At first glance, Ambrose Bierce didn’t look like a coldblooded verbal killer. He was tall and handsome and scrupulously groomed. He had babyishly smooth cheeks, and a cherubic mop of golden hair. He excelled as a conversationalist, drinking buddy, and womanizer. Beneath this charismatic façade, however, was nineteenth-century America’s greatest insult artist, a writer who produced some of the most vicious prose in the history of the English language.
Read the rest at Lapham Quarterly’s Roundtable blog.
The latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is on Comedy, and it includes an essay I wrote about the short story that made Mark Twain famous: a bizarre yarn about a jumping frog.
On November 18, 1865, the New York Saturday Press published a short sketch called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” about a frog-jumping contest in rural California. It “set all New York in a roar,” reported one journalist, and soon went viral, reprinted in papers from San Francisco to Memphis. The story’s author was Mark Twain, the pseudonym of a twenty-nine-year-old writer born Samuel Clemens. At the time, Twain was living in California, enjoying provincial renown as a Western humorist. The success of “Jim Smiley” made him nationally famous. “No reputation was ever more rapidly won,” observed the New York Tribune.
Twain’s stature quickly grew. Within a decade, he would publish his bestselling book The Innocents Abroad, perform to sold-out audiences at home and overseas, and build a mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, staffed with servants and outfitted with indulgences like a telephone, a billiard table, and a battery-powered burglar alarm. By the time of his death in 1910, he had become a legend—“the Lincoln of our literature,” in the words of Twain’s friend the author and critic William Dean Howells—and in the century since, he has been hailed by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer as the father of modern American fiction.
Read the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly.
I wrote a piece for The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog about the new volume of Mark Twain’s Autobiography.
When Mark Twain opened his mouth, strange things came tumbling out. Things like hoaxes, jokes, yarns, obscenities, and non sequiturs. He had a drawl—his “slow talk,” his mother called it—that made his sentences long and sinuous. One reporter described it as a “little buzz-saw slowly grinding inside a corpse.” Others thought that he sounded drunk.
He loved to talk: to friends, to reporters, to the crowds of adoring fans who filled lecture halls to hear him. He gave famous after-dinner toasts and tossed off witty one-liners that made great copy for the next day’s papers. He could talk all night, preferably with a plentiful supply of cigars and Scotch on hand. He was always bursting with opinions on topics large and small and humming with ideas for new books and new business ventures. He often had trouble sleeping, and drank to numb his nerves. But he never had trouble talking.
Read the rest of the article at The New Yorker.