Mark Twain's Library of Humor/Introduction

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Mark Twain's Library of Humor by Mark Twain

There is no one whom people wish out of the way more than some well-meaning person who insists upon formally making them acquainted with a company of old friends, and is so full of his own performance that he won't see they are on hand-shaking terms already, and all they want is a chance to get at one another. Now if there is any one class of their authors whom the American people do know rather better than any other, it is the American humorists, from Washington Irving to Bill Nye, and we are not going to repeat their names here, or lecture upon their qualities. We have tried to arrange our Library so as to include passages representative of every period and section, and we think that the chaotic order which we have chosen will be found to facilitate the course of those who like to come upon their favorite authors unexpectedly. For example, the reader accustomed to the cheap artifices of other editors will be surprised to meet, first, a selection from the chief compiler's own work, which he would naturally have expected to find in the small print of an appendix; but throughout, the compiler has subordinated his diffidence as an author to his taste as an editor, and has put in a piece of his literature as often as he thought the public would stand it [18 times]. We need not say that, if he could have had his way throughout, this Library would have consisted solely of extracts from his own books. But he was afraid the public would not stand it, not because it did not like his books, but because it had them all by heart already. For this reason, he has followed upon the first selection from himself with selections from Messrs. Warner, Aldrich and Burdette, and he has not hesitated in other places to intersperse extracts from Mark Twain, with episodes from Mr. Lowell, or Dr. Holmes, or Mr. Harris, or Mr. Cable, or others. This has the effect of bewildering the reader, who thought it was going to be all Mark Twain, and perhaps of convincing him that there are other humorists besides his favorite author.

Another advantage in the arrangement adopted, is that the reader will be obliged to go through the whole book before he discovers that some favorite author is not in it; and by this time he will have been so much amused that he will have forgotten all about his favorite author. We meant to put in everybody's favorite author, but the limits of the Library would not allow of this; and we had to be content with the hope that no one would finally remember their absence except the favorites themselves. To these we would say, in the intimacy of a public advertisement, that they may confidently look to find themselves in a future work. They are no worse than many, perhaps most, of the authors here represented; in making this compilation, we have exercised, not only the disorder of chaos, but the blindness of fate.

Our work is not, however, a last judgment; and an appeal may be easily taken from it. In fact, it is not a judgment at all, but is a species of garden-party, where representative people from all epochs and parts of the country meet and say, "What! You here?" as people do when they had not expected to find one another in such good society. But we think the little entertainment is favorable to the enjoyment, and even the study, if you please, of the different kinds of American humor, from the days of Irving, when it still smacked of Goldsmith and Addison, onward. Smack of whom it would, it has always been so racy of the soil that the native flavor prevails throughout; and whether Yankee, Knickerbocker, Southern California, refined or broad, prose, verse or newspaper, it was and is always American. But it is interesting to compare the varieties and differences of the fruits of this perennial and indigenous plant, the one thing that we can certainly claim as ours whatever else may be denied us; and we think our garden-party gives an excellent chance for this. We have been obliged to make a selection of authors, but here the work of discrimination ends, and the whole American public is cordially invited to attend. It is going to be a very distinguished affair, and, in our hospitable feeling about it, we should really be very sorry if any one of our sixty millions missed it.

The Associate Editors