A real storyteller can make a great story out of anything, even the most trivial occurrence. Composed between 1863 and 1875, the sixty-three often outrageous sketches in Sketches, New and Old contain, for instance, a piece about the difficulty of ...
getting a pocket watch repaired properly; complaints about barbers and office bores; and satirical comments on bureaucrats, courts of law, the profession of journalism, the claims of science, and the workings of government. In Mark Twain's hands, all these potentially dry and dull topics bristle with vitality and interest. "What fascinates Twain," Lee Smith writes in her introduction, is how people "react to the things that happen to them." Twain "lets them speak in their own voices by and large, in a chorus ranging from high-flown oratory to the plain speech of working people.... It seems generally true that the more elevated the speech, the likelier that person is to be an idiot; words of wisdom and common sense are invariably voiced by the common man"--or woman. "The most profound and moving sketch in this whole collection" Smith writes, is one "told by a freed slave." The candid, ironic, playful, and petulant sketches in this volume are indispensable to our understanding of a harried genius during thirteen quite amazing years.