Friday, November 25, 2011

Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels

When Mark Twain was midway through the composition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he and his family embarked on a sixteen-month sojourn in Europe, from April 1878 to August 1879. He used the opportunity to write and publish a travel book in the vein of his earliest success, The Innocents Abroad. When the sequel, A Tramp Abroad, was published in 1880, it sold over sixty thousand copies during its first year and remained his best-selling book until his death thirty years later.

But, like Huckleberry Finn, which would take him eight years to complete, A Tramp Abroad did not come easy. From Europe he wrote to William Dean Howells, his friend and occasional editor, about the frustration of writing while touring.
I wish I could give those sharp satires on European life which you mention, but of course a man can’t write successful satire except he be in a calm judicial good-humor—whereas I hate travel, & I hate hotels, & I hate the opera, [&] I hate the Old Masters—in truth I don’t ever seem to be in a good enough humor with anything to satirize it. . . . I want to make a book which people will read,—& I shall make it profitable reading in spots—in spots merely because there’s not much material for a larger amount.
Alongside his skewering of European customs and language and culture, Twain padded his book with a number of American reminiscences, including one of his most famous “stories,” the blue-jay yarn. Twain had originally heard it from his friend Jim Gillis when they were prospecting for gold in the winter of 1864–65; Twain transforms his friend’s campfire tale into a satire of human perseverance and social behavior—and perhaps he meant the tale to be a profile of a writer trying futilely to fill his book with “profitable reading” in the same way that a desperate blue jay might try to fill a hole with acorns.

Some commentators have also read the story as an allusion to an ill-received speech given by Twain at John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday dinner the year before he left for Europe. In lieu of a speech, Twain told a fanciful, off-color tale of “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson & Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes” showing up drunk at a California miner’s cabin. His attempt at a jovial roast backfired with the bluebloods of New England who, like the owl that visits Yosemite, “couldn’t see anything funny in it.”

This week’s selection—the 100th in the Story of the Week series—was recommended by Errol Van Stralen from Memphis, Tennessee, who remarks that it is “every bit as good as ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’; I believe Twain collected the blue-jay yarn from the same source.” Errol’s recollection is very close to the mark. During the same winter that Jim Gillis and Twain were together prospecting in the California hills, they heard from a old-timer at Angels Camp the celebrated frog yarn that would make Mark Twain an internationally famous celebrity.

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Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can under stand them. I never knew but one man who could. I knew he could, however, because he told me so himself. . . . 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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