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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Brander Matthews (1852–1929)

By Mark Twain (1835–1910)

THE CAREER of Mark Twain was as characteristically American as that of Benjamin Franklin; and like Franklin’s it was a career possible only in America. In the eighteenth century Franklin began life in Boston, the son of a poor man who could give him no educational advantages; before he had grown to manhood he removed to Philadelphia where he set up as a printer; he prospered and found leisure for scientific discovery, practical invention, and public service; he came at last to be recognized as the first citizen of the town of his adoption; he was sent to represent Pennsylvania in London, and then to represent the United States in Paris; and when at last in the fullness of years he died, he was of all Americans born before George Washington, the best known abroad and the best beloved at home. In the nineteenth century Mark Twain saw the light in a struggling little town in Missouri; he had scant schooling; after wide wanderings as a journeyman printer, he became a river pilot, then a miner in Nevada, a journalist in California, a correspondent in Europe, a lecturer throughout the United States; in his maturity he turned story-teller and won immediate popularity on all the shores of all the Seven Seas; and when he had attained to threescore years and ten, he had become an international figure, known and loved far beyond the boundaries of his native land and of his native language.

Like Franklin again Mark Twain was as American in his character as he was in his career, indisputably indigenous to the soil of his nativity. Like Franklin he was a humorist who was far more than a mere humorist, who was shrewd, independent, individual, erect on his own feet and doing his own thinking, who could develop into a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan in outlook, without surrender of his standing in the country of his birth, retaining to the end the homely directness of thought and of speech which was his inalienable inheritance.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in the overgrown village of Florida, Missouri, on November 30th, 1835. Four years later the family moved to Hannibal on the Mississippi River where young Clemens spent his boyhood in the atmosphere that he was later to recreate lovingly in ‘Tom Sawyer.’ When he was sixteen he learnt to set type; and when he was eighteen he started out as a journeyman printer, straying as far East as New York. In 1857, when he was twenty-two, he fulfilled an early ambition and became a Mississippi pilot, only to have this calling prohibited four years later when the Civil War broke out and traffic on the mighty stream ceased abruptly. After a few days of service in a company training for the Confederate army, he went out to Nevada, accompanying his elder brother; and his experiences in this expanding community he has narrated in ‘Roughing It.’ He was twenty-seven when he turned reporter on a Virginia City paper; and he was twenty-eight when he adopted the pen-name of Mark Twain. The next year, 1864, found him in San Francisco contributing frequently to its newspapers and infrequently to weeklies in Philadelphia and New York. The ‘Jumping Frog’ printed in a New York journal in 1865 was instantly appreciated; and it gave the title to a volume of comic sketches published in 1867.

The year before this first book appeared he had taken a voyage to the Sandwich Islands; and he had made his first appearance as a lecturer. In 1867, he came East again to find that his reputation as a humorist had preceded him, and that he could attract to hear him talk on the platform an audience which filled Cooper Union. And in that year he made his first visit to Europe in the chartered steamer and in the selected company which he described in the letters he had been engaged to write for a California journal. On his return to America he revised this newspaper correspondence and the resulting volume called the ‘Innocents Abroad’ was published in 1869. Mark Twain was thirty-four years old when the success of this book gave him immediate celebrity, established his position as a writer to be reckoned with and assured him of an income.

Although he continued to lecture, he still thought of himself as a newspaper man; and after his marriage in 1870, he bought an interest in a Buffalo daily. Yet only two years later he sold out at a loss, giving up journalism, and removing to Hartford, which was to be the family home for a score of years,—although he was frequently to leave it for long visits to Europe. It was in 1872, the first year of his residence in Hartford, that he published ‘Roughing It’; and in 1873 he collaborated with Charles Dudley Warner in writing ‘The Gilded Age’ which was the first of his longer fictions. To this tale told in partnership, Mark Twain contributed the character of Colonel Mulberry Sellers; and this character he made the central figure of a fortuitously constructed play, acted with popular approval all over the United States for several seasons. It may be noted here that a little later he collaborated with Bret Harte in the composition of another piece, ‘Ah Sin,’ which failed to please the public.

The character of Colonel Sellers was the result of memory rather than of invention; and Mark was encouraged to draw again on the experiences of his youth; ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ was published in 1875. In the next three or four years he issued two or three collections of his humorous sketches. In 1879 he took his family over to Europe for a long visit in the course of which he collected the material for another book of travels, ‘A Tramp Abroad,’ issued in 1880. Then, after he had settled down again in Hartford, he returned to fiction, writing his first historical novel,—if this is a fit term to describe the invented adventures of the ‘Prince and the Pauper’ published in 1882. At the solicitation of Mr. Howells, then the editor of the Atlantic, he had contributed to that magazine half a dozen years earlier half a dozen papers in which he had narrated his adventures and described his emotions when he was a cub-pilot “learning the river”; and these papers, supplemented by observations gathered on a more recent voyage down the river, were put forth in 1883 as ‘Life on the Mississippi.’

And it was life on the Mississippi which supplied both the background and the substance of his next venture in fiction, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ which is a sequel to the earlier ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and which appeared in 1884; it was acclaimed then and it is recognized now as his masterpiece. Not for five years thereafter did he put forth another work of fiction,—‘A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court,’ a daring fantasy which was even less historical than ‘The Prince and the Pauper.’ Then he revived the attractive figure of Colonel Sellers in one of his least attractive stories, ‘The American Claimant’ issued in 1892; and he followed it two years later by the equally unsuccessful revival of another attractive figure in the artificial story called ‘Tom Sawyer Abroad.’ Yet in 1894, the year in which this more or less negligible tale appeared, he published his third long study of life on the Mississippi, ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson,’ in some of its episodes worthy to take its place beside ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn.’

These had been years of prosperity; his books were very profitable and the income from them was augmented by occasional lecturing. But Mark Twain had been successful in depicting Colonel Sellers only because he himself possessed the financial incapacity and the invincible hopefulness with which he had endowed his pathetically humorous character. He made many ill-advised investments; he sank two hundred thousand dollars in a typesetting machine; and then, like Sir Walter Scott, he became the chief supporter of a publishing house. This new enterprise began magnificently with the publication of the ‘Personal Memoirs of Grant,’ which was so well received by the American people, that the widow of the author was paid four hundred thousand dollars in copyright royalties. This first success was not followed by many others; and the later business ventures of Charles L. Webster & Co. were ill-managed and unprofitable; the house accumulated a heavy burden of debt and a few months after the panic of 1893 it had to give up the unavailing struggle. At the age of fifty-eight Mark Twain found himself bereft of all he had made and loaded with a huge debt.

Sir Walter Scott was nearly as old when the same misfortune befell him; and like Scott, Mark Twain made no effort to evade his responsibilities. He reduced his indebtedness by realizing on the assets of the bankrupt firm; and he set out to make the many thousands needed to enable him to be again a free man. Although he had tired of lecturing, he started in 1895 on a tour around the world, talking to huge audiences whenever and wherever he appeared on the platform. His account of this circumnavigation of the globe was called ‘Following the Equator’ and it was published in 1897. The lecture tour itself and this record of its varied aspects had been so profitable that he was able to pay off the last of his creditors early in 1898, less than five years after the failure. In those years, it must also be noted, the ‘Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc’ had appeared anonymously as a serial and had been issued as a book with his signature attached.

This painful period of struggle and of financial redemption was also saddened by the sudden death of his eldest daughter; and the stricken family felt it impossible ever to settle down again in the old Hartford home. Not until the fall of 1900 did they return to America; and Mark Twain’s homecoming was the occasion of a spontaneous outpouring of appreciation and affection from his fellow countrymen. For the next years of his life he was an intermittent resident of New York City, removing to the new home he built at Redding, Connecticut, only a year or two before his death. He made occasional visits to Europe, on one of which in 1904 Mrs. Clemens died; and it must be here recorded that the married life of Mark Twain had been unbroken in its happiness. Five years later, in 1909, the youngest of his three daughters was found dead; and this deepened the melancholy which had always sustained and intensified his humor and which manifested itself more abundantly and more openly in the final years of his life, when he found himself bereft and lonely, despite the warmth of the many friendships which encompassed him.

Yet even in these years of his disillusion and of darkness there were consolations of one kind or another. There was a unanimous recognition of the commanding position which he had won as a man of letters,—a recognition which was not confined to the United States, the British Islands, and the British Empire, but which transcended the boundaries of language and extended to Germany and to France. He was not only an international figure, he was even more emphatically a national figure, inexpugnably American and by that fact the more heartily appreciated by his own country. In 1904 he was one of the seven men chosen by the National Institute of Arts and Letters to found an American Academy of Arts and Letters which should include the leaders in literature, in music, and in the fine arts. In 1905 his seventieth birthday evoked manifold testimonies to the high position he held in the affectionate esteem of his fellow men of letters in all parts of the English-speaking community. And in 1907 the University of Oxford invited him to cross the Atlantic again to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters, an unexpected honor which greatly gratified him. He delighted in the red gown with which he was entitled thereafter to adorn himself, for he retained to the end a Tom Sawyer–like pleasure in being conspicuous.

A uniform library edition of his works began to be published in 1900, seemly tomes in which what he had written could be read without distraction by disfiguring illustrations. His literary activity seems to have been stimulated by the expansion of his fame; and in these final years he produced more abundantly than ever before. He wrote or dictated an autobiography, although he decided to allow only a few passages of this to appear during his lifetime. The same reserve led him to issue only in a privately printed edition a book called ‘What is Man?’ His Swift-like parable, ‘The Man who Corrupted Hadleyburg,’ one of the most incisive of moral tales, gave its name to a volume of shorter pieces; and he issued half a dozen other books long and short, including ‘Extracts from Adam’s Diary’ (1904) and ‘Eve’s Diary’ (1903).

Early in 1910 his health began to fail. He took a trip to Bermuda, where he had several painful attacks and where his condition became serious. He survived to return to Stormfield, his new home at Redding; and there on April 21st, 1910, he died at the ripe age of seventy-four.

From the foregoing record of the salient facts in Mark Twain’s life, the titles of not a few of his books were omitted; He edited a ‘Library of Humor’ (1888). He collected into one volume, ‘How to Tell a Story’ (1897), a selection from his essays and literary criticisms. He found keen enjoyment in analyzing mercilessly the pretensions of ‘Christian Science,’ falsely so-called (1907). He convinced himself that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were really written by Bacon; and he tried to convert the public to his view by an elaborate argument, ‘Is Shakespeare Dead?’ (1909),—an unfortunate tome which only confirmed the evidence supplied by his repeated failure as a playwright that, although he could be on occasion superbly dramatic, he was lacking in intimate understanding of the theatre and of its necessary and unchanging conditions.

Since his death a selection of his speeches has been issued in one volume; and a curious tale entitled ‘The Mysterious Stranger’ was posthumously published in 1916. No announcement has yet been made as to the date when we may expect to receive his autobiography; and the many passages from it which he permitted to be printed in periodicals have not been gathered into a volume. An ample and admirable biography by Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine (1912) contained a few of his letters, as characteristic and as self-revelatory as his more formal writings. He was an indefatigable correspondent, often finding vent for the feelings of the moment in an impulsive missive that he never sent. For thirty years or more he kept up a constant interchange of letters with Mr. Howells; and the publication of the correspondence between the two foremost figures in American literature at the beginning of the twentieth century is to be expected in the future.

Yet nothing which may be published hereafter is likely to modify our knowledge of the man and of the writer derived from the books he sent forth in his lifetime. These books reveal him completely at every stage of his development as a man of letters and of his evolution as a man. They are in many departments of literature, for in his own way he was multifarious. At one time or another he gave to the public comic sketches of many kinds, short stories, literary criticisms, travels, reminiscences, plays, tales of his youth, and historical novels. We can find in them manifold aspects of human life and human character as the panorama of existence unrolled itself before his piercing insight. And the entire body of his work, various as it may seem at first sight, is unified by the fact that it is all of it warranted by his sign-manual, instantly recognizable as his, as his only, so individual as to be impossible to any other man of letters. Even the ‘Joan of Arc,’ from which he deliberately excluded his bolder humor and which he wished to have judged on its own merits without the preconceptions necessarily created by his signature,—even this serious historical evocation could have come from no other pen than his.

His widespread popularity with all sorts and conditions of men was due in a measure to the breadth of his appeal and to the many-sidedness of his work. Not a few of those who were moved by the sincerely reverent treatment of the noble figure of Joan of Arc were repelled by the frolicsome iconoclasm of his ‘Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court,’ and were perhaps shocked at its insistence on the “glorious gospel of equality” as Mr. Howells has suggested. In ‘Huckleberry Finn’ the frank veracity of his portrayal of melancholy conditions of life along the Mississippi in the slave-holding states was offensive to some sensitive souls who sought to have that Odyssey of the great river excluded from public libraries; and yet this very book was held by Robert Louis Stevenson to be the most important contribution to the fiction of our language which had appeared in the decade of its publication. The merciless analysis of human frailty which characterizes ‘The Man who Corrupted Hadleyburg’—one of the austerest and most uncompromising apologues in all literature—disconcerted many of the unthinking who had reveled in the free and spontaneous fun of the ‘Jumping Frog’ and in the rollicking playfulness of ‘Innocents Abroad.’

Now that we can at last survey the work of Mark Twain in the perspective of time, we cannot fail to discover that it is as unequal in merit as it is varied in topic. Sublimated autobiography like ‘Roughing It’ and ‘Life on the Mississippi’ is not more remote in manner from a quasi-historical fantasy such as ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ than is ‘Tom Sawyer,’—an imaginative transcript from actuality as the facts on which it was founded were glimpsed through the haze of memory,—differentiated from the unconvincing unreality of its sorry sequel, ‘Tom Sawyer Abroad,’ not rooted in fact but made out of whole cloth, compounded with arbitrary artificiality. Even in a masterpiece of sustained realism like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ there are passages of exaggerated caricature and of broad burlesque, wherein we are pained to perceive that the King and the Duke are clowning on purpose to evoke our inexpensive laughter.

Probably there is no author attaining at times to the lofty level of Mark Twain’s finest work who is as unequal and as uncertain. Nor is this inequality and uncertainty due to any carelessness of composition. So far as style is concerned he was always doing his best; he is always conscientious, even meticulous. The defect lies below the surface; it is contained in the topic itself and in the treatment imposed by the topic. The most obvious explanation of this distressing fact is that Mark Twain had no solid standard for the evaluation of his own work and that he could not rely on his own judgment. His taste was wavering; and it was sometimes at the mercy of his tricksy fancy. He was modest in self-criticism and he often let those in whose opinions he had confidence, Mrs. Clemens or Mr. Howells, decide against the publication of articles and even of books which he had written with keen satisfaction. But there is another explanation going deeper than this: it is that Mark Twain, rich as he was in interpretive imagination, was more or less insufficiently equipped with the subordinate faculty of invention. When he had to make up a story out of his own head, he was not at his best. He needed to be sustained by the validity of the actual fact, either observed by himself or narrated by an eyewitness. Once possessed of this fact he could make it his own, absorb it, expand it, and set his imagination at work interpreting it. The poet is never prone to invent his myths, preferring apparently to take over the old tales and to bring out their latent beauty and their human significance. In his own way, Mark Twain was a poet, never seen at his best when he was relying solely on his invention, the result of which was likely to reveal the mechanical quality of mere invention. The basis of the ‘Jumping Frog’ was a tale told him in Nevada; and the basis of the Blue Jay chapter in the ‘Tramp Abroad’ was another tale which came to him by word of mouth. These transmitted narratives were the raw material out of which he could make his profit in due season. Out of the transfigured memories of his own boyhood he put together ‘Tom Sawyer’ that self-revelatory portrayal of the perennial boy. In ‘Life on the Mississippi’ he set down various particulars of a vendetta which ended in the destruction of two families; and then in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ we see how these bare facts have taken on color and have been made to surrender their ultimate significance in the account of the Shepardson-Graingerford feud, wherein Mark borrowed the eternal Romeo and Juliet situation to intensify the poignant pathos of a commonplace quarrel often paralleled in many a Southern community.

Although the uncertainties and the inequalities are as evident and as frequent in his later books as in his earlier, a consideration of his writings in chronological sequence instantly reveals his steady progress in his mastery of the art of writing and in his knowledge of the art of life. At the very beginning he was little more than a newspaper fun-maker, a more or less docile pupil of John Phœnix and of Artemus Ward, although he was never tempted to the too easy trick of misfit spelling to which the earlier manufacturers of comic copy had been unduly addicted. He contented himself with what Mr. Howells has neatly termed “the established absurdities of English orthography.” But the paper pattern of Derby and Browne was too thin to be serviceable for long to a writer with the potentiality of Mark Twain; and it was in ‘Innocents Abroad’ that he began to reveal his own characteristics more amply and to disclose himself as something more than a funny man content to scratch at the surface of life. A humorist he remained to the end, the greatest humorist of his age as well as of his country, yet already giving warnings that he was far more than a mere laughter-evoker.

As he gained experience, so he gained confidence, if that had ever been lacking. He sank his shaft deeper into the fundamentals of human nature and he ran out his galleries on all sides to disclose the rambling inconsistencies of humanity. He contrived to make us laugh but he also made us think. He gave us that true comedy of life, which in Meredith’s phrase arouses “thoughtful laughter”; and the reader is to be pitied who finds nothing more in the ‘Connecticut Yankee’ or in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ than a succession of highly amusing episodes. A humorist first of all, Mark Twain was a moralist last of all, with an ethical understanding that penetrated directly down to bed rock and unerringly found the vein of pure gold. Very early in his work he let us see his scorn for snobbishness, for sham, for pretense, for affectation, for meanness, for cruelty,—a scorn that in time burned as hot within him and played forth as volcanically as Molière’s hatred for these same perennially contemptible characteristics.

He had the fecundity of the affluent; and yet it did not need more than a few of his multifarious volumes in half a dozen different departments of literature to make it plain that the concocter of comic copy for a country weekly had developed into a humorist made of sterner stuff, and equipped to conduct an austere inquest into human frailty and human folly. The foundations of his humor were below frost,—as Lowell said of Shakespeare’s; and elsewhere the same keen critic declared that “real wit keeps, real humor is of the same nature in Aristophanes and in Mark Twain.” And Mr. Howells is as keen and as emphatic when he declares that “Mark Twain’s humor is as simple in form and as direct as the statesmanship of Lincoln or the generalship of Grant.”

The obvious reason for this validity of Mark Twain’s humor is that it is rooted in pathos. It may be only a step from the sublime to the ridiculous; but it is less than a step from the comic to the tragic. “Everything human is pathetic,” so one may read at the head of a chapter in ‘Following the Equator,’ one of many instances of the author’s self-confession: “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” Cheerful as Mark Twain might seem, bravely as he might bear himself before men, he was as sorrowful as Cervantes or as Molière; and perhaps at the end he had a deeper despair and a bitterer grief than either of these mighty predecessors in what one of them called the “strange task of making people laugh.” Their American successor had understanding and sympathy and loving-kindness, yet even Swift scarcely ever achieved the misanthropic melancholy of ‘The Man who Corrupted Hadleyburg.’

To dwell unduly on the fact that the humorist was also a moralist may be a little unfair to the humorist that Mark Twain never ceased to be. He was far more than a fun-maker, but he was an exuberant and inexhaustible fun-maker first of all. The laughter he continuously compelled might also provoke thought, but it had no need to do this to justify itself; it was its own excuse for being. He was an immitigable humorist, wielding all the weapons of comedy, satire, irony, and even on occasion, parody. He was a humorist who could create characters which etched themselves unforgettably on the memory of every reader. He was a humorist who was a supreme story-teller and who could handle situation with the simple certainty of the masters; and Robinson Crusoe’s thrill at the discovery of the human footprint on the sand is not finer in its kind than Tom Sawyer’s shrinking back into his recess in the cave when the candle that gleamed hopefully in the distance illuminated the dark hand of Indian Joe. He was a humorist who was also a man of letters, nourishing himself on the strong meat of literature, sitting at the feet of the masters of the written word from Suetonius to Saint-Simon.

As a reader he was as discriminating as he was insatiable, seeking ever a first-hand interpretation of life and therefore preferring to the writers of fiction, the writers of biography and of autobiography. He was as piercing a critic of books as he was of men; and as a critic he was never the bond slave of tradition, being always irreconcilably unacademic and conscientiously individual in his likes and in his dislikes. About books as about men he had his frank and frequent prejudices and his habitual violences of expression. Himself a master of English, ever alert in the quest for the necessary noun and the indispensable adjective, he had no patience with the verbal flatting and sharping of Cooper or with the mincing orotundity of Dowden, dismissing the style of this British critic’s ‘Shelley’ as a “literary cake-walk.”

His own style was indisputably his own, free and flexible, direct and exact, never bookish, always racy with the flavor of the soil, unconsciously American,—like Franklin’s and Lincoln’s. He had at his command an enormous vocabulary, from which only the dead words had been excluded; and he could compel it to do his bidding with effortless ease. The passage describing the Sphinx in the ‘Innocents Abroad’ is worthy to be set by the side of the passage describing the Jungfrau in the ‘Tramp Abroad’; and they are passages unsurpassed in the work of any other master of English prose.

Mark Twain was a stylist and a story-teller, an artist in words and an artist in narration, a fertile creator of character and a lively critic of books and of men, a militant moralist, but above and beyond all these things he was a humorist who made men laugh even if he also on occasion made them think.