Review of Mark Twain’s “How to Tell A Story”:
The American humorous story
In “How to Tell a Story” by Mark Twain, he attempts to explain how one should tell a “humorous” or funny story. He also goes on about the how an American humorous story differs from a European comic or witty story. Twain explains that when one tells a humorous story, the manner in which the story is told is much more important then the actual content. The humorous story is told gravely and the teller does their best to obscure the fact that there is anything funny about the story. Rambling or a longwinded explanation of irrelevant facts is often used to conceal the “nub” or punch line at the end of the story. Finally, quite possibly the most important characteristic of an American humorous story, the pause that is a recurring feature through out the story. This review will examine how Twain uses these principals in “How to Tell a Story” explaining the art form that is the American humorous story.
The first characteristic of how to tell a humorous story is in the teller’s demeanor when telling the story. They must remain serious, straight-faced, dull-witted, etc. as to not lead on to how funny the story may actually be. Twain explains the difference between telling a comic and humorous story with “The Wounded Soldier”. When told as a comic story the reader uses energetic voices to depict different characters and trivial name
calling “you mean his head, you booby” (Twain, 13) which brings light to impending nub. Where as the same story as told by a “dull-witted farmer who has just heard it for the first time” (Twain, 13) becomes humorous, because the listener does not know when or if there will be a punch line to it. Twain explains how this dim-witted manor of telling a story adds to the humor with “The Golden Arm” as well. Twain suggest that the narrator of the story is an uneducated black man just by the way he tells the story, “Once ‘pon a time dey wuz a monsus mean man” (Twain, 14). The slang and how it is presented is what makes this story humorous, not the actual content.
A longwinded narrator is another very common feature among American humorous short stories. As Twain states when listening to a humorous story “the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from the nub…” (Twain, 12). This tactic is used to keep the listener attentive and interested in the story since most of the content is irrelevant anyhow. In the second paragraph of “The Golden Arm” Twain rambles about the narrator’s actions, “en he bent his head down ‘gin de win’, and plowed en plowed en plowed thoo de snow…” (Twain, 14). Instead of just telling the listener that the man was walking through the snow, Twain draws them in with “en plowed en plowed en plowed” adding to the humor of the story. Twain also adds to the length of the story by placing seemingly unnecessary pauses though out the story.
Finally, possibly the most important element of the American humorous story is “the pause”. Whether throughout the text or right before the “nub” or punch line, a pause with the proper length is crucial. If the pause is too short the listener will not have to
contemplate what is going to happen, and if it is too long the reader will not be able to surprise the listener (Twain, 14). In “The Golden Arm” Twain gives guidance, at length in some instants, of when to pause and what to do while telling the story. The listener receives a sense of humor in the last two lines of “The Golden Arm” without the narrative, “Den de voice say, right at his year—“W-h-o—g-o-t—m-y—g-o-l-d-e-n arm?”…..”You’ve got it!””(Twain, 15). If the teller of the story can time the pause of the nub “You’ve got it” just right, along with the other elements of an American humorous story the ghost story becomes a humorous one.
To conclude, “How to Tell a Story” fits into the category of an American humorous story, according to Mark Twain. Twain even used the elements of a humorous story in the explain of how to tell one. “How to Tell a Story” is longwinded in its explanation, it is mono-tone and boring if the reader is not attentive, and Twain uses slight pauses to ensure the reader is focused on the plot of the story.
Twain, Mark. “How to Tell a Story”. American Literature Since the Civil War. Created edition. McGraw-Hill, 2011. 12-15. e-Book.