Earlier this evening I was thinking about the issue of narrative distance in literature in general, and in Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc and Plato’s Phaedo in particular. I was interested to see if Twain ever mentioned Plato’s Phaedo. So I did a little search at Mark Twain Project Online. I didn’t find any reference to the Phaedo but I did find this letter to George Cumming.
May 15, 1875.
Geo. Cumming, Esq., New York.]
Your paragraph about old jokes encountered me just as I was thinking in a similar vein upon the same subject. You remember “Punch’s” joke: “Advice to people about to marry.—Don’t!” I was astonished two years ago to run across that same joke in some old author, who was dead, petrified (& perhaps damned) before Socrates’s time. It never occurred to me before, but I would give something to know what they are going to do with the petrified people at the general resurrection. It seems to me I would polish them. However, my judgment may be at fault in this; &, besides, I do not think a mere man ought to be trying to make suggestions in a matter of this kind, when he has had no experience in resurrections. But, if you believe me, there are plenty of people with no better manners than to do it. In my opinion, such persons are entitled to no respect whatever.
S. L. [Clemens]
Cumming was a Western Union Operator and sometime author with whom Twain corresponded a few times. As far as I can tell this letter contains the only reference Twain ever made to Socrates. Twain did read Jowett’s translation of The Dialogues of Plato. Considering the referenced joke, I find it ironic that he gave his wife Olivia a signed copy as a Christmas present in 1874 and read it aloud to her.
What does this have to do with narrative distance or Joan of Arc or the Phaedo? Nothing! I just found the letter abnormally interesting. I may have something to say about those famous works and narrative distance in a day or two. Right now my mind is a little foggy as to exactly what I want to say.
No, I didn’t try to search Plato for any reference to Mark Twain.