Roughing It

The Spoken vs. The Written Account of "His Grandfather's Old Ram"

In 1895, Mark Twain put his formula for how to tell a humorous story down on paper. The speaker should know how and when to deliver the punchline, learn to be apparently indifferent to his own humor, and exhibit mastery of the pause. Some years later, in his autobiography, Twain explains how he, in fact, had to learn to follow his own advice. He was puzzled because the version of "His Grandfather's Old Ram" story that was published in Roughing It "wouldn't read aloud" (Autobiography, 177). In order to remedy this, Twain made changes to the story allowing for the same enjoyment and humor that a reader got from the Roughing It version to be shared by an audience who heard the story come from Twain's mouth. In his autobiography, Twain "recites" the modified oral version, so that the reader "may compare it with the story from Roughing It, if he pleases, and note how different the spoken version is from the written and printed version" (Auto, 177). This essay examines the two versions paying close attention to their similarities, and closer attention to their differences. It attempts to answer the question as to why one can be recited effectively before an audience, while the other...

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