‘A Scrap of Curious History’ by Mark Twain: Short Story Analysis
‘A Scrap of Curious History’ is a fictional essay in Edwardian style penned by American writer Mark Twain, the father of American literature. ‘A Scrap of Curious History’ is the sixth essay of fifteen published under the title What Is Man? and Other Essays. It deals with the fictional history of abolitionism in a Missouri town in the nineteenth century. We are told how notoriety and fame cause people, mostly the young, to risk their lives. The young and impressionable are ready for the sake of glory to sacrifice their lives for issues. When they offer their lives, others who see how they were held in high esteem get emboldened and take their place. Twain gives a fictitious example of this principle in his short essay cum story ‘A Scrap of Curious History’. Here the sub-topic of slavery is tackled indirectly. Twain tries to show that the American Civil War of 1861-1865 took place because of these abolitionists. We notice that he compares France’s abolitionists with those of America, especially his boyhood area of Missouri. This short story’s objective is to show how people crave fame even if it is only for a short time. Their intent at rebellion may not be against slavery of the African-American but gaining glory and stardom by going against the norms of society.
‘A Scrap of History’ starts with Twain comparing an incident in France’s village called La Bourboule-Les-Bains with his village in Missouri. The incidents are about fifty years apart, and the American incident takes place before the French. Mark Twain writes that he was in France when a particular situation occurred, which reminded him of his own village’s abolitionists. In France, the rowdy French elements had come to lynch the Italian waiters and workers in the hotel where Mark Twain stayed in France. They were thankfully sent away by the policemen of France. That did not happen in Missouri. Missouri was noted for the prevalence of slavery. It is here that a young thirty-year-old man overnight turned into an abolitionist. The young man declared that he was against slavery and denounced the evil practice, which shocked everyone in the village. Now, the term abolitionist is a person who favors the abolition of a practice or institution, like capital punishment or slavery. The name of the young man who became an abolitionist was Robert Hardy. Hardy was a young man who was a loner and an introverted personality who loved to read and be by himself. He declared that he was against slavery in Missouri. Twain says that Hardy was like:
- The Ravochals, Henrys, Vaillants, and Cesarios of America. The previously mentioned names were all examples of French Anarchists. Anarchism is a political philosophy and movement that is skeptical of authority and rejects all involuntary, coercive forms of hierarchy. Anarchism calls for the abolition of the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful.
- At first, Robert Hardy was deemed mad because he was going against a sacred institution in Missouri.
- The Missouri people wanted to lynch and kill Hardy but were prevented from doing so by a quick-acting Methodist Priest. This same Methodist Priest would also stall the hands of the village people when Robert Hardy killed a constable who was trying to stop a Black slave from escaping the region to Illinois away from slavery. The name of this priest was Damon Williams. He was a priest who otherwise preached a lot about the Last Judgement and Damnation. However, he was a man with the wisdom to know that Hardy was not doing anything wrong and tried to save him and make his voice heard.
- When Hardy started to give speeches against slavery, he was declared to be insane. He was ignored and treated with indifference until the day he killed a white constable to save an escaped slave’s life.
Twain mentions the trial of Hardy and how he met his end at the scaffold. The village people of Missouri made the whole event seem like a picnic. They brought cakes and cider bottles to enjoy while watching him hang to death. They even bought scraps of his rope with which he was hung to death as souvenirs for the event. Notice how Twain shows this side of the Missouri people, which was disgusting and cruel, and yet, the parody is that the same people thought Hardy to be a madman. This scene of Missouri’s people having a picnic and buying the local newspaper that featured the story of Hardy is somewhat similar in tone to the French Revolution and how the common man in France got rid of their dictators or wrongdoers. However, in France’s case, they were in the right, and they were killing those who had persecuted them. In Missouri’s case, they were killing and enjoying the death of a good man.
Mark Twain mentions that Hardy was genuine about his cry against the evil of slavery. However, there are many impressionable youths in this world. Even in the Missouri of that time who would take up the banner of Hardy not mainly because they believed in his cause, but because they saw the fame Hardy met with in the village:
- The newspaper solely focused on his story.
- Hardy’s picture was placed in the newspaper and was even the first terrifying picture ever to be printed in the locality newspaper.
- Hardy was talked about by everyone, those who knew him personally and those who did not.
- He died publicly in a grand manner.
- He died as a martyr.
Seeing all this glory with notoriety which came to Hardy, four other youths took his place and took up his cause against the evil practice of slavery in Missouri. These young men were:
- Ed Smith.
- Dick Savage.
- Will Joyce.
- Henry Taylor.
They were all boys of the locality who no one would ever have thought would have ideas about abolitionism. But that is the point here in this story by Mark Twain. These four young men were leading dull lives. Maybe Ed Smith being a total devotee of the Lord and knowing the evilness of slavery, was steadfast in his convictions but not the others. The others were in this because they were:
- Leading dull lives.
- Hardy’s death was, in their eyes, a way to lead a meaningful life.
- They felt that Hardy’s cause was a noble one and was eager to follow in his footsteps.
- They longed to be deviants in society, a society with which they were technically bored, rather than their approval of slavery.
- They would at least be remembered after their deaths like Hardy and Joyce the Martyr Orator.
- They would be part of a group of people who made them feel wanted and loved because of their similar convictions.
- They wanted to die in a blaze of glory.
Notice in this story titled ‘A Scrap of Curious History’ how Mark Twain, in his unique narrative style, brings up the topic of the assassination or murder of the Presbyterian clergyman Rev. Hiram Fletcher. He shows how different Rev. Hiram was to the Methodist Priest Damon Williams. Rev. Williams wanted to keep peace and try to understand the abolitionists’ needs; Rev. Hiram just wanted to denounce them because he was totally for the evil practice of slavery. The Methodist knew that Hardy had fought for the right cause. Rev. Hiram, on the other hand, deemed them evil and wanted to reveal certain truths about them. He threatened to make these known on the coming Sunday. Rev. Hiram, however, would not live to see Sunday because one of the young men, Will Joyce, would plant dynamite in the clergyman’s house and kill him with his slave woman. Notice that there is a difference over here from the Hardy case:
- Hardy killed the police constable because he wanted to set a runaway slave free.
- Joyce killed the Presbyterian clergyman because he was against the community of the abolitionists.
- Joyce did not care for the slave woman he would kill along with the clergyman. That was because he was not like Hardy. He did not have any feelings for the cause but just wanted the glory.
- There is a subtle hint of the sexual relations between the clergyman and his slave woman.
- Joyce tried to save the secrets of his society and not help the slaves of Missouri.
As I read this story, I could picture Mark Twain, a great orator, narrating this fictional account to a packed audience and everyone hanging on his every word. He often told stories from his repertoire to entertain his audience. He was as good a lecturer as Charles Dickens was in England. This was brought to my notice in a book I read and reviewed recently titled The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. The text indicates that during the 1890s, when Mark Twain must have penned this essay, he was at the height of his career, eclipsing the other bohemian writers who were a part of his San Francisco circle. Reading this short story cum essay titled ‘A Scrap of Curious History’ makes me also think of young people who are lured by terrorist groups and other cults just so that they can feel a part of a group and die in a blaze of glory. People like Joyce die, thinking that their memory will always remain in the minds of those living in their small hometown and will always be treated like heroes. They are seriously wrong and incorrect in thinking so. Terrorism only leads to pain, sorrow, and carnage. There is nothing grand about dying for a terrorist cause. I have reviewed a book In the Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Erelle, which shows the truth of how vulnerable young people are enticed into joining terrorist groups. You can check out my review on my blog.
After Joyce assassinated the Presbyterian clergyman, he openly divulges that he was the assassinator. He mentions every single detail of the killing along with the witnesses to the killing. He is killed with all pomp and splendor if you could call dying at the scaffold a grand death. He dies asking that his death be avenged, and after his death, 20 young boys join the abolitionist. Here Twain tries to tell Missouri that to stand up for a cause is good, but violence for that cause is not always the way out. He also deters young people from joining violent institutions that breed people like cannon fodder for their violent aims. Such organizations only know how to generate fear and not peace, dialogue, and intellectual debates. Thus, he tells them not to use violence to make their voices heard in society. Mark Twain ends the story cum essay on the crucial point that such little violent scenes turn into great wars later. Maybe he was hinting at the American Civil War, which would take place later, and he felt it happened partly because of the abolitionists. In the story titled ‘A Scrap of Curious History’, the title is misleading because the essay is entirely fictional. However, one last point I would like to draw your attention to is man’s reaction towards something new.
Notice that in the story, the villagers were either astounded by what they saw or were ready to lynch and even kill the young abolitionists for even verbally going against something they had been doing from time immemorial. It is always exceedingly difficult to change with the times. The best way to react is through civil dialogue across the table rather than violence. So, there was violence on the part of the abolitionists and the part of the public who could not stomach new ideas and new ways of perceiving old institutions. Hopefully, we will never incite violence among one another to get things done but encourage debate to settle issues. I hope peace is maintained in this manner, especially in America.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Mark Twain. I will be reading, reviewing, and analyzing more American bookish content till January. This is in keeping with the fact that one of the most crucial American elections has just happened. I wish to celebrate the literature of America during this period. So, if you are looking for more American bookish content, this is the site you must keep watching. I love Mark Twain as a writer and his classic books. I always encourage my students to read his works to improve their language. If you are an educator and are trying to encourage your children to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on my blog’s products page.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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