Cannonball Read 2: Book 11: Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts by Mark Twain

I'm obsessed with unfinished manuscripts. It's true. I take comfort in knowing that many writers (my guess is all of them except Stephen King) have writing they just never get around to finishing for one reason or another. For some, it's death. For others, it's the inability to find the right tone. And for others, it's utter craziness on the part of trying to recapture their childhood memories through a quasi-religious exploration of the nature of angels and the corruption of Catholicism. 

I'm writing, of course, about Mark Twain's No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger: Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug and Freely Translated from the Jug. Or is it Mark Twain's The Chronicle of Young Satan? Or is it Mark Twain's Schoolhouse Hill?

The answer is all three.

Mark Twain began work on his unfinished novel/story/novel/fragment around 1890, and continually churned out new chapters/versions/settings and burned large middle passages for twenty years. His obsession was only stopped by death. After his death, a well-meaning editor, Albert Bigelow Paine, published The Mysterious Stranger, A Romance with substantial edits and a new ending he swore he found in Twain's manuscripts. He didn't. It was a fraud and the entire effort was to protect Twain from accusations of sacrilege against Catholicism and other organized face. He also thought the tone was way out of sync with the rest of the canon and merged the humorous events from two manuscripts into the more serious plot of another to produce his edition. I have also read this version knowing it wasn't entirely real and still enjoyed it.

The basic conceit is fascinating and probably accounts for how I can't stop reading all the supposed true versions of the manuscripts. A group of young boys in a small village--sometimes in Austria, sometimes in America--stumble upon a mysterious stranger in a park. The stranger can produce many magical feats, such as providing food and bringing life to clay, and eventually introduces himself as Satan. No, not the prince of darkness; this is Satan's nephew, practically a child himself in the slow growth of angels. He is without sin, as only his uncle was foolish enough to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, fight God, and be banished to eternal damnation. Young Satan lives by a literal code of mercy, where the only answer to end sustained suffering is preemptive death. Seeing as he can (or can't, or kind of can) see into the future, this turns into a major issue in (some of) the manuscripts.

Why so much background information? Because I finished plowing through a critical examination of the three principle manuscripts, the major fragments, and many other sources on this unfinished work of Mark Twain in Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts from the UCLA Berkeley Press. It's the only printed edition of this kind available and a fascinating read.

The version most people are familiar with, if they're familiar with it, is The Chronicle of Young Satan. Three young boys in Austria are torn between the influence of the new priest, the legacy and struggle of the old priest, and the kind young angel with a friendly face and sweet disposition capable of producing miracles. Against the advice of the new priest, the boys continue to see young Satan in an effort to improve their lives. They ask that he take care of the old priest and his daughter who can barely afford a loaf of bread and that he change the future to spare their good friend from a life of unending suffering worse than anything they could imagine. Young Satan, with his pure form of mercy, considers only the clearest method for each request. He provides the old priest with a cat that can produce food an money whenever they need it, leading to accusations from the town of witchcraft and ill-gotten gains. He spares the friend's suffering by arranging it so that he will die by the end of the week while he is happy. The young boys become increasingly horrified with the destructive consequences of Satan's mercy. Unfortunately, this version ends right smack in the middle of the next series of actions, often leading me to assume a wonderful speech from Satan after the mercy killing is the proper end of the book rather than all the unfinished nonsense in India. If you've seen the infamous "banned children's cartoon"from The Adventures of Mark Twain, you've seen my favorite scene (the clay) and this speech in gorgeous claymation. Be aware that the cartoon went with menacing, when Satan's is supposed to be nothing but charm and likability even when getting all stabby.

The second version, Schoolhouse Hill, is the shortest and the biggest departure from the other two editions. Instead of three boys in Austria, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn discover young Satan and go on a series of adventures. This version is fine, but is more about a few cheap jokes than exploring the nature of faith and mercy. Perhaps more than the other true manuscripts, Schoolhouse Hill causes the most discussion solely because it introduces the notion of Satan being called No. 44. The actual written manuscripts and notes show a wide variety of numbers in series of numbers used to express the identity of Satan, from 404 to 96, eventually leading to 44. The obsession? Trying to figure out why it's that number and not any other. 

The third significant version, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, is the only version with an ending. It's also the version that Twain felt the most compelled to destroy while writing. Twain makes ample use of a printing press as a variety of metaphors relating to faith. Young Satan, now fully No. 44, believes in the power of the word and eventually uses the press to duplicate himself. This text introduces a castle magician, Balthazar, who is determined to eliminate No. 44 as a threat at all costs. The town begins burning duplicates at the stake, though each duplicate always returns to the print shop to continue working. The local priest sides with the original No. 44 but believes the duplicates are evil. No. 44 falls in love with his daughter and does everything he can to marry her. Eventually, when everything is falling apart in a wave of chaos, No. 44 vanishes in thin air. More than the other manuscripts, this one contemplates the nature of existence. Here, Satan is not an angel for he reveals everything and everyone is only a passing thought and will eventually disappear as he does at the end of the story.

The writing of the manuscripts is what you would expect from Twain: clean, thoughtful, and full of meaning in unexpected ways. The character of young Satan is especially compelling in all three texts, though No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger really starts to build up the townspeople as more important to the story. If I had to guess, the third version is the closest to what Twain wanted to achieve. The first goes too far into fantasy once it hits India and the second is just treading water in the universe of Tom and Huck.

If you have the time, investigating all three major manuscripts is a worthwhile endeavor for fans of Twain. If not, I would recommend giving The Chronicle of Young Satan a go as it really stands out as a beautifully rendered concept piece. The issue, unfortunately, is with titling. When I first encountered The Chronicle, it was mislabeled No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger on Project Gutenberg. There are editions of all three available that almost always take that title so finding the right one is needlessly confusing. Then, there's that Paine version still kicking around that throws everything off more. It's worth the effort to find the edition you want.

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