“You’re moving it!” “No I’m not; you’re moving it!” Thus spake the excitedly anxious preteen voices of an-early 1990s Parker Brothers Ouija board commercial I must have seen a hundred times in childhood. Though by then such devices had scant import outside the realm of sleepover parties, people took them more seriously in the early twentieth century, especially around the time of the First World War. While some must, alas, have regarded them as functional channels to the great beyond, others saw in them the potential to gin up major publishing events. Here we have one of the most curious, 1917’s small-town Missouri bildungsroman The Coming of Jap Herron, allegedly written Mark Twain, at that point seven years dead. A misplaced manuscript the executors of Twain’s estate found amid his papers, perhaps? Nothing of the sort: he began writing the book in 1915, as a disembodied spirit, through a Ouija board. So claimed, at least, one Emily Grant Hutchings, who brought Jap Herron to publication, presenting herself as a mere scribe taking dictation from the deceased icon of American literary humor.
She’d even had some contact, albeit through the mail, with the living one: “In their exchange of letters he had given her advice and, interestingly, also marked one of her letters with the words: ‘Idiot! Must preserve.'” That priceless find comes from The Public Domain Review’s post on Jap Herron, where you can read the short book in full, a much easier option than struggling to find a copy that survived the ceasing of publication and subsequent pulping ordered by Twain’s daughter. (You can also access it by clicking on the image above.) And how does this “final work,” whether composed as a pastiche or paranormally, hold up? “The humor impresses as a feeble attempt at imitation,” said a contemporary New York Times review, “and while there is now and then a strong sure touch of pathos or a swift and true revelation of human nature, the ‘sob stuff’ that oozes through many of the scenes, and the overdrawn emotions are too much for credulity. If this is the best that ‘Mark Twain’ can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, aesthetics, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.