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Mark Twain

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n the following excerpt from his introduction to "The Devil's Race-Track": Mark Twain's Great Dark Writings (1980), Tuckey provides a thematic overview of selected stories from Twain's later years.]

"There is no such figure for the storm-beaten human drift as the derelict," Mark Twain once told his friend and biographer Albert Bigelow Paine. The seas in which he voyaged, in his life and his writings, were not only in the earthly ones with their alluring and forbidding vastnesses and remotenesses. His imagination reached out to the uncharted deeps of the universe in which the globe was but a drifting particle, and also inward to the equally unfathomable inner space of the human psyche immersed in the ocean of the unconscious.

It was after he had passed the age of sixty that Mark Twain wrote all of the pieces that appear in ["The Devil's Race-Track": Mark Twain's Great Dark Writings]. In their focus they range from intensely personal matters to the cosmic situation as he envisioned it. Some deal with the disasters of the mid-1890s that had included financial failure and bankruptcy and the death of his daughter Susy, and these writings are much concerned with sudden turns of fate by which an individual may find himself in calamitous circumstances. Others view the human situation more generally, and sometimes from perspectives remote in time or scale. In "Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes," events are perceived from a micro-macrocosmic viewpoint: the leading character is a germ who inhabits the river-like veins of a living human being that is his "planet" and also his deity.

A number of the writings dealing with personal and family misfortunes represent successive stages of work upon a story of a disastrous sea voyage that he felt compelled to produce, but which gave him trouble in finding the right approach. These various drafts are interesting both in themselves and for what they reveal of the direction and tendency of his thought and work. There are recurring themes. A man long favored by good luck has been pursing a dream of high success that seems about to become a reality. Suddenly he experiences a nightmarish time of failure. As his thoughts race around the vicious circle track of his predicament (which Mark Twain was to call the Devil's Race-Track), he becomes confused and disoriented, both as to the passage of time and as to what is dream and what is reality. In several of the drafts, the fallen hero was to have a long dream of a tragedy-laden voyage and then awaken to find that what had seemed the events of terrible years had been the dream of a moment.

The voyage motif partly reflects Mark Twain's extensive sea travels during the globe-circling lecture tour of 1895-96 that he made in order to pay his debts, and from which he returned only to face the loss of Susy. But he had already, when financial ruin had only been impending, used the ship as a symbol of fortune. At a time in 1894 when he believed that the impracticable typesetter in which he had over-invested was finally to succeed, he cabled to his wife Olivia, "A ship visible on the horizon, coming down under a cloud of canvas." A few days later, thinking that success had in fact come, he cabled again, "Our ship is safe in port." But within another ten days he had to send the woeful message, "Ships that pass in the night." Later in the same year his business advisor Henry H. Rogers had forced him to recognize that the typesetter had almost no commercial value. He wrote to Rogers, "It hit me like a thunder-clap.... I went flying here and there..., only one clearly defined thought standing up visible and substantial out of the crazy storm-drift--that my dream of ten years was in desperate peril." At this time he also penned some verses that were represented to be the mutterings of a crazed almshouse inmate who considered himself a storm- beaten derelict vessel, "Friendless, forlorn, and forgotten.

Another intertwining theme is that of the loss of the family home, usually by fire, and of the goal of a subsequent return to the once happy home situation that must somehow be achieved, whether in reality or in a dream. In 1895, forced to look toward taking the round-the-world tour, he had visited the great house that had been the family center during seventeen more prosperous years but had become too expensive to live in. In a letter headed "At Home, Hartford," he wrote to Olivia, who was then in Paris, of his impressions upon entering the place: "[I] seemed as if I had burst awake out of a hellish dream, and had never been away, and that you would come drifting down out of those dainty upper regions with the little children tagging after you." He added, "I was seized with a furious desire to have us all in this house again and right away, and never go outside the grounds any more forever--certainly never again to Europe." The desire quickly became a resolve: "I have made up my mind to one thing: if we go around the world we will move into our house when we get back." "At Home" was, thereafter, the title he used for the platform address that he was soon delivering repeatedly; he carried the dream of homecoming around the world with him. But close to the end of the long trip he received word of the death of Susy, of meningitis, on August 18, 1896. She had died in the Hartford house. Susy and he had been especially close, and the loss was for him the worst possible catastrophe. Moreover, her death had blasted the homecoming dream, for now the grieving family could not bear to live in the place of Hartford, and it seemed that there was no longer any goal or purpose to give meaning to their lives. "We are restless and unsettled," Mark Twain wrote early in the following year. "We had a charted course; we have none now. We are derelicts--and derelicts are indifferent to what may happen." It was at about this time that he wrote two story fragments in which a burning ship is made to symbolize a loss of fortune and of family.

In the "The Passenger's Story" a sailing vessel is becalmed in the Indian Ocean. At night a fire breaks out, and the sailors are aroused just in time by a splendid and almost humanly intelligent St. Bernard dog, "the pet of the whole crew." All hands quickly take to the lifeboat and are saved--but the dog is left to burn. The captain has tied him to the mast, saying, "He'd be more in the way than a family of children--and he can eat as much as a family of children, too." In the other fragment, "The Enchanted Sea-Wilderness," the incident is developed more fully. Again the wonderful dog rescues the ship's company but is left to burn; again,

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