Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Mark Twain's Recovered Comic Voice in "You've Been a Dam Fool/Damfool, Mary"

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Mark Twain's Recovered Comic Voice in "You've Been a Dam Fool/Damfool, Mary"

Article excerpt


We laugh and laugh,

Then cry and cry-

Then feebler laugh,

Then die.

- Mark Twain's Notebook (1898)

Early in 2001, a donation was made to the Mark Twain Archive at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. The gift contained a letter-from Samuel Clemens's secretary, Isabel Lyon, to the General Manager of Harper & Brothers, Frederick A. Duneka-and two typescripts that were in Duneka's possession at one time.1 One of these typescripts, that of the story "You've Been a Damfool, Mary. You Always Was," deserves special attention. This "Damfool" story was not published until sixty-two years after Clemens's death and, even then, derived from the handwritten manuscript because the typescript was thought to be lost; for this reason, the typescript becomes extremely valuable because it contains previously unknown changes to the story and discloses Twain's desired outcome as he revised and edited it before submitting it to Duneka for print.2 An examination of the work reveals the significance of the story, because it indicates his recovered comic voice near the end of his career, especially when the tale is read alongside another of Twain's stories, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." It is my intention here to argue for it as a classroom-worthy text for the ways in which it sheds light on the author late in life, reflects essential characteristics of Twain's writing, and unveils the publication history of the story as it advanced toward-yet ultimately failed to reach-print during Clemens's lifetime.

William R. Macnaughton has efficiently summarized-if slightly oversimplified-the story as follows:

[The tale is] based upon a true incident about a Southern man's attempts, after the Civil War, to locate a prewar Northern friend in order to pay back a debt incurred while they had been business partners. In the tale the Northerner is found, is discovered to be in bad financial shape because of his kindness to those indebted to him, and then is rescued in a Tom Sawyerish auction scene in which his Southern friend rewards his patience with $600,000. When this happens, the uncle of the Northerner's former fiancée, who has left him because of his poverty, says, "You've been a dam fool, Mary. You always was!" (197)

Scholarship on the "Damfool" story is limited. John S. Tuckey addressed the story in 1972 in a one-paragraph introduction in Mark Twain's Fables of Man (249-250). William R. Macnaughton briefly mentioned it in reference to the 37,000 words Twain produced for Harper & Brothers early in 1904.3 Macnaughton's comments, written in 1979, are presented here in their entirety to illustrate the minor status he accords the text:

"You've Been a Dam Fool, Mary" is the weakest of the three [stories written during this time], being a fairly long, sentimental, moralistic story.... The story is pleasant, but noteworthy only because of the way in which its themes-money properly used, greed transcended by friendship, desire for gain thwarted by kindness-contrast with the thematic implications of "Sold to Satan" and "The $30,000 Bequest." Mark Twain probably liked this story primarily because it was based upon fact and for this reason provided a believable counterexample to tendencies that he saw everywhere around him and strongly within himself." (197, emphasis added)

In order to examine the fullest value of the "Damfool" story, one has to look back to a period several years before its composition that proved to be devastating to Twain as a family man and as a writer, the 1890s: the death of his mother in 1890, his departure from the Hartford house in 1891, his bankruptcy in 1894, Susy's death in 1896, and Orion's death in 1897. Bernard DeVoto eloquently describes the effects of this period in time on Clemens: "The gods had turned against their darling ... It is obvious that such events as these cannot occur to the man without happening to the artist as well" (108). This string of ill-fated events was the catalyst for a great deal of the author's cynicism. …

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