1916 – No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger

1916. The madness of the Great War continues unabated. On the western front, the Battle of the Somme; after 141 days of trench warfare, British and French forces manage to advance six miles into northern France. In the process almost a million soldiers on both sides lose their lives, 67-69,000 casualties on the first day alone. Both sides heavily use gas against each other, and this is the first ever battle in which tanks are introduced – with mixed results. Despite the devastating losses, and failure to achieve a decisive victory, some strategic objectives are achieved; pressure on the French is relieved, the Germans suffer heavy losses, and the battle manages to contribute to the eventual German defeat in 1918.

On the eastern front, things are even worse. The Brusilov Offensive results in a Russian breakthrough, and over a million and a half casualties on both sides. This victory forces Germany to halt one of its own offensives and transfer considerable forces to the east. The victory also hastens the impending doom of the Russian Empire. The staggering casualties are starting to take their toll.

And in the United States, Mark Twain is laughing from his grave because that year Albert Bigelow Paine, after editing out all the good parts, posthumously publishes Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, a novel that heavily satirizes the mad nature of the human condition.

Attack of the Russian cavalry

Samuel Langhorn Clemens, AKA Mark Twain (1835-1910) was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer, considered by many to be the “Father of American Literature.” Twain is best known for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Both his prose and speeches are known for their wit and satire, and they have successfully stood the test of time. His novels and stories are taught in schools and universities all around the world.

Twain was born shortly after Halley’s comet appeared and he died a day after the comet returned. During those 74 years, he managed to start his career as a typesetter, educate himself in public libraries, transition to being a riverboat pilot, enlist in a Confederate unit, fail as a silver miner, become a journalist, oppose slavery, fall in love at first sight, join a Yale secret society, get married, bury his infant son, father three daughters, become a literary success, go bankrupt, sell his house and move to Europe, oppose imperialism, bury two of his daughters, bury his wife, form a girls club, and overcome depression. By the time he was done, he was friends with presidents, artists, industrialists and European Royalty; and had completely reshaped the American literary landscape.

Upon hearing of Twain’s death, President William Howard Taft said:

“Mark Twain gave pleasure – real intellectual enjoyment – to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come … His humor was American, but he was nearly as much appreciated by Englishmen and people of other countries as by his own countrymen. He has made an enduring part of American literature.”

Mark Twain’s library

After his death, Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain’s biographer, was entrusted with his unfinished works. These included four manuscripts for an unfinished novel, Twain was working on intermittently from 1897 to 1908. In 1916, Paine published an edition of this novel based on two of the manuscripts: The Mysterious Stranger. This edition was far from authentic. Several decades later, in 1963, a team of scholars, lead by Jonathan S. Tuckey, examined the original manuscripts, and discovered that Paine had tampered with the text. Paine, with the assistance of the editor Frederick Duneka, crossed out sections, added new passages, and revised the ending. In 1969, the University of California Press published a scholarly edition based on the original manuscripts, and a popular edition was released in 1982, titled: No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.

There now exist two versions of the novel: The 1916 Paine-Dumeka edition which is a completed novel, albeit a literary fraud, and the 1982 University of California Press edition, which is the unaltered, unfinished text. I read the 1982 edition. However, I still feel justified in including it in this series because the source of the confusion started in 1916 when the world was in a very confused state. Also, of course I’m going to include Mark Twain if I can!

No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger is set in 1490, in Eseldorf, Austria, shortly after printing is invented. The book is narrated by August Feldner, a 16 year old printer’s apprentice who lives and works in the Rosenfeld castle, near the town. Shortly after the story begins, a mysterious child appears, “Number 44, New Series 864,962.” His appearance is divisive. The printer, his cook, and August are immediately charmed, while the printers wife and team immediately hate him. It doesn’t help that 44 is constantly performing magic tricks, which are a practice frowned upon by the church back then. 44 then proceeds to sow chaos and take August on adventures, while also pointing out to him the many absurdities of his beliefs and lifestyle. These criticisms pointed out by 44, and told to the reader through the perspective of August, transform the book into an effective and amusing satire of the church dominated society of 1490, and the overall human condition. It’s a shame Twain never finished it. There were many people who could have benefited from reading the book BEFORE plunging the world into chaos.

The Omer today is courage in splendor. Courage is not lacking, the soldiers who fought in the trenches during the Great War possessed it in spades. Splendor is harder to find. There are the many things that were invented or used for the first time during this year: sonar, tanks, advanced forms of chemical of warfare. However, I would hardly call these events splendid. Locating splendor amidst the darkness of 1916 in Europe is difficult – but not impossible. Prior to his departure to the Somme trenches, J. R. R. Tolkien marries the love of his life Edith Brant in England, an event that serves as the inspiration for the story of Lúthien and Beren, a light that survived the darkness of the Great War, and one of the better legacies to be produced during that year (okay, that and the first successful blood transfusions; blood transfusions are important!).

No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger

Author: Mark Twain

Publisher: University of California Press

Published: April 2011 (First Published 1916)

Pages: 214

Format reviewed: Digital