Mark Twain, Meistererzählungen


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1980


Only few know how to draw a more accurate image of our world than Mark Twain. With a sharp tongue he analyses the absurdities of our everyday lives and wields his pen to expose all the wannabes and impostors that life confronts us with every day. Mark Twain accomplishes that which writers as early as Horace demanded from a brilliant satirist: Saying the truth with laughter and thus moving the reader to reconsider his own attitudes. For instance when it comes to our beloved money.


Money, so Mark Twain thought, deserved the highest respect. Money makes the world – or rather the people in it – go round, he believed. “But I was in circumstances that made the salary an object,” he explains the motives of his protagonist in “How I came to edit an agricultural paper” very clearly. And we’re moved to say, of course! Isn’t that just human? Why spend time doing things you don’t love if not for the money?


In his works Twain constantly names prices, down to the dollar and cent. Again and again money – or rather the hunger for it – takes centre stage. Dear reader, if I may inquire, how many authors do you know who have made a citizen’s claims to reimbursement by the state the subject of a novella? Mark Twain even wrote two of those; both can be found in the “Meistererzählungen”.


Or take the bag of gold worth $ 40,000 which is handed to Mr and Mrs Richards in Hadleyburg, a bag of gold that becomes the lead character in a charade much like Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit.” The entire elite of this city which deems itself so noble is corrupted in this tale, fittingly titled “The Man who corrupted Hadleyburg.” Every single one of the oh-so-respectable citizens lies to get his hands on the $ 40,000.


Not one short story by Twain does without a mention of the dear money. And if it’s only the butler at the hotel entrance demanding a tip with his empty hand. Thus Twain illustrates what we have come to understand today as (American) capitalism. Money is the measure of all things, every performance, every activity, every good. Mark Twain was a capitalist. And he was an entrepreneur, even though not a very successful one.


His biggest investment, around $ 300,000 for a mechanical typesetting machine, was a total failure. Twain lost his entire fortune. Had to sell his house and all his possessions, and start from scratch. But the self-made man didn’t give up, not for a second. Twain worked hard for almost a decade until he had re-established a position on the market.


In his short stories Twain, very unbiased, treats all of his fictional characters with the same, affectionate disdain, rich and poor, cheater and cheated. One of his parables of the world of modern money has become immortalized in a film with Gregory Peck. “The Million Pound Note” is a literary testament that the credit standing alone can make someone a successful business man.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation