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Inquiries And Opinions - Mark Twain Post by :ben.g Category :Nonfictions Author :Brander Matthews Date :May 2012 Read :1125

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Inquiries And Opinions - Mark Twain

(This biographical criticism was written to serve as an introduction to the complete edition of Mark Twain's Works.)

It is a common delusion of those who discuss contemporary literature that there is such an entity as the "reading public," possest of a certain uniformity of taste. There is not one public; there are many publics,--as many in fact as there are different kinds of taste; and the extent of an author's popularity is in proportion to the number of these separate publics he may chance to please. Scott, for example, appealed not only to those who relished romance and enjoyed excitement, but also to those who appreciated his honest portrayal of sturdy characters. Thackeray is preferred by ambitious youths who are insidiously flattered by his tacit compliments to their knowledge of the world, by the disenchanted who cannot help seeing the petty meannesses of society, and by the less sophisticated in whom sentiment has not gone to seed in sentimentality. Dickens in his own day bid for the approval of those who liked broad caricature (and were, therefore, pleased with Stiggins and Chadband), of those who fed greedily on plentiful pathos (and were, therefore, delighted with the deathbeds of Smike and Paul Dombey and Little Nell) and also of those who asked for unexpected adventure (and were, therefore, glad to disentangle the melodramatic intrigues of Ralph Nickleby).

In like manner the American author who has chosen to call himself Mark Twain has attained to an immense popularity because the qualities he possesses in a high degree appeal to so many and so widely varied publics,--first of all, no doubt, to the public that revels in hearty and robust fun, but also to the public which is glad to be swept along by the full current of adventure, which is sincerely touched by manly pathos, which is satisfied by vigorous and exact portrayal of character, which respects shrewdness and wisdom and sanity and which appreciates a healthy hatred of pretense and affectation and sham. Perhaps no one book of Mark Twain's--with the possible exception of 'Huckleberry Finn'--is equally a favorite with all his readers; and perhaps some of his best characteristics are absent from his earlier books or but doubtfully latent in them. Mark Twain is many-sided; and he has ripened in knowledge and in power since he first attracted attention as a wild Western funny man. As he has grown older he has reflected more; he has both broadened and deepened. The writer of "comic copy" for a mining-camp newspaper has developed into a liberal humorist, handling life seriously and making his readers think as he makes them laugh, until to-day Mark Twain has perhaps the largest audience of any author now using the English language. To trace the stages of this evolution and to count the steps whereby the sage-brush reporter has risen to the rank of a writer of world-wide celebrity, is as interesting as it is instructive.


SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS was born November 30, 1835, at Florida, Missouri. His father was a merchant who had come from Tennessee and who removed soon after his son's birth to Hannibal, a little town on the Mississippi. What Hannibal was like and what were the circumstances of Mr. Clemens's boyhood we can see for ourselves in the convincing pages of 'Tom Sawyer.' Mr. Howells has called Hannibal "a loafing, out-at-elbows, down-at-the-heels, slave-holding Mississippi town"; and the elder Clemens was himself a slave-owner, who silently abhorred slavery.

When the future author was but twelve his father died, and the son had to get his education as best he could. Of actual schooling he got little and of book-learning still less; but life itself is not a bad teacher for a boy who wants to study, and young Clemens did not waste his chances. He spent three years in the printing office of the little local paper,--for, like not a few others on the list of American authors that stretches from Benjamin Franklin to William Dean Howells, he began his connection with literature by setting type. As a journeyman printer the lad wandered from town to town and rambled even as far east as New York.

When he was seventeen he went back to the home of his boyhood resolved to become a pilot on the Mississippi. How he learnt the river he has told us in 'Life on the Mississippi,' wherein his adventures, his experiences, and his impressions while he was a cub-pilot are recorded with a combination of precise veracity and abundant humor which makes the earlier chapters of that marvelous book a most masterly fragment of autobiography. The life of a pilot was full of interest and excitement and opportunity, and what young Clemens saw and heard and divined during the years when he was going up and down the mighty river we may read in the pages of 'Huckleberry Finn' and 'Pudd'nhead Wilson.' But toward the end of the fifties the railroads began to rob the river of its supremacy as a carrier; and in the beginning of the sixties the Civil War broke out and the Mississippi no longer went unvext to the sea. The skill, slowly and laboriously acquired, was suddenly rendered useless, and at twenty-five the young man found himself bereft of his calling. As a border state, Missouri was sending her sons into the armies of the Union and into the armies of the Confederacy, while many a man stood doubting, not knowing which way to turn. The ex-pilot has given us the record of his very brief and inglorious service as a soldier of the South. When this escapade was swiftly ended, he went to the northwest with his brother, who had been appointed lieutenant-governor of Nevada. Thus the man who had been born on the borderland of North and South, who had gone East as a jour printer, who had been again and again up and down the Mississippi, now went West while he was still plastic and impressionable; and he had thus another chance to increase that intimate knowledge of American life and American character which is one of the most precious of his possessions.

While still on the river he had written a satiric letter or two signed "Mark Twain"--taking the name from a call of the man who heaves the lead and who cries "By the mark, three," "Mark twain," and so on. In Nevada he went to the mines and lived the life he has described in 'Roughing It,' but when he failed to "strike it rich," he naturally drifted into journalism and back into a newspaper office again. The 'Virginia City Enterprise' was not overmanned, and the new-comer did all sorts of odd jobs, finding time now and then to write a sketch which seemed important enough to permit of his signature. The name of Mark Twain soon began to be known to those who were curious in newspaper humor. After a while he was drawn across the mountains to San Francisco, where he found casual employment on the 'Morning Call,' and where he joined himself to a little group of aspiring literators which included Bret Harte, Noah Brooks, Charles Henry Webb, and Mr. Charles Warren Stoddart.

It was in 1867 that Webb published Mark Twain's first book, the 'Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras'; and it was in 1867 that the proprietors of the 'Alta California' supplied him with the funds necessary to enable him to become one of the passengers on the steamer _Quaker City_, which had been chartered to take a select party on what is now known as the Mediterranean trip. The weekly letters, in which he set forth what befell him on this journey, were printed in the 'Alta' Sunday after Sunday, and were copied freely by the other Californian papers. These letters served as the foundation of a book published in 1869 and called the 'Innocents Abroad,' a book which instantly brought to the author celebrity and cash.

Both of these valuable aids to ambition were increased by his next step, his appearance on the lecture platform. Noah Brooks, who was present at his first attempt, has recorded that Mark Twain's "method as a lecturer was distinctly unique and novel. His slow, deliberate drawl, the anxious and perturbed expression of his visage, the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, the surprize that spread over his face when the audience roared with delight or rapturously applauded the finer passages of his word-painting, were unlike anything of the kind they had ever known." In the many years since that first appearance the method has not changed, altho it has probably matured. Mark Twain is one of the most effective of platform-speakers and one of the most artistic, with an art of his own which is very individual and very elaborate in spite of its seeming simplicity.

Altho he succeeded abundantly as a lecturer, and altho he was the author of the most widely-circulated book of the decade, Mark Twain still thought of himself only as a journalist; and when he gave up the West for the East, he became an editor of the 'Buffalo Express,' in which he had bought an interest. In 1870 he married; and it is perhaps not indiscreet to remark that his was another of those happy unions of which there have been so many in the annals of American authorship. In 1871 he removed to Hartford, which was to be his home for thirty years; and at the same time he gave up newspaper work.

In 1872 he wrote 'Roughing It,' and in the following year came his first sustained attempt at fiction, the 'Gilded Age,' written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner. The character of Colonel Mulberry Sellers Mark Twain soon took out of this book to make it the central figure of a play, which the late John T. Raymond acted hundreds of times thruout the United States, the playgoing public pardoning the inexpertness of the dramatist in favor of the delicious humor and the compelling veracity with which the chief character was presented. So universal was this type and so broadly recognizable its traits that there were many towns in which someone accosted the actor who impersonated the ever-hopeful schemer with the declaration: "I'm the original of _Sellers_! Didn't Mark ever tell you? Well, he took the _Colonel from me!"

Encouraged by the welcome accorded to this first attempt at fiction, Mark Twain turned to the days of his boyhood and wrote 'Tom Sawyer,' published in 1875. He also collected his sketches, scattered here and there in newspapers and magazines. Toward the end of the seventies he went to Europe again with his family; and the result of this journey is recorded in 'A Tramp Abroad,' published in 1880. Another volume of sketches, the 'Stolen White Elephant,' was put forth in 1882; and in the same year Mark Twain first came forward as a historical novelist--if the 'Prince and the Pauper' can fairly be called a historical novel. The year after he sent forth the volume describing his 'Life on the Mississippi'; and in 1884 he followed this with the story in which that life has been crystallized forever, 'Huckleberry Finn,' the finest of his books, the deepest in its insight, and the widest in its appeal.

This Odyssey of the Mississippi was published by a new firm, in which the author was a chief partner, just as Sir Walter Scott had been an associate of Ballantyne and Constable. There was at first a period of prosperity in which the house issued the 'Personal Memoirs' of Grant, giving his widow checks for $350,000 in 1886, and in which Mark Twain himself published 'A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court,' a volume of 'Merry Tales,' and a story called the 'American Claimant,' wherein Colonel Sellers reappears. Then there came a succession of hard years; and at last the publishing-house in which Mark Twain was a partner failed, as the publishing-house in which Walter Scott was a partner had formerly failed. The author of 'Huckleberry Finn' was past sixty when he found himself suddenly saddled with a load of debt, just as the author of 'Waverley' had been burdened full threescore years earlier; and Mark Twain stood up stoutly under it as Scott had done before him. More fortunate than the Scotchman, the American lived to pay the debt in full.

Since the disheartening crash came, he has given to the public a third Mississippi River tale, 'Pudd'nhead Wilson,' issued in 1894; and a third historical novel, 'Joan of Arc,' a reverent and sympathetic study of the bravest figure in all French history, printed anonymously in 'Harper's Magazine' and then in a volume acknowledged by the author in 1896. As one of the results of a lecturing tour around the world he prepared another volume of travels, 'Following the Equator,' published toward the end of 1897. Mention must also be made of a fantastic tale called 'Tom Sawyer Abroad,' sent forth in 1894, of a volume of sketches, the 'Million Pound Bank-Note,' assembled in 1893, and also of a collection of literary essays, 'How to Tell a Story,' published in 1897.

This is but the barest outline of Mark Twain's life,--such a brief summary as we must have before us if we wish to consider the conditions under which the author has developed and the stages of his growth. It will serve, however, to show how various have been his forms of activity,--printer, pilot, miner, journalist, traveler, lecturer, novelist, publisher,--and to suggest the width of his experience of life.


A humorist is often without honor in his own country. Perhaps this is partly because humor is likely to be familiar, and familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps it is partly because (for some strange reason) we tend to despise those who make us laugh, while we respect those who make us weep--forgetting that there are formulas for forcing tears quite as facile as the formulas for forcing smiles. Whatever the reason, the fact is indisputable that the humorist must pay the penalty of his humor, he must run the risk of being tolerated as a mere fun-maker, not to be taken seriously, and not worthy of critical consideration. This penalty has been paid by Mark Twain. In many of the discussions of American literature he has been dismist as tho he were only a competitor of his predecessors, Artemus Ward and John Phoenix, instead of being, what he is really, a writer who is to be classed--at whatever interval only time may decide--rather with Cervantes and Moliere.

Like the heroines of the problem-plays of the modern theater, Mark Twain has had to live down his past. His earlier writing gave but little promise of the enduring qualities obvious enough in his later works. Noah Brooks has told us how he was advised if he wisht to "see genuine specimens of American humor, frolicsome, extravagant, and audacious," to look up the sketches which the then almost unknown Mark Twain was printing in a Nevada newspaper. The humor of Mark Twain is still American, still frolicsome, extravagant, and audacious; but it is riper now and richer, and it has taken unto itself other qualities existing only in germ in these firstlings of his muse. The sketches in the 'Jumping Frog' and the letters which made up the 'Innocents Abroad' are "comic copy," as the phrase is in newspaper offices--comic copy not altogether unlike what John Phoenix had written and Artemus Ward,--better indeed than the work of these newspaper humorists (for Mark Twain had it in him to develop as they did not), but not essentially dissimilar.

And in the eyes of many who do not think for themselves, Mark Twain was only the author of these genuine specimens of American humor. For when the public has once made up its mind about any man's work, it does not relish any attempt to force it to unmake this opinion and to remake it. Like other juries, it does not like to be ordered to reconsider its verdict as contrary to the facts of the case. It is always sluggish in beginning the necessary readjustment, and not only sluggish, but somewhat grudging. Naturally it cannot help seeing the later works of a popular writer from the point of view it had to take to enjoy his earlier writings. And thus the author of 'Huckleberry Finn' and 'Joan of Arc' was forced to pay a high price for the early and abundant popularity of the 'Innocents Abroad.'

No doubt, a few of his earlier sketches were inexpensive in their elements; made of materials worn threadbare by generations of earlier funny men, they were sometimes cut in the pattern of his predecessors. No doubt, some of the earliest of all were crude and highly colored, and may even be called forced, not to say violent. No doubt, also, they did not suggest the seriousness and the melancholy which always must underlie the deepest humor, as we find it in Cervantes and Moliere, in Swift and in Lowell. But even a careless reader, skipping thru the book in idle amusement, ought to have been able to see in the 'Innocents Abroad,' that the writer of this liveliest of books of travel was no mere merry-andrew, grinning thru a horse-collar to make sport for the groundlings; but a sincere observer of life, seeing thru his own eyes and setting down what he saw with abundant humor, of course, but also with profound respect for the eternal verities.

George Eliot in one of her essays calls those who parody lofty themes "debasers of the moral currency." Mark Twain is always an advocate of the sterling ethical standard. He is ready to overwhelm an affectation with irresistible laughter, but he never lacks reverence for the things that really deserve reverence. It is not at the Old Masters that he scoffs in Italy, but rather at those who pay lip-service to things which they neither enjoy nor understand. For a ruin or a painting or a legend that does not seem to him to deserve the appreciation in which it is held he refuses to affect an admiration he does not feel; he cannot help being honest--he was born so. For meanness of all kinds he has a burning contempt; and on Abelard he pours out the vials of his wrath. He has a quick eye for all humbugs and a scorching scorn for them; but there is no attempt at being funny in the manner of the cockney comedians when he stands in the awful presence of the Sphinx. He is not taken in by the glamor of Palestine; he does not lose his head there; he keeps his feet; but he knows that he is standing on holy ground; and there is never a hint of irreverence in his attitude.

'A Tramp Abroad' is a better book than the 'Innocents Abroad'; it is quite as laughter-provoking, and its manner is far more restrained. Mark Twain was then master of his method, sure of himself, secure of his popularity; and he could do his best and spare no pains to be certain that it was his best. Perhaps there is a slight falling off in 'Following the Equator'; a trace of fatigue, of weariness, of disenchantment. But the last book of travels has passages as broadly humorous as any of the first; and it proves the author's possession of a pithy shrewdness not to be suspected from a perusal of its earliest predecessor. The first book was the work of a young fellow rejoicing in his own fun and resolved to make his readers laugh with him or at him; the latest book is the work of an older man, who has found that life is not all laughter, but whose eye is as clear as ever and whose tongue is as plain-spoken.

These three books of travel are like all other books of travel in that they relate in the first person what the author went forth to see. Autobiographic also are 'Roughing It' and 'Life on the Mississippi,' and they have always seemed to me better books than the more widely circulated travels. They are better because they are the result of a more intimate knowledge of the material dealt with. Every traveler is of necessity but a bird of passage; he is a mere carpet-bagger; his acquaintance with the countries he visits is external only; and this acquaintanceship is made only when he is a full-grown man. But Mark Twain's knowledge of the Mississippi was acquired in his youth; it was not purchased with a price; it was his birthright; and it was internal and complete. And his knowledge of the mining-camp was achieved in early manhood when the mind is open and sensitive to every new impression. There is in both these books a fidelity to the inner truth, a certainty of touch, a sweep of vision, not to be found in the three books of travels. For my own part I have long thought that Mark Twain could securely rest his right to survive as an author on those opening chapters in 'Life on the Mississippi' in which he makes clear the difficulties, the seeming impossibilities, that fronted those who wisht to learn the river. These chapters are bold and brilliant; and they picture for us forever a period and a set of conditions, singularly interesting and splendidly varied, that otherwise would have had to forego all adequate record.


It is highly probable that when an author reveals the power of evoking views of places and of calling up portraits of people such as Mark Twain showed in 'Life on the Mississippi,' and when he has the masculine grasp of reality Mark Twain made evident in 'Roughing It,' he must needs sooner or later turn from mere fact to avowed fiction and become a story-teller. The long stories which Mark Twain has written fall into two divisions,--first, those of which the scene is laid in the present, in reality, and mostly in the Mississippi Valley, and second, those of which the scene is laid in the past, in fantasy mostly, and in Europe.

As my own liking is a little less for the latter group, there is no need for me now to linger over them. In writing these tales of the past Mark Twain was making up stories in his head; personally I prefer the tales of his in which he has his foot firm on reality. The 'Prince and the Pauper' has the essence of boyhood in it; it has variety and vigor; it has abundant humor and plentiful pathos; and yet I for one would give the whole of it for the single chapter in which Tom Sawyer lets the contract for white-washing his aunt's fence.

Mr. Howells has declared that there are two kinds of fiction he likes almost equally well,--"a real novel and a pure romance"; and he joyfully accepts 'A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court' as "one of the greatest romances ever imagined." It is a humorous romance overflowing with stalwart fun; and it is not irreverent but iconoclastic, in that it breaks not a few disestablished idols. It is intensely American and intensely nineteenth century and intensely democratic--in the best sense of that abused adjective. The British critics were greatly displeased with the book:--and we are reminded of the fact that the Spanish still somewhat resent 'Don Quixote' because it brings out too truthfully the fatal gap in the Spanish character between the ideal and the real. So much of the feudal still survives in British society that Mark Twain's merry and elucidating assault on the past seemed to some almost an insult to the present.

But no critic, British or American, has ventured to discover any irreverence in 'Joan of Arc,' wherein indeed the tone is almost devout and the humor almost too much subdued. Perhaps it is my own distrust of the so-called historical novel, my own disbelief that it can ever be anything but an inferior form of art, which makes me care less for this worthy effort to honor a noble figure. And elevated and dignified as is the 'Joan of Arc,' I do not think that it shows us Mark Twain at his best; altho it has many a passage that only he could have written, it is perhaps the least characteristic of his works. Yet it may well be that the certain measure of success he has achieved in handling a subject so lofty and so serious, helped to open the eyes of the public to see the solid merits of his other stories, in which his humor has fuller play and in which his natural gifts are more abundantly displayed.

Of these other stories three are "real novels," to use Mr. Howells's phrase; they are novels as real as any in any literature. 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huckleberry Finn' and 'Pudd'nhead Wilson' are invaluable contributions to American literature--for American literature is nothing if it is not a true picture of American life and if it does not help us to understand ourselves. 'Huckleberry Finn' is a very amusing volume, and a generation has read its pages and laughed over it immoderately; but it is very much more than a funny book; it is a marvelously accurate portrayal of a whole civilization. Mr. Ormsby, in an essay which accompanies his translation of 'Don Quixote,' has pointed out that for a full century after its publication that greatest of novels was enjoyed chiefly as a tale of humorous misadventure, and that three generations had laughed over it before anybody suspected that it was more than a mere funny book. It is perhaps rather with the picaresque romances of Spain that 'Huckleberry Finn' is to be compared than with the masterpiece of Cervantes; but I do not think that it will be a century or that it will take three generations before we Americans generally discover how great a book 'Huckleberry Finn' really is, how keen its vision of character, how close its observation of life, how sound its philosophy, and how it records for us once and for all certain phases of southwestern society which it is most important for us to perceive and to understand. The influence of slavery, the prevalence of feuds, the conditions and the circumstances that make lynching possible--all these things are set before us clearly and without comment. It is for us to draw our own moral, each for himself, as we do when we see Shakspere acted.

'Huckleberry Finn,' in its art, for one thing, and also in its broader range, is superior to 'Tom Sawyer' and to 'Pudd'nhead Wilson,' fine as both these are in their several ways. In no book in our language, to my mind, has the boy, simply as a boy, been better realized than in 'Tom Sawyer.' In some respects 'Pudd'nhead Wilson' is the most dramatic of Mark Twain's longer stories, and also the most ingenious; like 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huckleberry Finn,' it has the full flavor of the Mississippi River, on which its author spent his own boyhood, and from contact with the soil of which he has always risen reinvigorated.

It is by these three stories, and especially by 'Huckleberry Finn,' that Mark Twain is likely to live longest. Nowhere else is the life of the Mississippi Valley so truthfully recorded. Nowhere else can we find a gallery of southwestern characters as varied and as veracious as those Huck Finn met in his wanderings. The histories of literature all praise the 'Gil Blas' of Le Sage for its amusing adventures, its natural characters, its pleasant humor, and its insight into human frailty; and the praise is deserved. But in every one of these qualities 'Huckleberry Finn' is superior to 'Gil Blas.' Le Sage set the model of the picaresque novel, and Mark Twain followed his example; but the American book is richer than the French--deeper, finer, stronger. It would be hard to find in any language better specimens of pure narrative, better examples of the power of telling a story and of calling up action so that the reader cannot help but see it, than Mark Twain's account of the Shepardson-Grangerford feud, and his description of the shooting of Boggs by Sherbourn and of the foiled attempt to lynch Sherbourn afterward.

These scenes, fine as they are, vivid, powerful, and most artistic in their restraint, can be matched in the two other books. In 'Tom Sawyer' they can be paralleled by the chapter in which the boy and the girl are lost in the cave, and Tom, seeing a gleam of light in the distance, discovers that it is a candle carried by Indian Joe, the one enemy he has in the world. In 'Pudd'nhead Wilson' the great passages of 'Huckleberry Finn' are rivaled by that most pathetic account of the weak son willing to sell his own mother as a slave "down the river." Altho no one of the books is sustained thruout on this high level, and altho, in truth, there are in each of them passages here and there that we could wish away (because they are not worthy of the association in which we find them), I have no hesitation in expressing here my own conviction that the man who has given us four scenes like these is to be compared with the masters of literature; and that he can abide the comparison with equanimity.


Perhaps I myself prefer these three Mississippi Valley books above all Mark Twain's other writings (altho with no lack of affection for those also) partly because these have the most of the flavor of the soil about them. After veracity and the sense of the universal, what I best relish in literature is this native aroma, pungent, homely, and abiding. Yet I feel sure that I should not rate him so high if he were the author of these three books only. They are the best of him, but the others are good also, and good in a different way. Other writers have given us this local color more or less artistically, more or less convincingly: one New England and another New York, a third Virginia, and a fourth Georgia, and a fifth Wisconsin; but who so well as Mark Twain has given us the full spectrum of the Union? With all his exactness in reproducing the Mississippi Valley, Mark Twain is not sectional in his outlook; he is national always. He is not narrow; he is not western or eastern; he is American with a certain largeness and boldness and freedom and certainty that we like to think of as befitting a country so vast as ours and a people so independent.

In Mark Twain we have "the national spirit as seen with our own eyes," declared Mr. Howells; and, from more points of view than one, Mark Twain seems to me to be the very embodiment of Americanism. Self-educated in the hard school of life, he has gone on broadening his outlook as he has grown older. Spending many years abroad, he has come to understand other nationalities, without enfeebling his own native faith. Combining a mastery of the commonplace with an imaginative faculty, he is a practical idealist. No respecter of persons, he has a tender regard for his fellowman. Irreverent toward all outworn superstitions, he has ever revealed the deepest respect for all things truly worthy of reverence. Unwilling to take pay in words, he is impatient always to get at the root of the matter, to pierce to the center, to see the thing as it is. He has a habit of standing upright, of thinking for himself, and of hitting hard at whatsoever seems to him hateful and mean; but at the core of him there is genuine gentleness and honest sympathy, brave humanity and sweet kindliness. Perhaps it is boastful for us to think that these characteristics which we see in Mark Twain are characteristics also of the American people as a whole; but it is pleasant to think so.

Mark Twain has the very marrow of Americanism. He is as intensely and as typically American as Franklin or Emerson or Hawthorne. He has not a little of the shrewd common-sense and the homely and unliterary directness of Franklin. He is not without a share of the aspiration and the elevation of Emerson; and he has a philosophy of his own as optimistic as Emerson's. He possesses also somewhat of Hawthorne's interest in ethical problems, with something of the same power of getting at the heart of them; he, too, has written his parables and apologs wherein the moral is obvious and unobtruded. He is uncompromisingly honest; and his conscience is as rugged as his style sometimes is.

No American author has to-day at his command a style more nervous, more varied, more flexible, or more direct than Mark Twain's. His colloquial ease should not hide from us his mastery of all the devices of rhetoric. He may seem to disobey the letter of the law sometimes, but he is always obedient to the spirit. He never speaks unless he has something to say; and then he says it tersely, sharply, with a freshness of epithet and an individuality of phrase always accurate, however unacademic. His vocabulary is enormous, and it is deficient only in the dead words; his language is alive always, and actually tingling with vitality. He rejoices in the daring noun and in the audacious adjective. His instinct for the exact word is not always assured, and now and again he has failed to exercise it; but we do not find in his prose the flatting and sharping he censured in Fenimore Cooper's. His style has none of the cold perfection of an antique statue; it is too modern and too American for that, and too completely the expression of the man himself, sincere and straightforward. It is not free from slang, altho this is far less frequent than one might expect; but it does its work swiftly and cleanly. And it is capable of immense variety. Consider the tale of the Blue Jay in 'A Tramp Abroad,' wherein the humor is sustained by unstated pathos; what could be better told than this, with every word the right word and in the right place? And take Huck Finn's description of the storm when he was alone on the island, which is in dialect, which will not parse, which bristles with double negatives, but which none the less is one of the finest passages of descriptive prose in all American literature.


After all, it is as a humorist pure and simple that Mark Twain is best known and best beloved. In the preceding pages I have tried to point out the several ways in which he transcends humor, as the word is commonly restricted, and to show that he is no mere fun-maker. But he is a fun-maker beyond all question, and he has made millions laugh as no other man of our century has done. The laughter he has aroused is wholesome and self-respecting; it clears the atmosphere. For this we cannot but be grateful. As Lowell said, "let us not be ashamed to confess that, if we find the tragedy a bore, we take the profoundest satisfaction in the farce. It is a mark of sanity." There is no laughter in Don Quixote, the noble enthusiast whose wits are unsettled; and there is little on the lips of _Alceste_, the misanthrope of Moliere; but for both of them life would have been easier had they known how to laugh. Cervantes himself, and Moliere also, found relief in laughter for their melancholy; and it was the sense of humor which kept them tolerantly interested in the spectacle of humanity, altho life had prest hardly on them both. On Mark Twain also life has left its scars; but he has bound up his wounds and battled forward with a stout heart, as Cervantes did, and Moliere. It was Moliere who declared that it was a strange business to undertake to make people laugh; but even now, after two centuries, when the best of Moliere's plays are acted, mirth breaks out again and laughter overflows.

It would be doing Mark Twain a disservice to compare him to Moliere, the greatest comic dramatist of all time; and yet there is more than one point of similarity. Just as Mark Twain began by writing comic copy which contained no prophesy of a masterpiece like 'Huckleberry Finn,' so Moliere was at first the author only of semi-acrobatic farces on the Italian model in no wise presaging 'Tartuffe' and the 'Misanthrope.' Just as Moliere succeeded first of all in pleasing the broad public that likes robust fun, and then slowly and step by step developed into a dramatist who set on the stage enduring figures plucked out of the abounding life about him, so also has Mark Twain grown, ascending from the 'Jumping Frog' to 'Huckleberry Finn,' as comic as its elder brother and as laughter-provoking, but charged also with meaning and with philosophy. And like Moliere again, Mark Twain has kept solid hold of the material world; his doctrine is not of the earth earthy, but it is never sublimated into sentimentality. He sympathizes with the spiritual side of humanity, while never ignoring the sensual. Like Moliere, Mark Twain takes his stand on common-sense and thinks scorn of affectation of every sort. He understands sinners and strugglers and weaklings; and he is not harsh with them, reserving his scorching hatred for hypocrites and pretenders and frauds.

At how long an interval Mark Twain shall be rated after Moliere and Cervantes it is for the future to declare. All that we can see clearly now is that it is with them that he is to be classed,--with Moliere and Cervantes, with Chaucer and Fielding, humorists all of them, and all of them manly men.


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