Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

"The Golden Arm": Collecting and Performing the Folktale

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

"The Golden Arm": Collecting and Performing the Folktale

Article excerpt

[Editor's Note:Tim Jennings, a storyteller of folktales, is back with another story of a tale and how he presents it. In his previous article, in the Spring-Summer 2014 issue of Voices (, Jennings wrote of performing "Dead Man's Liver," and introduced the storyteller's concept of the "jump tale," in which the storyteller builds suspense, then jumps and shouts loudly to elicit similarly jumps, shouts--and laughter--from the audience. In this new piece, he explores his collection and retelling of Mark Twain's "The Golden Arm," again sharing his storyteller's technique.]


Like many people, I read Mark Twain's "The Golden Arm" when I was a child. My buddy Stevie and I had been swapping scary stories on the school bus ride home. I told him stuff out of Poe--"Tell Tale Heart" was my best--and he told me elements of Lugosi's Dracula, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and most memorably something about "The Mad Axman," who comes into rooms out of any corner that's too dark to see into. (That's one that'll come back to you after bedtime.)

Naturally, I was on the lookout for something new. And here was this compelling, traditional oral tale, transcribed by an author I loved, with instructions for performance. Around 1850, little Sammy Clemens heard it just before bedtime; much later, as the legendarily effective public speaker Mark Twain, he performed it in front of large audiences all around the world and wrote it down in an essay "How to Tell a Story."

His words are fun to read; you can see how they work. Best of all--and rare to this day--in addition to the words of the story, Twain gave tips on how to tell it. Most emphatically, Twain told me (he said "you," so he was definitely talking to me) that the story would create a big effect. But, he said, that would only happen if I could manage the timing on a particular pause just before the final line. He said, "you must get the pause right; and you will find it the most troublesome and aggravating and uncertain thing you ever undertook."

Yes, it was.

Instinctively, I dropped the dialect. (Twain assumed the persona of the black man who had told it to him as a boy.) After the usual early stumblings, I got control of the narrative, so the story would reliably take hold and ratchet up tension all the way to the climax. I shed a lot of sweat over the ending, and by the time I was an adult, I was able to spring what Twain calls "the snapper" without telegraphing its approach.

Twain wasn't lying about that pause. It--or something--was aggravating. Somewhere in my twenties, I began to suspect that the promised final effect never was going to pay off the way Twain said it should.

Nobody gave out a "dear little yelp." I never made anybody "spring right out of her shoes." Sometimes nothing happened. Sometimes something did--maybe their stomachs sank--but it wasn't enjoyable. I might see them shrink a little, or look stunned, or cringe. To tell the truth, they often looked abused. The slow-winding energy of the build never got released, there was no laugh (which you expect from a "snapper"), no sense of fun.

At its most effective, the story left us all feeling stupid and a little sore; it was like being on a roller coaster that goes up and up and up, then at the top somebody slaps you and you have to get out.

Maybe I just didn't have the chops? Then I saw Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain To-night"--lots of chops there--tackle the same story, with similar results to mine.

For a modern teller, it doesn't help that, thanks to Twain's essay, the story is so well known. Much of an audience's enjoyment from this kind of tale comes from the sudden final surprise. As Twain points out, if a listener can figure out the surprise is coming, the whole set-up "fails of its purpose and makes trouble."

It's a problem with all jump tales. …

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