Friday, November 19, 2010

Hunting the Deceitful Turkey

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910

Pencil sketch of Mark Twain by Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1906. From S. J. Woolf, Drawn from Life (1932). 
As Americans get ready to prepare their traditional Thanksgiving dinners, it seems only appropriate to offer Mark Twain’s humorous yarn about turkeys of yore. The twist: first you had to catch (and, it should go without saying, kill) them. Filled with Twain’s trademark exaggeration and self-deprecation, this autobiographical childhood memory of the one that got away was eventually meant to be part of a chapter in a much larger undertaking that remained unfinished at his death.

During the late 1890s, Twain began gathering his recollections in a manuscript with the title, “My Autobiography (Random Extracts of It).” The project was very much on his mind; he told the London Times in 1899 that the memoir would not be published until a century after his death. In 1906 be began dictating his reminiscences more energetically and that same year he decided to publish fragments of the work-in-progress in twenty-five issues of the North American Review, with the disclaimer, “No part of the autobiography will be published in book form during the lifetime of the author.”

After Twain’s death, in spite of his wishes for a century-long embargo, his estate allowed various parts of the unfinished work to be published in a number of abridged and cobbled-together versions. But, finally, just a few weeks ago, the first of three volumes of the complete and unexpurgated autobiographical fragments and chapters was published by the University of California Press—and it immediately debuted in the #2 spot on The New York Times Best–Seller List.

The same year that Twain began publishing excerpts in the North American Review, he allowed Harper’s to print “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,” which was an excerpt from the “Random Extracts” manuscript. (Those who own the Autobiography will find the text on pages 218–20, under the heading “Chapter”; what appears below is the minimally edited 1906 magazine version.) Over the years it has proved to be one of Twain’s most popular stories. Weeks after its publication in 1906, an anonymous reviewer in the Literary Digest wrote, “If the account which he gives is authentic, there are grounds for the belief that the mama-turkey is almost as much of a humorist as Mark Twain himself.”

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When I was a boy my uncle and his big boys hunted with the rifle, the youngest boy Fred and I with a shotgun—a small single-barrelled shotgun which was properly suited to our size and strength; it was not much heavier than a broom. We carried it turn about, half an hour at a time. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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