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Lost Mark Twain story to be published

March 5, 2009 |  5:09 pm

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The never-before-published story "The Undertaker's Tale" by Mark Twain will finally see print next week, in the pages of the mystery quarterly The Strand Magazine. "Twain uses his razor sharp wit to pen a tongue-in-cheek tale about the funeral industry," says editor Andrew Gulli, "which could easily have been written today."

But Twain's story has less in common with the glossy "Six Feet Under" than something by Charles Dickens: It's got a dirty hungry wretch, who finds solace in the undertaker's home, and a wicked sense of humor. Cheerfully recollecting the undertaker's busiest season, his lovely daughter Gracie crows, "There was ever so much sickness, and very few got well." And a good time was had by all.

The author, born Samuel Clemens, was widely published during his lifetime. But when he died in 1910, there was a tremendous amount of material that had never been shared. The publisher HarperStudio says he left behind "the largest collection of personal papers created by any 19 century American author" — it's where they found "The Undertaker's Story" and the rest of the contents of a new Twain collection.

"Who Is Mark Twain?" is due to hit shelves next month. It's the first collection of Mark Twain's unpublished short works and will include both fiction and nonfiction. In one essay, he wonders if Jane Austen's intent is to "make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters?"

That might anger some avid Austen fans, but that would be nothing new. Twain's politics — he was anti-slavery and anti-imperialist — prickled many in his day. But the story that appears in The Strand has few sharp edges, only some wit that winks between the lines.

— Carolyn Kellogg

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