I've not read enough by Mark Twain to be any sort of a judge but I get the feeling that there is always more to what he wrote than what you see on the surface. Maybe the story is meant tongue in cheek or as a satire or is told with irony. Maybe if I knew more about him personally I could gage better, but then maybe it really doesn't matter at all. All that does matter is what is printed on the page, what I bring to the story and how it affects me upon reading it.
The story in question is "Luck" from Fifty Great American Short Stories, which I am back to reading again. It was originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1891and then later in a collection that also contained the novella I read last year, The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg. It is one of the shorter stories in the collection and you can read it online here should you have the desire to do so. I did a little digging around to see what others had to say about the story and came up with a different 'interpretation' than the more obvious one I came away with.
At the start there is a footnote telling the reader that "this is not a fancy sketch. I got it from a clergyman who was an instructor at Woolwich forty years ago, and who vouched for its truth." An unnamed narrator is telling the story, which was told to him by a man of strict veracity and good judgment. The story he tells is about a celebrated military man who has 'made his name' on the battlefields of the Crimean War and who is in attendance at a banquet in London. Real names have been withheld (the narrator refers to him as Lieutenant-General Lord Arthur Scoresby, Y.C., K.C.B., etc, etc, etc), but no doubt he is likely to be known to all. (And if we don't know him, we all know someone like him).
"It was food and drink to me to look and look, at that demi-god; scanning, searching, noting: the quietness, the reserve, the noble gravity of his countenance; the simple honesty that expressed itself all over him; the sweet unconsciousness of his greatness--unconsciousness of the hundreds of admiring eyes fastened upon him, unconsciousness of the deep, loving, sincere worship welling out of the breasts of those people and flowing towards him."
Lord Arthur's reputation precedes him. Every undertaking, every decision, every battle he takes part in is golden. He can do no wrong. You know the sort of man who is simply touched with luck no matter what the circumstances? The thing is every one of these undertakings, these battles and decisions begin quite contrary. This hero is no hero--the reverend calls him a fool! He himself was an instructor at the military academy at Woolwich where he taught young Scoresby. He literally got by by the skin of his teeth and it's almost spoofish to think of the man's ineptness and how he managed to know nothing and do nothing well at all yet would not only pass but do so in a way that made him appear as though he was top of the class.
The worst is when he was leading a regiment of men in the Crimean War and accidentally turned the wrong way (not knowing the difference between left foot and right!) and set his troops in the way of the Russians. Lots and lots of Russians. It was with disbelief that they saw these British soldiers marching in (bungling in must be more like it). Surely so few men would never try something so bold as to attack so many men, thus there must be an army of British soldiers behind them. Instead they turned tail and ran.
As I was reading I could only think of this tale as being of the "Emperor's new Clothes" ilk. Scoresby is unfit and foolish and not worthy of the accolades he as received. Was there someone Twain had in mind when he was writing this story. Some famous man who was in this position without having actually earned the respect he receives? But there is another way to 'read' the story, and I think I like it almost more. Not to be contrary, but it's always good to question those telling tales. It's always good to question and be a little critical. What exactly is the Reverend's motivation anyway? And shouldn't a clergyman be more christian and charitable (ow well, then again we're all human, but . . .). Maybe it is jealousy that is fueling the telling of (downright negative) tales. Certainly something to think about. And isn't that always the beauty of a well written and thoughtful short story? Some little kernel of truth at heart and then an interpretation best left up to the reader!
Next week is Francis Bret Harte's "The Outcast of Poker Flat" (which I have a vague recollection of having read in high school).
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I am beginning to fall behind in my New Yorker reading. (Good thing that a long weekend is just around the corner--and so looking forward to it am I that I am almost counting the days. The June 2 issue has a most interesting story, which I will tell you about it in a moment. The June 9 & 16 is a double issue chock full of longer and shorter stories what I hope to get to this coming week, and already queued is the June 23rd issue with a story by a new to me author, Maile Maloy, an American woman writer--yay. I'm always happy to see more women fiction writers in the pages of the New Yorker (and elsewhere, of course).
This week's story, however, is by Thomas Pierce. Tell me, what do you think a story called "Ba Baboon" is about? I bet you won't guess. You're in luck, though. You can read the story here, and see the accompanying illustration, which might just give you a hint or two to the content of the story. (Have I mentioned before how I always think of short stories as being like a box of chocolates? You never know what you're going to get. It might be a delicious butter-cream or my least favorite that has coconut in the middle). "Ba Baboon" is definitely a vanilla butter-cream, which is always a nice surprise when at the outset I could only think oh no, coconut.
I'm not going to tell you much about the story as the telling and unravelling is all the fun. But let me set the scene and hopefully you'll be tempted to click the link and read it for yourself. There are two people in one of those walk in pantries. They are brother and sister, Brooks and Mary. It's small and coffin-like and they are surrounded by cans of food. Someone else's food and someone else's pantry. Why are they there? To make it all more interesting Brooks has suffered an accident to the brain, which has changed him, changed his personality and memories. It's all pretty curious really, and quirky sounding but it works.
I always like reading the Q&A that the New Yorker does with the author (you can read it here). One of the things Pierce wanted to explore in this story is "what makes us what we are?" The impetus for the story was an accident his grandfather had which also subtly changed him, making Pierce wonder which was the true man. Was the true self before the accident or after? Yet again, another story that raises interesting and provoking questions. One of the reasons I love reading.
Something to look forward to--Thomas Pierce has a collection of stories due out early next year, Hall of Small Mammals: Stories.