The nineteenth century was a time of tremendous and fast-paced change in the United States—social, political, cultural, and technological upheaval and innovation swept the country. A good portion of this change occurred in and was the result of the movement westward. Pioneers of all sorts travelled west to establish farms, cattle ranches, mining towns, and cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, and San Francisco. Living on the frontier meant developing new tools to work with, new sets of rules and laws, new attitudes toward one’s fellow men (and women), and most importantly, a willingness to cooperate and respect one another’s differences, whether those might be religious, political, ethnic, or racial. Old and established traditions often had to give way to new, untried methods and ways of thinking. To survive, Westerners had to adapt and form their own new standards and traditions. This cultural shift was reflected in and fostered by the literature of the time as well. Writers such as Bret Harte, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and Mark Twain all wrote about and contributed to a discussion of uniquely American issues—racism and slavery, political corruption, urban sprawl and environmental degradation, and a certain loss of innocence or idealism as America shifted from a primarily rural, agricultural economy to an industrialized, urban-centered one. Writers of the era created new forms of writing for many of the same reasons that entrepreneurs of the era invented new products and services: to satisfy public needs and tastes.
Mark Twain was probably the most famous of American writers during his century and he certainly was responsible for perfecting the genre of American humorous writing which included the tall tale, political and social satire, and the travelogue. Roughing It is a combination of all three, a compilation of stories and incidents based on Twain’s real-life experiences as he traveled westward in the early 1860s with his brother, Orion, who had been named Secretary of the Territory of Nevada by President Lincoln. In Roughing It, Twain tweaks facts to create humorous fiction—a genre that in his mind is uniquely American. Twain defines the characteristics of the American humor story in his essay “How to Tell a Story,” and distinguishes between comic and witty stories which he believes are European in origin, and the humorous story which is an American invention. A good example of the American humorous story is the tale of the tree-climbing buffalo in Roughing It. This yarn exhibits several of the traits that Twain says characterize humorous stories and make them unmistakably American.
Early in his essay Twain emphasizes a key element of the humorous story: it “depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling…” (Twain 12). A number of traits contribute to the particular manner of telling a humorous story. It may be “spun out to great length, and may wander around…and arrive nowhere in particular…” (12). In addition, the telling of the humorous story is an art, and one that few have the talent to practice. Finally, the story must be told “by word of mouth, not print” (12). Does Bemis’ story about the buffalo meet these requirements? Let’s take a look. If one reads the story aloud, it does indeed require several minutes of time, and mastering the nuances of Bevis’ speech, as well as the story’s language, can require several practice readings if one wants to deliver the story appropriately in terms of tone and pacing. The story does wander or digress at certain points as well. For example, the first few sentences of the story are a sort of prologue—Bemis is angrily responding to the jests of the others in the buffalo-hunting party who have laughed at his predicament. But we don’t yet know what his actual predicament has been. His companions saw him gallop off being chased by a wounded buffalo, but they did not know the outcome of his adventure until he returned and told the story. And we’re told by the narrator that Bemis was so upset by his experience that he refused to discuss it until twenty-four hours after his return. In addition to expressing his anger at his companions, and thereby delaying the telling of the tale, Bemis also complains about his horse’s reaction to the situation: “If I had had a horse worth a cent—but no, the minute he saw that buffalo bull…he raised straight up in the air and stood on his heels” (16). That the story has been delayed in the telling no doubt arouses the audience’s curiosity as to exactly what happened to put Bemis in such a bad mood. Bemis’ preliminary rants sidetrack the story, thereby prolonging its telling and the revelation of important details to his listeners. The effect is to keep listeners (and readers) absorbed and involved in the story as they try to determine what happened. And along the way Bemis’ audience tries to figure out to what end the story is leading, what its point is.
Twain names some additional traits of the humorous story as he continues to define it and distinguish it from the comic or witty story. The humorous story “is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it” (12). Bemis is certainly serious while telling the story. He’s also angry at being laughed at and irritated when listeners ask questions or doubt his veracity. As Bemis begins describing the bull’s ascent up the tree, one of his listeners interrupts him in the following exchange:
“But a bull can’t climb a tree.”
“He can’t, can’t he? Since you know so much about it, did you ever see a bull try?”
“No! I never dreamt of such a thing.”
Well, then, what is the use of your talking that way, then? Because you never saw a thing done, is that any reason why it can’t be done?”
“Well, all right—go on. What did you do?” (17-18)
Bemis’ questioner is put on the defensive and since he cannot answer, he must allow the story to continue in its own way. However incredible the events of the tale may be, it possesses its own internal logic and must be allowed to continue working its way toward an endpoint. Hearers and readers may wonder, question, doubt, but as they search for meaning, they have to stay with the story to its conclusion if they want satisfaction about the outcome. Bemis’ story, like all stories, may contain clues as to its meaning, but as Twain observes, the art is in telling the story without helping the listener/reader find or interpret those hints. The audience should not be coached; that ruins the story’s effect, destroys its drama and its suspense. It’s up to Bemis’ listeners to make of his story what they will.
Twain sums up his definition of the humorous story as follows:
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art…Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause (13).
Of course Bemis’ story is full of absurdities and incongruities. For example, he describes the horse as rearing up on its hind legs and then doing a sort of handstand on its forelegs. When the bull rushes at them, the horse behaves like “a raving distracted maniac” and proceeds to “stand on his head for a quarter of a minute and shed tears” (16). Even the bull seems surprised at the horse’s behavior and stops to “contemplate the inhuman spectacle” (16). And once Bemis is treed, he continues to worry that the bull will be able to get to him—by “thinking of one thing” (16). Neither we nor Bemis’ listeners have any idea what he’s afraid of, nor do we believe a bull can think in the sense that we understand it. We’re baffled. But the bull does indeed outwit Bemis and begins his climb up the tree. Luckily for Bemis, his saddle has landed in the tree near him and he’s able to make use of it as well as his until now useless Allen pistol which we’ve been told never hits what it’s aimed at. The bull’s ascent is slow and arduous, but at last he “hitched his foot over the stump of a limb” ready to attack his prey. The ridiculousness of this image is undermined by Bemis’ absolute and solemn terror as he recounts his situation in facing almost certain death. The tone overrides his listeners’ common sense; they are caught up in their “willing suspension of disbelief” while the story plays out. Bemis lassos the bull, shoots him in the face with the Allen and shimmies down the tree to run for safety. He’s overcome a wily enemy against incredible odds and has lived to tell about it. All of this seems impossible once the story is concluded and one of his listeners asks for “proof” of the story’s truth. Bemis’ answer is to swear an oath: “I wish I may rot in my tracks and die the death of a dog if it isn’t” (18). This isn’t proof, it’s just a statement about the teller’s complete belief in his story. The listeners can only answer: “Well, we can’t refuse to believe it, and we don’t” (18). Yet they still ask for proof. Under pressure, Bemis responds by offering “negative proof”:
“Proofs! Did I bring back my lariat?”
“Did I bring back my horse?”
“Did you ever see the bull again?”
“Well, then, what more do you want? I never saw anybody as particular as you are about a little thing like that” (18).
The narrator remains uncertain of what to make of Bemis’ story—or Bemis. Within the context of the story there’s no way to prove that he’s a liar and his tone, his manner of telling it, and the fact that very little about Bemis’ character is known by the narrator or any of his fellows, makes for reasonable doubt. Twain’s narrator is left wondering: “I made up my mind that if this man was not a liar he only missed it by the skin of his teeth” (18).
But perhaps the point of the story is that the narrator himself is struggling to differentiate between fact and fiction as his journey west exposes him to all sorts of incredible characters and events. And sometimes the line between the two is blurred, particularly when a person is confronted with a strange new world whose conventions he doesn’t understand. In that case, it’s probably best to listen, enjoy, and forbear to pass judgment until one has acquired more experience and knowledge of this foreign territory. Twain’s journey west certainly provided him with a wealth of experiences to write about then and later, but it’s only in looking back on those days that he begins to find their meaning and to create art out of them—books such as Roughing It, Innocents Abroad, and of course Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
The buffalo story, then, does fit Twain’s definition of the American humorous story. It’s a typically Western humor story, set in a particular region—the Nevada desert plains—and employing a set of colorful events and characters (including the horse and the buffalo). The tone in which it’s told, the digressions, the absurd descriptions and events (such as the buffalo swinging his leg over a tree limb), the gravity of the storyteller, all these elements contribute to making it a Western humor piece written by an American master of the art--Mark Twain.
Twain, Mark. “How to Tell a Story.” American Literature Since the Civil War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 12-15.
---. “From Roughing It [When the Buffalo Climbed a tree]” American Literature Since the CivilWar. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 16-18.