Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Killing of Julius Cæsar “Localized”

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

Vue de San Francisco / Vista de San-Francisco, c. 1860, hand-colored lithograph printed in Paris by French painter and printmaker Isador Laurent Deroy (1797–1886). Library of Congress.
The following introduction is adapted and expanded from James Shapiro’s headnote to the selection in Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now.

At the end of 1863, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (who had just that year used his pen name, Mark Twain, for the first time) was a 28-year-old journalist working as the Nevada correspondent for a San Francisco newspaper, The Morning Call. The following May he moved to San Francisco and ended up being the paper’s only full-time reporter for over four months, on a salary of forty dollars a week. “It was fearful drudgery—soulless drudgery—and almost destitute of interest,” he later recalled.

During this same period, the humorist and poet Charles Henry Webb was the most prominent contributor to a local magazine, The Golden Era, to which Clemens was an occasional contributor. In the summer of 1864, Webb joined forces with a rising star of the Bay Area literary scene, Bret Harte, to start a rival magazine, and the two men hired the reporter from The Morning Call to write for the new publication at the leisurely pace of once a week. Twain quit his job at the paper, and as he recalled in Roughing It:
C. H. Webb had established a very excellent literary weekly called the Californian, but high merit was no guaranty of success; it languished, and he sold out to three printers, and Bret Harte became editor at $20 a week, and I was employed to contribute an article a week at $12. But the journal still languished, and the printers sold out to Captain Ogden, a rich man and a pleasant gentleman who chose to amuse himself with such an expensive luxury without much caring about the cost of it. When he grew tired of the novelty, he re-sold to the printers, the paper presently died a peaceful death, and I was out of work again. I would not mention these things but for the fact that they so aptly illustrate the ups and downs that characterize life on the Pacific coast. A man could hardly stumble into such a variety of queer vicissitudes in any other country.
Mark Twain’s seventh contribution to The Californian, “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” ran on November 12, 1864, and he liked the story well enough to reprint it three years later in his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. A Boston reviewer of that collection singled out the story and punningly praised it as “a capital rendering” of Caesar’s death.

Twain’s parody cuts two ways: knocking Shakespeare down to size and at the same time imitating the kind of sensationalist newspaper coverage of murders so popular at the time (and to which he himself had contributed when writing for The Morning Call). Twain had been toying with Shakespeare parodies from the outset of his writing career. One of his earliest publications (which appeared in the Keokuk Saturday Post on October 18, 1856) was a burlesque of Julius Caesar, written from the perspective of a country bumpkin, under the name “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.” While in London in 1873, Twain had seen the American actor Edwin Booth play Hamlet, and spoke with him after the performance, suggesting that Hamlet be updated for the times by adding a modern-day comic commentator. Twain soon tried his hand at this addition to Shakespeare’s play, didn’t like what he had written, and burned it. In 1881 he tried again, making his way through Act I and part of Act II. But this too remained unpublished in his lifetime. His most memorable and accomplished Shakespeare parody is the pastiche of the soliloquies of Hamlet and Macbeth that appeared in Chapters 21 and 22 of his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885.

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Nothing in the world affords a newspaper reporter so much satisfaction as gathering up the details of a bloody and mysterious murder, and writing them up with aggravated circumstantiality. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.