satan there was no astrologer. (As a matter of fact, there was no astrologer in any of these stories, though a magician character in No. 44 may have provided Paine with the inspiration.) Instead, Father Peter's enemy throughout was rival priest Father Adolf, a drunken profane fool whose claim to fame was once having thrown an ink bottle at Satan. When Duneka had taken a look at the story during Twain's lifetime, he had been horrified. Clemens wrote in 1906:
Last summer, Mr. Duneka wanted to look at one of these stories, a story whose scene is laid in the Middle Ages, and in it he found a drunken and profane Catholic priest--a spectacle which was as common in Europe four hundred years ago as Dunekas are in hell to-day. Of course it made him shudder, and he wanted that priest reformed or left out.
Paine contradicted this account--but his editorial labors included reforming Father Adolf to near non-existence, and heaping his sins onto the head of the unfortunate astrologer. (Duneka apparently had no qualms about denigrating other peoples' beliefs, just so long as his own were let alone.) This went way past cobbling together texts into outright forgery--passages, including the one about the astrologer quoted above, have no connection with anything Clemens actually wrote. Further, there is no way that Clemens would have approved this alteration. It materially weakens the story, deprives us of a wonderful character, and falsifies his views. This piece of meddling makes the spliced-on ending look like a harmless prank by comparison.

Further, the mischief didn't stop with its publication. Paine and Duneka's editorial interference has affected the interpretation of the story to this day. There is, for instance, not a hint in the text of No. 44 that the magician character there is a fraud--but the baleful influence of the imaginary astrologer has affected the understanding of Balthasar Hoffman to this day (does anybody else recall Hermann Munster as Hoffman in the 1982 made-for-tv movie?). By the same token, the mixing of manuscripts has caused many to suppose that 44 and Satan are much the same figure, even though nowhere does the text suggest that 44 is an angel (as Satan is). And, as if to prove my point, when I dropped by imdb.com just now to check the date of the movie I find that the user comments complain that the writers have altered the original story:
But it would have been better if the screenplay had stuck closer to the original fragments. The fragments themselves were published in 1917 [sic] for the first time.
Another observes:
The script doesn't even follow the plot of the original story. So it should be looked at as a fabricated Twain story.
Actually, of course, the 1916 version is the "fabricated" story. Paine and Duneka are long gone, but the mischief they did continues. It might have been defensible if they had stated honestly up front what they were up to--that this book was frankly a posthumous collaboration, and that Twain's text had been altered. Not all the alterations were as injurious as these two, and many people have enjoyed this version. (I did myself, till I read the true text when it published in 1969.) But passing it off as a genuine Mark Twain work--especially considering the hack-work they actually did--that's not forgivable.

1 comment:

javier ortiz said...

Hello there....

Very interesting article!!! I stumbled upon this article trying to find out how strong related was this book to Mark Twain's understanding of Nikola Teala's view on things like life and death and ideas, memory, universe... all things godly and religious (sorry for my english, its not my native language, though i like it very much). Even though this article mentioms nothing about Twains inspiration for both manuscripts (satan and 44), it gave me a good idea on how twisted the original ideas from twain might be.... needless to say about the concepts lost in translating this to spanish, since i was looking for the book in a local library (chile). Funny thing... here in chile the only version of the book available is published as a childs book... but this article would suggest the book holds very strong ideas for kids (i remember the books i read in school were pretty inocent and i went to a catholic school... so the schools director would be a little like Mr. Duneka).

I will try to find the original manuscrpits .... wish me luck!!

Thanks for writing this whoever you are

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