Mysterious Stranger

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Story by Clemens, posthumously published in 1916. It was edited from various manuscripts by A. B. Paine. A new edition (1969) based on a final manuscript and titled No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, shows that Paine had silently deleted about one-quarter of Mark Twain's text, created a new character (the Astrologer), altered the names of other characters, and conflated three manuscript drafts to create his own version.

The Paine version is set in the medieval Austrian village of Eseldorf, where a mysterious stranger visits young Theodor Fischer and his friends Nikolaus and Seppi. He is discovered to be Satan, and shows his power by building a miniature castle that he peoples with clay creatures, destroying them almost as soon as he brings them to life. He then exerts his power on the villagers, and, when Father Peter is falsely accused of theft by the Astrologer and Father Adolf, he confounds the evil and makes the innocent crazy, since he says earthly happiness is restricted to the mad. Other “kindness” includes the drowning of Nikolaus, who would otherwise live as a cripple. His total indifference to mankind and its conceptions of good and evil shocks the boys' natural moral sense, yet Satan shows that from this moral sense came wars, tortures, and inequalities. Finally he departs, and Theodor realizes that this was a dream, as false as morality, and as illogical as a God who tortured men yet commanded them to worship Him.

The version first published in 1969 is also set in Eseldorf. To it in 1490, not long after the invention of movable type, comes a likable young printer's devil, called only No. 44, who is actually possessed of satanic powers that allow him to master the craft of printing in a few hours. Single-handedly he speedily produces a Bible and magically summons up phantasmagoric people to print innumerable copies. He enjoys playing tricks on the town's magician and on the cruel, hypocritical Father Adolf, while he also travels back and forth in space and time between 19th-century U.S. and medieval Europe. The story of his activities, both diabolical and whimsical, is told by his 17-year-old friend August Feldner, a curious person with a split personality. August's doppelgänger or “Dream-Self,” named Emil Schwarz, has powers like those of No. 44 and is caught up in similar adventures and activities. The fanciful tale compounded of burlesque and satire concludes with the revelation of No. 44 to August that “Life itself is only a vision, a dream …,” the creation of “a God … who mouths morals … and has none himself … who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones.”

Subjects: Literature.

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