‘Is He Living Or Is He Dead?’ by Mark Twain

Is He Living Or Is He Dead? by Mark Twain, 1893

The magic trick:

Melding satire with plot

Sometimes I find Mark Twain’s short stories to be a little flimsy. He has the nugget of a funny idea that never expands to justify the story’s length. Or sometimes he is so angry that the plot is drowned out by the sharpening of his knives.

“Is He Living Or Is He Dead?” is not flimsy. It’s a funny, clever, angry little nugget of an idea that hits all its marks and still entertains throughout the text. The plot is the idea, so there’s no danger of it running its course early on and sputtering out. It draws on Maupassant and foretells O. Henry in that way. But mainly it’s a vicious satire of the art business – namely the masses whose taste (or lack thereof) make the reputations of painters. I won’t ruin it for those who still want to read it. But it is a nice little ball of plot entwined with satire. And that’s quite a story on Twain’s part. 

The selection:

‘There was no response, unless a mournful silence may be called a response. Carl got up, and walked nervously up and down a while, then said:

‘”It’s a shame! Look at these canvases: stacks and stacks of as good pictures as anybody in Europe paints–I don’t care who he is. Yes, and plenty of lounging strangers have said the same–or nearly that, anyway.”

‘”But didn’t buy,” Millet said.

‘”No matter, they said it; and it’s true, too. Look at your ‘Angelus’ there! Will anybody tell me–”

‘”Pah, Carl–My ‘Angelus!’ I was offered five francs for it.”


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One thought on “‘Is He Living Or Is He Dead?’ by Mark Twain

  1. What’s great about SSMT: not only spotlighting minor writers we should all get to know, but discovering obscure stories by the classic authors like today’s Mark Twain and the previous Hawthorne piece. Makes us (in a healthy way) anxious towards all we are probably missing. Good critique of Twain’s “Living/Dead” story, too.

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