Each man excels according to the use
He makes of luck and then we call him wise. — Plautus, Pseudolus
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one. — Byron, Don Juan
ark Twain's stories about his brief involvement in the American Civil War have attracted a good deal of critical attention in the U.S., but the same cannot be said of his only tale of the Crimean War. Indeed, the war itself is so far removed from the American mind that, when I discuss my research, people sometimes assume I am talking about the Korean War. Even fans of Twain are frequently unfamiliar with "Luck," a work so little known that its plot bears retelling. The story traces the career of a military hero from his modest beginnings at Woolwich to his triumph in battle against the Russians. Years after the war's end a celebratory dinner is held to honor the famous general, and it is at this point that the tale begins. During the banquet the narrator, who has been joining in the chorus of adulation, meets an old acquaintance: a clergyman of undoubted probity, who dissents from the view that the general is a military genius. Surprised and intrigued, the narrator asks for more detail, which the clergyman agrees to supply a few days later. The rest of the short tale is told retrospectively by this clergyman, who becomes the de facto narrator from this point on. The clergyman had been the general's tutor when he was a cadet at Woolwich, and had followed him to the Crimea. The burden of his message is that the general, far from deserving his fame, was merely the beneficiary of an incredible string of lucky coincidences.
The first point of interest is the narrator's reluctance to identify the general by name, though he assures us that it is one we would immediately recognize. The opening paragraph of the story, even before the narrator meets the clergyman, is remarkable for the number of times we hear about "name" and "names." "It was at a banquet in London in honor of one of the two or three conspicuously illustrious English military names of this generation." Referring to the general, our narrator tells us that he is going to "withhold his real name and titles" for reasons that the story will make clear. Instead, he bestows upon the general the sobriquet Lord Arthur Scoresby. "What a fascination there is in a renowned name!" Indeed, "his name shot suddenly to the zenith from a Crimean battlefield, to remain forever celebrated" (Merry Tales, 66).
If Twain is primarily inviting us to reflect on the seductive power of a famous name, he also seems to be, at least secondarily, teasing us to speculate on the general's real identity.
This opening paragraph is also remarkable for the number of times another word is repeated: "unconsciousness." It is used to describe Scoresby's state of awareness during the banquet in his honor: "the sweet unconsciousness of his greatness Ð unconsciousness of the hundreds of admiring eyes fastened upon him, unconsciousness of the deep, loving, sincere worship welling out of the breasts of those people and flowing toward him" (Merry Tales, 66-67). The importance of this term will become clear later.
The narrator knows the clergyman to be honest and reliable, but his bare assertion that Scoresby's success was due to luck alone would not be believable without supporting detail. This is precisely what the clergyman supplies. According to him, Scoresby was a complete failure as a student, hopelessly stupid, an absolute fool. Out of pity, the clergyman had tutored him in Caesar's history; as luck would have it, the examiners asked him only about what he had been tutored in, with the result that he passed with flying colors.
Next came mathematics. Once again the clergyman helped prepare him, with results that were even more astounding: Because he was once again asked only what he happened to know, Scoresby took first place. With such sterling marks, he was able to graduate and become an officer.
The story now jumps ahead to the Crimean War, and the overall timeline here is consistent: The War began in 1853, "Luck" was written in 1886, and the clergyman, we are told, had been an instructor at Woolwich about thirty years earlier. By the time of the Crimean War, Scoresby had advanced to a rank (captain) far above his level of competence. The clergyman decided to accompany him to the Crimea to help prevent him from bringing disaster on the whole invasion. But it turned out that his assistance was not needed. For even though Scoresby was totally incompetent, everybody "misinterpreted his performance every time — consequently they took his idiotic blunders for inspirations of genius" (Merry Tales, 71-72). His reputation was enhanced with each false step he made.
At the climax of the story, the Russian forces were attacking the British and the French and were on the verge of inflicting a decisive defeat on them. At this crucial moment, Scoresby ordered "a charge over a neighboring hill where there wasn't a suggestion of an enemy." Surely, the clergyman thought, Scoresby has finally revealed his complete ignorance. Though his order made no sense, it was obeyed. Arriving at the top of the hill, Scoresby found an "entire and unsuspected Russian army in reserve!" The Russians greatly outnumbered the British regiment and should have dealt with them easily. Once again, though, luck intervened. The Russians decided: "It must be the entire English army, and that the sly Russian game was detected and blocked; so they turned tail, and away they went, pell-mell, over the hill and down into the field, in wild confusion" (Merry Tales, 73). In their panic, they swept away the rest of the Russian army, and the Allied victory was secured. Scoresby was decorated on the field of battle by Marshal Canrobert himself.
What was it that led Scoresby over the hill? The orders he had received should not have taken him in that direction. The clergyman explains: Scoresby was so monumentally stupid that he had mistaken his right hand for his left. "An order had come to him to fall back and support our right; and instead, he fell forward and went over the hill to the left. But the name he won that day as a marvelous military genius filled the world with his glory, and that glory will never fade while history books last" (Merry Tales, 74). Once again, luck had prevented him from receiving the reward he deserved for his wooden-headedness.
A second point of interest is the circumstance, somewhat unusual among Twain's tales, that the story "was supposed to be true, yet Clemens seemed to think it too improbable for literature and laid it away for a number of years" (Paine, 842). Twain himself asserted in a footnote to "Luck" (itself something highly unusual) that it was not a "fancy sketch" (Merry Tales, 66), in other words, not a work of fancy or imagination.
In fact, Twain had heard the story from his old friend Joe Twichell, pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregational church in Hartford, Connecticut. In A Tramp Abroad Twichell figures under the name "Harris." During their frequent excursions and extended walks, he was Twain's sounding board and confidante, in addition to being an acknowledged raconteur in his own right.
At some point (the precise date is unknown), Twichell was visited by a British chaplain, who related the story of a famous general whose victories, the chaplain knew, were all due to luck, though everyone assumed the man was a military genius. Twichell passed the story on to Twain, who "set it down about as it came to him" in April 1886 (Paine, 842; Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. III, 226; Twichell's biographers (Andrews, Strong) do not mention "Luck" or the visit of any British chaplain. Twichell's unpublished papers at Yale University likewise contain nothing about the tale or the chaplain.). It was eventually published in 1891 in Harper's Magazine as part of "the general house cleaning which took place after the first collapse of the [Paige typesetting] machine" (Paine, 1106). A year later, it was reprinted without change in the collection Merry Tales. In England, the first publication came in 1900, when it was included in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.
To the present day, "Luck" remains one of Twain's neglected stories. Upon its appearance, it received little critical attention, either in the UK or the US. The only British discussion appeared in the London Review of Reviews (August 1891): "The story tells how one of the two or three conspicuously illustrious English military heroes of this generation, whom he calls Lord Arthur Scoresby, was an absolute fool who owed all his success in life to having been born lucky." The anonymous reviewer goes on to establish three stages in Scoresby's luck: first with Caesar, second with math, finally in the Crimea. Most of the review consists of a paraphrase of the text. It is noteworthy that whereas the British reviewer seems somewhat inclined to speculate on the identity of the historical model for the character ("whom he calls Lord Arthur Scoresby"), the American reception of the story, such as it is, ignores that aspect to mention instead the theme of luck and chance. The Cincinnati Commercial Gazette (2 April 1892), noted: "'Luck' will interest believers in it, and as the author sets up this story to be constructed of the truth and naught but it, additional interest in it is imparted to those who are believers in chance" (quoted in Budd, 323).
More recently, Tom Quirk has interpreted "Luck" as a "mistaken-identity" story, like The Prince and the Pauper. Employing the trope of serious Sam Clemens and humorous Mark Twain, he argues that Clemens himself was misperceived. "The public often took his serious literary inspirations for comic blunders — but he must have felt that he and Scoresby had one thing in common: everyone had both of them focused wrong and misinterpreted their performances" (Quirk, 89-90). He also points out that Twain had been going through a long spell of undeserved bad luck at the time he wrote the story, and may have wished to compensate by writing about someone who benefited from undeserved good luck.
One needs to keep in mind, however, that Scoresby is not pretending to be anything he is not. The point of the repetition of the word "unconsciousness" in the opening paragraph is to emphasize that Scoresby is not performing in the sense of playing a role. His only performance is the carrying out of his military duties. He is not engaged in creating a public persona. It is true that the clergyman comments that Scoresby is "the supremest fool in the universe; and until half an hour ago nobody knew it but himself and me." But aside from this assertion the story itself gives no indication that Scoresby shares this awareness. He is unconscious of being misperceived. A natural fool, he is incapable of deceit. The clergyman's further assertion in the final paragraph that Scoresby is as "unpretending as a man can be" confirms this. In this context Quirk is right to point out the tale's thematic relationship to "Forrest Gump" and "Being There," which are much more relevant than The Prince and the Pauper.
Other critics have focused on the tale's supposed gimmick quality. Wilson, following up an observation made by Baldanza, says Twain "carefully builds up reader expectations and then employs an O. Henry twist at the end to undercut those expectations . . . Justice or cosmic order would presumably dictate that 'the supremest ass in the universe' . . . would eventually come to an ignominious end. Instead his remarkable 'luck' makes him a national hero" (Wilson, 190). Yet from story's opening description of the celebratory banquet it is quite evident that Scoresby will not be revealed for what he is. There is no gimmick. Instead, there is an unexplained paradox: How can a fool be held in universal high esteem? The story that follows resolves that paradox.
As Robinson rightly emphasizes, it is the contrast between reputation and reality that attracted Twain to the story, just as it led him to write his deconstruction of Cooper, his satire on Ben Franklin and his proverbs, and his skeptical inquiries into Shakespeare's authorship. This list could be made much longer. The story of Scoresby appealed to Twain's sense of irreverence, his urge to prick the bubble of reputation, not to any psychological need for compensation. [For more on "Luck" and irreverence, see my essay "Teaching Mark Twain's 'Luck' in Moldova," in Europäische Begegnungen: Festschrift für Joseph Kohnen. Luxembourg, 2006, 73-82.]
At the same time, though Scoresby may be thematically related to Cooper, Franklin, and Shakespeare, he is not a full-fledged member of the academy of the over-rated. Scoresby is the odd one in this group, since his identity is the only one that is hidden.
It may be objected that the search for Scoresby's identity is a wild goose chase. Though the reverend vouches for the story's authenticity, this can be dismissed as a ploy already of long standing by Twain's time. French novelists of the eighteenth century had dressed up their inventions as history and said that though their tales might not be vraisemblable they were nonetheless vrai. In Amrican literature of the nineteenth century we do not believe the story of a man sleeping for twenty years, even if Diedrich Knickerbocker does swear that he has talked with Rip Van Winkle himself, and that the sleeper's story is therefore beyond the possibility of doubt. Twain's assertion that his story is true could be just part of a strategy to make a rather improbable story seem a bit more believable.
On the other hand, this is the only story in Merry Tales with an authorial note asserting that it is not a work of fancy. Of course the footnote too may be part of the mystification. But of all the improbable stories in this volume, why is only this one singled out in this way? Twain's note holds out the possibility that "Luck" has some basis in fact, that the story really was related as true by an instructor at Woolwich Academy.
For the moment, let us assume that the tale is not a work of fancy. Was there a historical precedent for Scoresby? And if such a person did exist, what explains Twain's reticence about naming names? After all, Twain had not shrunk from criticizing other famous figures by name. Why resort to a mask only in this case?
Let us deal with the last question first. There are a number of possible explanations. First, Cooper, Franklin and Shakespeare were all safely dead. Their reputations could be hurt, but not their feelings. Twain could be mindful of such matters. When once he ventured to mock the river notes of Captain Isaiah Sellers, a retired Mississippi steamboat pilot, Twain came to regret it later. "There was no malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in print" (Meltzer, 38).
In addition, Twain could back up his disparagement of Cooper and Scott simply by quoting from their works. In the case of Shakespeare, Twain was not alone in attacking his authorship — a lot of groundwork had already been done in this field. Ben Franklin's appeal was broad but shallow; making fun of his platitudinous proverbs would not provoke much indignation. But to attack a living military demigod was another matter. The public was and is intensely proud of their heroes. Attacking such a figure could have lead to a backlash among Twain's readers, particularly in Britain, for as Baetzhold explains, "Clemens' affection for the English . . . made him unwilling to subject them to anything but gentle satire" (23).
Finally, and most importantly, Twain felt himself on sure ground when he engaged in literary and stylistic criticism. But Scoresby never writes a word. The case for his being a fool rests entirely on the testimony of one man, and on the interpretation of Scoresby's deeds. Twain was sure he could prove to the public's satisfaction that Cooper was incapable of writing a proper English sentence, but his case for Scoresby being a fool was entirely based on hearsay. This may well have induced Twain to exercise caution.
Mark Twain on the Crimean War
- The Crimean War
- Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley
- Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington
- Ulysses S. Grant
Last modified 16 August 2005
Epigraph and bibliographical item added 10 May 2019