by Barbara Schmidt

A History of and Guide to

Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition
Volume 7: Sketches Old and New


Volume 7 of the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition of Mark Twain's works is Sketches New and Old. The Introduction to the volume was written by Albert Bigelow Paine.


IN the volume of miscellany which Mark Twain published in 1875 he included work from no less than four pretty distinct literary periods. The earliest of these began with his journalistic work on the Territorial Enterprise at Virginia City, Nevada, in the summer of 1862, and ended with his departure from California at the end of '66. It was the period of his literary beginnings -- hastily written sketches for the most part, of rather primitive humor, but fresh and full of promise. "Curing a Cold," "The Killing of Julius Caesar Localized," and the "Answers to Correspondents " are good examples of the work of this time. "The Jumping Frog" (1865) ranks as a distinct exception in manner and motif. Its humor is gentle; its plot -- a fundamental one -- complete and perfectly rounded. It was during a season of protracted weather at Angel's Camp that : Mark Twain heard the story, in matter and manner much as he has set it down. It was an opportunity for him to display two of his chief gifts, transcription and elaboration, and he made the most of it.

The sketches of the second period were written after his return from the Quaker City excursion, when he had completed that wonderful travel correspondence which brought him fame. They include "The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract," "The Facts in the Case of George Fisher, Deceased," "My Late Senatorial Secretaryship," and a few others. He was in Washington that winter (1867-8), and most of his work reflects the capital environment.

Mark Twain's third period of short-story and sketch writing may be said to have begun following the publication of The Innocents Abroad, in 1869. He was then living in Buffalo. He had associated himself with the Express of that city and had undertaken a department for the Galaxy Magazine of New York. He was obliged to do a good deal of work, and being mainly done under hard conditions, in the midst of family illness and bereavement, it seems remarkable that he was able to do it so well. "How I Once Edited an Agricultural Paper," "A Curious Dream," and "Political Economy" belong to this period.

The remaining tales in this volume were written, most of them, after the publication of Roughing It, in '72, and the completion of The Gilded Age, in '73. Mark Twain's work by this time was no longer a literary experiment: he had learned his trade, and such tales as "A True Story Told Just as I Heard It," the "Membranous Croup" sketch, "Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls," and the retranslation of the "Jumping Frog" book from French into English show that he had learned it very well. The "True Story," like the "Jumping Frog," was the result of a golden opportunity to transcribe and portray. Its original narrator, Aunt Rachel, was in reality the cook at Quarry Farm, where Mark Twain spent his summers, and her name was Auntie Cord. Her mistress, Mrs. Clemens's sister, had often urged her to tell her story to Mark Twain, but she had been reluctant. One moonlight evening, however, when the family were seated on the veranda, she came round to say good night, and Clemens engaged her in conversation; then, almost before she knew it, she was seated at his feet telling the strange tale, very much as he set it down next morning. It gave Mark Twain his first entry into the Atlantic Monthly, where he had long wished to be represented. William Dean Howells, who was then editor, wrote hastily to express his joy in it. Its "realest kind of black talk" won him, he said, and a few days later he wrote again: "This little story delights me more and more. I wish you had about forty of them."

Of course, the tale of the jumping frog is preeminently the feature of this volume. It was the first of his work to carry his name across the mountains -- to make his public a general one. Originally it was written to oblige Artemus Ward, to be included in a book which Ward just then had in press. It arrived too late for the book, and the New York publisher, Carleton, handed it to the editor of the Saturday Press, saying:

"Here, Clapp, is something that perhaps you can use."

It appeared in that sheet November 18, 1865. A few of Mark Twain's sketches had traveled here and there before that time, but the publication of the frog story was a real event in American humor. It was almost universally copied by the press, and there was no one who did not read it. James Russell Lowell is said to have pronounced it "the finest piece of humorous writing yet produced in America." Its author was somewhat disappointed at its acceptance, for he had had rather a poor opinion of it as literature. To his mother he wrote:

To think that, after writing many an article a man might be excused for thinking tolerably good, these New York people should single out a villainous backwoods sketch to compliment me on.

He changed his mind somewhat later, and allowed Charles Henry Webb to make it the initial and title tale of a small volume of sketches, his first published book -- a volume which included the "Julius Caesar Localized," "Answers to Correspondents," "Curing a Cold," and a few others selected for the present volume.

The frog story had another adventure besides being put into French and retranslated into English. Professor Henry Sidgwick, recognizing its resemblance in form to the early Greek tales, summarized it in that language for his book, Greek Prose Composition. He neglected, however, to give Mark Twain credit, thinking, as he said, the tale was too well known to mislead any reader. It did, in fact, mislead a great many readers, including Mark Twain himself. Professor Sidgwick's Greek was retranslated into English and published as an original Greek fable. Mark Twain and other readers accepted it as proof that there can be nothing new under the sun, that the tale which he had heard told as a true one had had its original or its duplicate in Athens several thousand years before. It was not until 1899, when he met Sidgwick, that the matter was made clear to him.


Illustration List for Volume 7

Volume 7 Sketches New and Old of the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition utilizes the six illustrations that had been drawn by Frederick Burr Opper for the 1899 uniform edition of Sketches New and Old. The volume, however, does not include the photographic frontispiece of Mark Twain that had been featured in the 1899 edition..

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Volume 7



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