Selling the Sketches

Of the half-dozen books which Mark Twain published during the 1870s, two of his least remembered are also among his most important. Sketches, New and Old (1875, a detail from the frontispiece shown here) and Punch, Brothers, Punch! and other Sketches (1878) are collections from Twain's "alternate writing career"—brief magazine pieces, some short stories, a sprinkling of speeches, and other occasional material. Dating from as far back as his roving days in Nevada and California, the topics themselves jump all over the map, but their wide appeal and distribution kept Twain's name in constant view of the broader reading public. When the door-to-door salesmen went calling with Twain's major travel and fiction books, they could begin their pitch—the lines below were given to the canvassers pitching one of Twain's subscription books—with the utmost confidence:

I have got specimen pages of Mark Twain's latest and greatest book. There is not occasion for me to talk to you about Mark Twain; there is not a man, woman or child in the United States that does not know him as AMERICA'S GREATEST HUMORIST….  

A handful of Twain's sketches poke fun at his own calling: journalists, editors, sketch-writers desperate for any angle or print opportunity. One sketch pokes fun at the lowly door-to-door canvassers by which Twain's literary career prospered. The salesman in A Canvasser's Tale comes knocking with the most evanescent of products—a collection of echoes bequeathed to him by his uncle:

"Of what?" said I.

Echoes, sir. His first purchase was an echo in Georgia that repeated four times; his next was a six-repeater in Maryland; his next was a thirteen-repeater in Maine; his next was a nine-repeater in Kansas; his next was a twelve-repeater in Tennessee, which he got cheap, so to speak, because it was out of repair, a portion of the crag which reflected it having tumbled down….

Twain himself had a dangerously soft spot for unlikely ventures; his narrator, tired out from opening his door to hopeful men and hopeless products, was a harder sell:

"Let me interrupt you," I said. "My friend, I have not had a moment's respite from canvassers this day. I have bought a sewing-machine which I did not want; I have bought a map which is mistaken in all its details; I have bought a clock which will not go; I have bought a moth poison which the moths prefer to any other beverage; I have bought no end of useless inventions, and now I have had enough of this foolishness. I would not have one of your echoes if you were even to give it to me. I would not let it stay on the place. I always hate a man that tries to sell me echoes. You see this gun? Now take your collection and move on; let us not have bloodshed."

The two collections themselves found a readership among those who preferred the shorter laugh. The following is excerpted from one of the 1875 reviews of Sketches, New and Old:

This is the kind of book to take up while a patient is waiting for a dentist, a passenger for a railway-train, a client for his patron, or a man for a wife or a sister who promised to be dressed in five minutes; and it is good enough to make all of them forget the vexation…


Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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