Thursday, May 24, 2012
In A HORSE'S TALE, Guess Who's the Horse's Ass?
Mark Twain wrote a lot. He loved to, but he also had to (debts, foolish investments, a desire to live beyond his means--how very American of him!). So many of his titles are famous--from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--that we tend to overlook his other works, many of which are so far off the cultural radar these days as to be invisible.
In the last years of his life, for example, he wrote quite a few titles that I had never heard of until I started reading them a few years ago. Look at this list from his final decade:
(1901) Edmund Burke on Croker and Tammany (political satire)
(1902) A Double Barrelled Detective Story (fiction)
(1904) A Dog's Tale (fiction)
(1905) King Leopold's Soliloquy (political satire)
(1905) The War Prayer (fiction)
(1906) The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories (fiction)
(1906) What Is Man? (essay)
(1907) Christian Science (non-fiction)
(1907) A Horse's Tale (fiction)
(1907) Is Shakespeare Dead? (non-fiction)
(1909) Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (fiction)
I'm gradually making my way through all of these and just yesterday finished A Horse's Tale, all 153 of its small pages. It starts off as a silly, mildly amusing story about (and for?) a child.
A horse narrates the first chapter. Soldier Boy is Buffalo Bill's horse, and he says things like, "I am the best-educated horse outside of the hippodrome ..." (3). The story progresses in the form of letters among characters and narrations by horses, humans, a dog.
A nine-year-old girl, Cathy, is coming the the Wild West, to a cavalry fort, where she promptly charms everyone and everything. "You never saw such a winning little devil," writes General Alison to his mother (20).
Cathy prances around the post, learns to ride wonderfully, organizes all the other kids into a quasi-military unit (drills them!). She is brave, fearless--not shedding a single tear when she must get stitches in a damaged finger.
A black slave--Dorcas--is in the story, a woman loved by all, too.
One chapter is a conversation between Soldier Boy and another horse identified only as the "Mexican plug." (Plug is slang for an old horse.) They discuss the character of a dog, Shekels, but the plug says he doesn't understand dogs: "Dogmatics is quite beyond me, quite ..." (75).
For more than half the tale we float along on a shallow narrative stream. Readers who know Twain's biography know how much he loved his daughters when they were little girls, how two of them died before he did, how he later formed a group of little girls he called his "Angelfish." (Here's a link to the whole Angelfish thing: Twain's Angelfish.) So the little-girl-at-the-center-of-the-story has even more autobiographical resonance.
But then--as was often the case in Twain's later years--the skies darken, deeply darken.
Buffalo Bill (who adores the little girl--hmmm: Twain and BB bore a physical resemblance!) is nearly murdered; Cathy rides to help him, falls asleep on the way on her horse, topples to the ground, is nearly killed.
Two humans--two of the sort Twain reviled--are talking about bullfighting and about its gore with great relish. And Twain ends their chapter with this discussion of the behavior of timid bulls in the ring:
"... it is the funniest thing in the world to see him hobbling around on his severed legs; the whole vast house goes into hurricanes of laughter over it; I have laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks to see it. When he has furnished all the sport he can, he is not any longer useful, and is killed."
"Well, it is perfectly grand, Antonio, perfectly beautiful. Burning a nigger don't begin" (128).
Reminds you of that line near the end of Huck Finn when Aunt Sally asks Huck if anyone was injured during a riverboat accident.
"No'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt."
Once again, Twain shows the banality of racism--and its obscene cruelty.
Near the end of A Horse's Tale, Cathy goes back to Europe (her home), where Soldier Boy (now with her) is promptly stolen and begins a descent through the equine ranks until he is nothing but walking meat for the bull ring. Years have passed; Cathy has been looking for him. And in the ring she finds him, sees him as he collapses. She runs out into the ring to be with him.
And a bull gores her. "She was never conscious again in life. We bore her home, all mangled and drenched in blood ..." (151).
The story ends a few pages later with more sappy stuff as Twain slaps our faces repeatedly for our romanticism, for our failures to recognize and remedy the horrors right in front of our eyes. Twain recognized the marriage between ignorance and cruelty. And it propelled him into a depression from which he never really emerged.