Published in 1906, The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories is a collection of 30 stories written by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). This book was written near the end of his career and life – just four years before he died – and the pieces were selected by Twain himself to showcase the diversity in his writing.
And showcase that diversity he does. The stories range from short sketches that take a few minutes to read to longer pieces split up into 8-10 very small parts, and there are some longer single works that take less than an hour to read. The works span over 30 years of his career, from 1872 to 1906 and feature a lot of humourous pieces – he WAS a humourist and satirist, after all – but the collection also includes a few more serious works.
Instead of summarizing all 30 stories, I will highlight a few of the pieces.
The title piece, “The $30,000 Bequest” is the first story presented in the book. In eight chapters, Twain provides biting commentary on the institute of marriage and human nature as only he can.
The next story is “A Dog’s Tale”, in which the humourist in Twain takes a seat to tell a grim story of the life of a dog and her puppy. The story can be taken as a straight-up tug-at-your-heartstrings narrative against vivisection, the practice of surgery for the purposes of experimentation on live animals, against which Twain and his daughter were firmly opposed. The story would be used as a pamphlet for the National Anti-Vivisection Society before being further developed into a book. Many people have also used the story as an allegory for just about any situation you can imagine that involves unfair exploitative treatment or abuse, from slavery to capitalistic corruption.
The shortest piece in the book is “A Letter to the Secretary of the Treasury” from 1902. At the time this was written, America was in a deep recession, following a significant 1901 stock crash, and Twain authors a letter to the Secretary of the United States Treasury in which he requests a shipment of bank notes and paper currency that he could burn for various fuels, due to the extreme cost of actual fuel and the relative worthlessness of the currency. In exchange for this consideration, Twain promises to “vote right”.
Twain’s sharp satirical wit appears again in “A Humane Word From Satan”, which was inspired by the 1905 scandal in which the “American Board” (of Commissioners for Foreign Missions – A Church Mission) refused a $100,000 donation from John D. Rockefeller, calling it tainted money. It wasn’t, it’s just that Rockefeller, an amazingly rich industrialist, was not a very popular guy, and the Church organization did not want engage him “in a relationship implying honor toward the donor”. Twain tipped his satirist’s quill toward penning this Letter to the Editor of Harper’s Weekly Magazine as Satan himself on the topic.
In “The Danger of Lying in Bed”, we hear Twain humourously make the case that it’s more dangerous to lie in bed than it is to travel because far more people die in bed than when travelling.
The last few writings are Twain’s imagined excerpts from the diaries of Adam and Eve, if they were to keep such a thing.
The illustrations are as varied as the works themselves. There is a series of Albert Levering panels at the midpoint of the book, depicting scenes from various stories. Levering was an accomplished newspaper artist and connected with Clemens through Harper’s Weekly. The Adam and Eve Diary bits at the end include a pair of the 55 illustrations that Lester Ralph did for an earlier publication of the works. Clemens is reported to have been especially pleased with those illustrations, as the Adam and Eve stories were intended as a tribute to Clemens’ wife Livy and he felt they were appropriately elegant and graceful. William Smedley provided the illustrations for “A Dog’s Tale” when it was originally pulished in Harper’s Weekly, and one of them is reproduced here. Not to be outdone, in the “Amended Obituaries” piece, Clemens provides a self-caricature, signed as Mark Twain.
This collection is an awful lot of fun to read, and it really is a great collection of examples of his writing that show why he is such a respected author, picked by his own hand.
The audiobook at Librivox is read by John Greenman and comes in 41 parts, which vary in length from 2 minutes to an hour but most are around 15 minutes long. You can download it and listen to it as a podcast, or you can listen to it online through your web browser. You can also download the book for free at Feedbooks.