Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Twain, Mark

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Pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), US writer and humorist. Although much of MT's fiction strikes modern readers as fantastic, the determined rationalism that he brought to such works as "Extracts from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" (1907; vt Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven 1909), an Afterlife fantasy and religious Satire but much concerned with astronomical matters (the protagonist rides a comet to a corporeal Heaven located outside the Solar System), and "Letters to the Earth" (written 1909; 1962), a satire on matters that Twain's audience would not regard as fantastic at all, means that he can better be understood as a writer of 19th-century Science Fiction (see SFE). Stories such as "A Ghost's Tale" (1888), in which the Cardiff Giant makes a desultory appearance, and "The Canvasser's Tale" (1876), about a man who collects echoes, have more in common with the Tall Tale and the topical satire than with the fantastic.

Supernatural elements in Twain's short fiction tend to be employed as devices for specific effects, as in "A Horse's Tale" (1906), which is told in part by Buffalo Bill's horse, who sometimes speaks (see Talking Animals), although only to other horses. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving, MT wrote in an era when the US short story was still an offshoot of various folk and humorous traditions; most examples published before the 1880s can be (generously) defined as fantastic.

MT's longer works, even when dealing with such elements as Time Travel – like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889; vt A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur) – Gothic themes and medieval settings, were essentially scientific. While No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger: Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug, and Freely Translated from the Jug (written 1897-1908; in corrupt form as The Mysterious Stranger 1916; restored text in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts 1969; solo 1982 vt with subtitle added), with its superhuman protagonist – identified in the earliest draft as the "Young Satan" – seems an unequivocal fantasy, the character's full name in the final version, "Number 44, New Series 864,962", suggests a bureaucratic cosmology not unlike MT's other tales of Heaven and Earth; and while the species to which the protagonist belongs are forthrightly called "dream-sprites", MT's striking description of such creatures travelling through the Universe at "thought-speed" has greater affinities with the fiction of Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) than with most spritely fantasies. Despite numerous points of correspondence with fantasy, MT cannot unanimously be claimed as a fantasist. [GF]

see also: A Connecticut Yankee.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.