Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.Chapter 7. Mark Twain
To be a “humorist” in the United States of the sixties and seventies was to belong to an understood and accepted class. It meant, as Orpheus C. Kerr and John Phœnix and Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby and Artemus Ward had recently and typically been showing, to make fun as fantastically as one liked but never to rise to beauty; to be intensely shrewd but never profound; to touch pathos at intervals but never tragedy. The humorist assumed a name not his own, at Mark Twain did, and also generally a character—that of some rustic sage or adventurous eccentric who discussed the topics of the moment keenly and drolly. Under his assumed character, of which he ordinarily made fun, he claimed a wide license of speech, which did not, however, extend to indecency or to any very serious satire. His fun was the ebullience of a strenuous society, the laughter of escape from difficult conditions. It was rooted fast in that optimism which Americans have had the habit of considering a moral obligation. It loved to ridicule those things which to the general public seemed obstacles to the victorious progress of an average democracy; it laughed about equally at idlers and idealists, at fools and poets, at unsuccessful sinners and unsuccessful saints. It could take this attitude toward minorities because it was so confident of having the great American majority at its back, hearty, kindly, fair-intentioned, but self-satisfied and unspeculative. In time Mark Twain partly outgrew this type of fun—or rather, had frequent intervals of a different type and also of a fierce seriousness—but the origins of his art lie there. So do the origins of his ideas lie among the populace, much as he eventually outgrew of the evangelical orthodoxy and national complacency and personal hopefulness with which he had first been burdened. The secret alike of his powers and of his limitations must be looked for in the dual, the never quite completed, nature which allowed him on one side to touch, say, Petroleum V. Nasby and on the other William Dean Howells.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in 1835 at Florida, Missouri, a cluster of houses which the boy’s father, in something the fashion of Judge Hawkins in The Gilded Age, confidently expected to become a metropolis. As it did not, the family soon removed to Hannibal, in the same state, which was on the Mississippi and so daily witnessed if not shared the river’s prosperity. There Clemens passed a boyhood and youth nearly as irresponsible as Huckleberry Finn’s and nearly as imaginative and mischievous as Tom Sawyer’s. Neither studious by nature nor offered even tolerable opportunities for study, he left school at twelve upon the death of his father, and was apprenticed to a printer in the town. For three years with him and later for three years more with his own elder brother, who had bought a newspaper, Clemens worked in this department of literature, beginning as well to write jokes and whimsical skits in the manner approved up and down the river. Then he carried his trade into a larger world, seeing the sights as a skilled workman could then see them in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Keokuk, and Cincinnati, and finally in 1857 planning, as his visionary father before him might have done, to go to Brazil to pick up a fortune. Instead, however, a chance conversation with a pilot on the Mississippi decided him to enter the pilot’s profession, to which practically every boy in the river towns then aspired.
If Mark Twain’s years as a printer represent a more or less academic aspect of his training, his four years as a pilot are its technical aspect. His Life on the Mississippi makes clear how exacting his new profession was; how much erudition it called for to know twelve hundred miles of shifting current by day or night, with absolute certainty; how much responsibility for life and property lay in his hands. His powerful mind absorbed the necessary knowledge easily. His spirit delighted in the authority and prominence which his position gave. He had now a point of vantage from which he could look down on the whole pageant of the Mississippi. And that was a spectacle such as modern life has afforded at only a few times and in a few places. An enormous commerce flowed up and down the river, attended by every hue and condition of mankind. The United States filed by under the pilot’s observation: merchants about their business, planters on their occasional visits to the towns, laborers looking for work, immigrants on the way to new homes, curiosity-seekers and pleasure-hunters, slaves and slave-traders, stowaways and visiting noblemen and sportsmen. So much traffic called for a vast machinery to move it and entertain it and prey upon it: steamboats which competition forced to be swift and beautiful; skilled navigators, with the pilots chief among them; crews for the boats and roustabouts for the landing-stages; shipping agents, shore hotels, musicians, gamblers, and harpies of another sex. All these Mark Twain had an opportunity to observe at an age when most future authors are still at their books. He absorbed them as thoroughly as the lore of his craft. “In that brief, sharp schooling,” he later wrote, “I got personally and familiarly acquainted with all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history.”
The Civil War, however, ended this vivid chapter, and the pilot for whom there was now no longer a vocation, after a brief period of comically bloodless service in the Confederate army, became a wanderer again, starting off by stage-coach across the plains with his brother, lately appointed secretary of the Territory of Nevada. Then followed nine years of travel and adventure by far the most varied which had ever gone into the making of an American novelist. There was too much of the sanguinary in his Clemens blood for Mark Twain to resist the temptations to huge and easy wealth which the Far West offered; he tried for gold and silver, bought in mining stock, took up timber claims. And there seemed to be little either in himself or in the lax society of the West capable of directing him to the literary career for which his powers were being assembled. A writer, however, he did become, picking up local items for the Virginia City Enterprise and reporting the sessions of the legislature at Carson City. Here in 1863 he first used the name “Mark Twain,” a leadsman’s term which he recalled from the Mississippi and which had, indeed, already been used by another writing pilot. The same year Mark Twain met Artemus Ward, then lecturing in Virginia City, and was pleased with his praise. The year following, having been forced to leave Nevada by participation in a farcical duel, Mark Twain took himself to San Francisco, where he wrote for various papers and came under the tutelage of Bret Harte. While there he wrote the Jumping Frog story which Artemus Ward wanted to use in a volume of his own but which instead appeared in a New York newspaper late in 1865 and tickled the country. A trip to the Sandwich Islands still further enlarged Mark Twain’s horizon and his journalistic reputation. In 1866 he tried humorous lecturing with unequivocal success, made money, traveled to the East by the way of Panama, convulsed New York at Cooper Union, and in 1867 sailed for the Mediterranean and Palestine on an excursion of which he became the hilarious chronicler in his first important book, The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869.
The sudden, the almost explosive fame which the book brought him sharply lights up the taste of the period which produced it. Of the older American schools the Knickerbockers had ceased to exist; in New England Hawthorne and Thoreau were dead and the creative vitality of their generation had waned. The rising men of genius looked to Europe for their guides: Whistler was established in London; Henry James was being sealed to the Old World; even Howells, loyally native as he was, worked upon his native material with the most classical tools. Only Whitman had stayed relentlessly at home, and he was still speaking prophecy out of a dim and narrow cloud. Upon this scene Mark Twain burst with a ringing American hurrah, a “powerful uneducated person” of the sort Whitman had promised. Once more the frontier came back upon the older communities as it had done under Andrew Jackson, when David Crockett was a nine-days’ wonder. But Mark Twain was more than a shrewd, barely literate backwoodsman. He had a tumultuous rush of expression; he had, moreover, thanks to Artemus Ward and his fellows, a literary form already prepared for him. Being expected, as a humorist of that type, to employ burlesque, he employed it to make fun of ecstatic travelers, particularly of those whose ecstasy followed the guidebook rather than their own taste and always rose with the reputation of the thing seen. Being expected, too, to be irreverent for humorous effect, he laughed at everything that did not seem to him overpoweringly sacred, and even from sacred moods often extricated himself with a jest. These were the conventions of his order. And as he was individually a husky, unashamed Westerner, when he found much in ancient art and scenery that, to his limited appreciation, fell below what he had heard of it, he said so in a loud voice irritating to fastidious ears. His public, however, was not fastidious. Relieved by the absence of that note of breathlessness which had oppressed it in earlier travel books, it gasped and then roared. Here was a writer who scratched the surface of American culture and found beneath it the rough, insouciant, skeptical, hilarious fiber of the pioneer. Undoubtedly Innocents Abroad flattered the mob with the spectacle of free-born Americans romping through venerable lands and finding them on so many counts inferior to America. The practical jokes of the book have lost much of their power to entertain; nor do the purple pages on which Mark Twain set down, in beadrolls of glorious names, his sense of the might and thunder of antiquity now sound so eloquent as they probably sounded in the sixties. But sweep and vigor and jolting contrasts and pealing laughter have not deserted the book. It remains an essential document in the biography of Mark Twain and in the history of American civilization.
If confessed mendacity playing around facts can transform them into fiction, both Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, published in 1872, approach the novel. Contemporary readers thought of them as reasonably true, allowing the author, however, the large license of the successful liar. Now that Mark Twain is no longer in the news his actual exploits concern his readers less and less in comparison with the permanent elements contributed to his work by his elaborating imagination. These elements play a larger part in Roughing It than in Innocents Abroad. Having “taken down” the Old World as measured by the New, he now set up the New in a rollicking, bragging picture of the Great West where he had acquired his standards of landscape and excitement. His account, shaped to look like autobiography, takes him from St. Louis across the plains to the Rockies and on to California and Hawaii. But, unlike the story of the Innocents, this was not written day by day with the events still green in the mind. They had had time to ripen in the imagination and to take on a significance which the deepest impression can never have at the first moment. Roughing It is uneven in tone and in excellence; the exposition falls below the description, which is ordinarily florid, and neither can equal the narration, particularly when it runs lustily across the plains with the rocking stage-coach or when it carries the narrator through his maiden adventures in the mining camps. Although he too frequently falls into the burlesquing habits which still clung to him from his days of Nevada and California journalism, he also rises decisively above them, and above all his predecessors in popular humor, with chapters of genuine poetry, of an epic breadth and largeness, commemorating free, masculine, heroic days.
The tumultuous vogue of these books urged Mark Twain to new efforts in which his hereditary ache for sudden wealth—an ache never discouraged by his Western failures—regularly influenced his literary impulses. His marriage in 1870 to Olivia Langdon of New York, by bringing him into a wealthier and more formal circle than he had known before, still further influenced him. He made plans for being a sort of captain of letters: he would mine his literary ore for lectures, smelt it into newspaper and magazine articles, refine it into books which he would print, publish, and distribute, taking out a large profit for himself from every process. To this extent he shared in the furor of exploitation which followed the war and against which he had no artistic ideals to fortify him. Energy so immense as his could not lightly be held within bounds. Moreover, he had the contention in himself between his original nature, lyrical, explosive, boisterous, and the restraints which he accepted without much question from his fastidious wife and the classical-minded Howells. Between them the two contrived to repress some of his tendencies, those toward blasphemy, profanity, the wilder sorts of impossibility, and also toward satire and plain-speaking. How far he was shorn of real powers no one can say; one can say, however, that under these intenerating censors he moved from the methods which produced The Innocents Abroad to those which produced Huckleberry Finn and Joan of Arc.
The year after his marriage he went to Hartford, where he lived for seventeen years, with intervals of lecturing and occasional sojourns in Europe. At Hartford lived also Mrs. Stowe and Charles Dudley Warner; and with Warner, who to the Mark Twain of that period seemed an important man of letters, he collaborated in a novel, The Gilded Age, which appeared in 1873. The more conventional elements in the book, the Easterners, Philip Sterling and Henry Brierly, and their loves and fortunes, are Warner’s; the more original, the sections portraying Western life and satirizing Congress and Washington, are Mark Twain’s. His, too, is the masterly conception of Colonel Beriah Sellers, the man of hope, who lives constantly in the expectation of an avalanche of unearned increment in his direction. From the collaboration of two such different authors nothing unified could come. Warner’s chapters are usually tame; Mark Twain’s are often noisy and busy with his old burlesque. Neither man shrank from melodrama or hesitated to set it side by side with the most scrupulous realism. But the materials of The Gilded Age are a dozen times better than its art. Perhaps all the more truly because of its lack of balance and perspective does the book reproduce the jangled spirit of the time, its restlessness, its violence, its enthusiasms so singularly blended of the sordid and the altruistic. Colonel Sellers, who has the blood of his creator in him, typifies an entire age which had newly begun to realize the enormous resources of the continent and was mad, was ridiculous, with the fever of desire for sudden riches. The age was gilded. Mark Twain, just arrived from simpler regions, mocked the tedious formalisms and accused the brazen corruptions of the capital. To judge by his share of this joint record he was ready to become a national satirist and to hurl his laughter against a thousand abuses deserving scorn.
A national satirist, however, he did not become. Partly from excess of patriotism, partly from a lack of the literary seriousness which might have enabled him to hold out against the influence of his wife and of his new environment, he did not assume, at least in public, the unpopular rôle of critic. Instead, urged by Howells, he turned back to his Middle Western recollections and wrote for the Atlantic in 1875 his Old Times on the Mississippi, later included in Life on the Mississippi (1883), and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Life on the Mississippi belongs with the most precious American books. The second part, indeed, which reports a journey Mark Twain made in 1882 to visit old scenes, rises in parts little above good reporting, though all of it conveys a sense of the deeps of many memories beneath the adventures it recounts. But the first twenty chapters flash and glow as even the highest passages of Roughing It had not done. Herein are set down with a crowded accuracy warmed by eloquence and affection the impressions of Mark Twain’s eager youth, of his old aspirations toward the river, of his struggle to attain mastery over it, of his consummate hours as pilot. The splendor of those days had grown upon him, not faded, and he who had once entered into their events with the flushed passions of an epic hero now wrought at them with the accomplished strength of an epic poet. In his youth observing the river without one thought that he might some day translate it into art, he had had no bias and no self-consciousness. Now he could go back in his imagination to a world seen round and whole, as men of action see their worlds. He remembered a thousand hard actualities of those elder circumstances. He remembered the dialect, the costume, the amphibious river men, “half horse half alligator” as the ancient phrase had it, the savagery, the danger, the ardors of the pilot’s calling, the thick, stirring panorama of that epoch. He remembered, too, the glamor of those days, the dreams of adventure, the mystery of black nights, the glory of dawn over the yellow water when the atmosphere was full of the songs of invisible birds. And winding through all his memories, like the Mississippi winding through its continent, went the great, muddy, mysterious river which had stirred his imagination for nearly half a century.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer took Mark Twain from epic to comedy. He first planned it as a play and when he decided upon another form for it he had in mind to write a story of boyhood which, like Aldrich’s Story of a Bad Boy, should emphatically depart from the customary type of Sunday school fiction. But its departure from a type is one of the least memorable aspects of Tom Sawyer. Tom and Huck are, indeed, “bad” boys; they have done more than overhear profanity and smell the smoke of pipes; they play outrageous pranks in the fashion of the disapproved youngsters of all small American towns; their exploits have even led both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to be at times barred by librarians in whom zeal exceeds imagination. These qualities in the heroes, however, only conform to the general quality of realism which characterizes Tom Sawyer throughout. To a delicate taste, indeed, the book seems occasionally overloaded with matters brought in at moments when no necessity in the narrative calls for them. The boyish superstitions, delectable as they are in themselves, tend to lug Tom Sawyer to the documentary side of the line which divides documents from works of art. Nor can the murder about which the story is built up be said to dominate it very thoroughly. The story moves forward in something the same manner as did the plays of the seventies, with exits and entrances not always motivated. And yet a taste so delicate as to resent these defects of structure would probably not appreciate the flexibility of the narrative, its easy, casual gait, its broad sweep, its variety of substance. Mark Twain drives with careless, sagging reins, but he holds the general direction. Most of his readers remember certain episodes, particularly the white-washing of the fence and the appearance of the boys at their own funeral, rather than the story as a whole. To inquire into the causes of this is to find that the plot of Tom Sawyer means considerably less than the characters. A hundred incidents beside those here chosen would have served as well; the characters are each of them unique. Certain of them come directly from the life, notably the vagabond Huckleberry Finn and Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher, the Gang, and Tom Sawyer himself, who, though compounded of numerous elements, essentially reproduces the youthful figure of his creator. Such a mixture of rich humor and serious observation had never before been devoted to the study of a boy in fiction. Mark Twain smiles constantly at the absurd in Tom’s character, but he portrays him in the dignity of full length; he does not laugh him into insignificance or lecture him into the semblance of a puppet. Boys of Tom’s age can follow his fortunes without discomfort or boredom. At the same time, there are overtones which most juvenile fiction entirely lacks and which continue to delight those adults who Mark Twain said, upon finishing his story, alone would ever read it. At the moment he must have felt that the poetry and satire of Tom Sawyer outranked the narrative, and he was right. They have proved the permanent, at least the preservative, elements of a classic.
Tom Sawyer cannot be discussed except in connection with its glorious sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). “By and by,” Mark Twain had written to Howells when he announced the completion of Tom Sawyer, “I shall take a boy of twelve and run him through life (in the first person)”; and he had begun the new book almost at once; but with characteristic uncertainty of taste he had lost interest in it and turned to struggle over a preposterous detective comedy which he wanted to name Balaam’s Ass. Again in 1880 and finally in 1883 he came back to his masterpiece, published two years later. In spite of this hesitation and procrastination Huckleberry Finn has remarkable unity. To tell a story in the first person was second nature to Mark Twain. His travel books had so been told, no matter what non-autobiographical episodes he might elect to bring in. But he was more than a humorous liar; he was an instinctive actor; Sir Henry Irving regretted that Mark Twain had never gone upon the stage. Once he had decided to tell the story through Huck Finn’s mouth he could proceed at his most effortless pace. And his sense of identity with the boy restricted him to a realistic substance as no principles of art, in Mark Twain’s case, could have done. With the first sentence he fell into an idiom and a rhythm flawlessly adapted to the naïve, nasal, drawling little vagabond. “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” It has been remarked that Huck appears rather more conscious of the charms of external nature than his Hannibal prototype, Tom Blankenship, doubtless was; and of course, strictly speaking, he rises above lifelikeness altogether by his gift for telling a long yarn which has artistic economy and satiric point. But something like this may be said of all heroes presented in the first person. Mark Twain, though for the time being he had relapsed to the shiftless lingo of his boyhood companion, was after all acting Huck for the sake of interpreting him; and interpretation enlarges the thing interpreted. Tom Sawyer acquires a new solidity by being shown here through the eyes of another boy, who, far from laughing at Tom’s fanciful ways of doing plain tasks, admires them as the symptoms of a superior intelligence. After this fashion all the material of the narrative comes through Huck’s perceptions. Mouthpiece for others, Huck is also mouthpiece for himself so competently that the whole of his tough, ignorant, generous, loyal, pyrotechnically mendacious nature lies revealed.
And yet virtues still larger than the structural unity thus imparted make Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain’s masterpiece. In richness of life Tom Sawyer cannot compare with it. The earlier of the two books keeps close home in one sleepy, dusty village, illuminated only, at inconvenient moments, by Tom Sawyer’s whimsies. But in Huckleberry Finn the plot, like Mark Twain’s imagination, goes voyaging. Five short chapters and Huck leaves his native village for the ampler world of the picaresque. An interval of captivity with his father—that unpleasant admonitory picture of what Huck may some day become if he outgrows his engaging youthful fineness—and then the boy slips out upon the river which is the home of his soul. There he realizes every dream he has ever had. He has a raft of his own. He has a friend, the negro Jim, with the strength of a man, the companionableness of a boy, and the fidelity of a dog. He can have food for the fun of taking it out of the water or stealing it from along the shore. He sleeps and wakes when he pleases. The weather of the lower Mississippi in summer bites no one. At the same time, this life is not too safe. Jim may be caught and taken from his benefactor. With all his craft, Huck is actually, as a boy, very much at the mercy of the rough men who infest the river. Adventure complicates and enhances his freedom. And what adventure! It never ceases, but flows on as naturally as the river which furthers the plot of the story by conveying the characters from point to point. Both banks are as crowded with excitement, if not with danger, as the surrounding forest of the older romances. Huck can slip ashore at any moment and try his luck with the universe in which he moves without belonging to it. Now he is the terrified and involuntary witness of a cruel murder plot, and again of an actual murder. Now he strays, with his boy’s astonished simplicity, into the Grangerford-Shepherdson vendetta and sees another Romeo and Juliet enacted in Kentucky. In the undesired company of the “king” and the “duke,” certainly two as sorry and as immortal rogues as fiction ever exhibited, Huck is initiated into degrees of scalawaggery which he could not have experienced, at his age, alone; into amateur theatricals as extraordinary as the Royal Nonesuch and frauds as barefaced as the impostures practised upon the camp-meeting and upon the heirs of Peter Wilks. After sights and undertakings so Odyssean, the last quarter of the book, given over to Tom Sawyer’s romantic expedients for getting Jim, who is actually free already, out of a prison from which he could have been released in ten minutes, is preserved from the descent into anticlimax only by its hilarious comic force. As if to make up for the absence of more sizable adventures, this mimic conspiracy is presented with enough art and enough reality in its genre studies to furnish an entire novel. That, in a way, is the effect of Huckleberry Finn as a whole: though the hero, by reason of his youth, cannot entirely take part in the action, and the action is therefore not entirely at first hand, the picture lacks little that could make it more vivid or veracious.
In the futile critical exercise of contending which is the greatest American novel, choice ordinarily narrows down at last to The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn—a sufficiently antipodean pair and as hard to bring into comparison as tragedy and comedy themselves. Each in its department, however, these two books do seem to be supreme. The Scarlet Letter offers, by contrast, practically no picture; Huckleberry Finn, no problem. Huck undergoes, it is true, certain naggings from the set of unripe prejudices he calls his conscience; and once he rises to an appealing unselfishness when, in defiance of all the principles he has been taught to value, he makes up his mind that he will assist the runaway slave to freedom. But in the sense that The Scarlet Letter poses problems, Huckleberry Finn poses none at all. Its criticism of life is of another sort. It does not work at the instigation of any doctrine, moral or artistic, whatever. As Hawthorne, after long gazing into the somber dusk over ancient Salem, had seen the universal drama of Hester and Dimmesdale and Chillingworth being transacted there, and had felt it rising within him to expression, so Mark Twain, in the midst of many vicissitudes remembering the river of his youthful happiness, had seen the panorama of it unrolling before him and also had been moved to record it out of sheer joy in its old wildness and beauty, assured that merely to have such a story to tell was reason enough for telling it. Having written Life on the Mississippi he had already reduced the river to his own language; having written Tom Sawyer, he had got his characters in hand. There wanted only the moment when his imagination should take fire at recollection and rush away on its undogmatic task of reproducing the great days of the valley. Had Mark Twain undertaken to make another and a greater Gilded Age out of his matter, to portray the life of the river satirically on the largest scale, instead of in such dimensions as fit Huck’s boyish limitations of knowledge, he might possibly have made a better book, but he would have had to be another man. Being the man he was, he touched his peak of imaginative creation not by taking thought how he could be a Balzac to the Mississippi but by yarning with all his gusto about an adventure he might have had in the dawn of his days. Although he did not deliberately gather riches, riches came.
A Tramp Abroad (1880), written about a walking trip which Mark Twain made in 1878 through the Black Forest and to the Alps with his friend the Rev. Joseph H. Twitchell, continued his now expected devices in humorous autobiography, without any important innovations. Certain episodes and certain descriptive passages emerge from the general level, but even they only emphasize the debt his imagination owed to memory. Writing too close to his facts he could never be at his richest. In 1882 he published his first historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper, avowedly for children and yet packed with adult satire in its account of how by a change of clothes Prince Edward, later Edward VI of England, and Tom Canty, a London beggar boy, underwent also a change of station and for an instructive period each tasted the other’s fare. By some such dramatic contrast Mark Twain, the radical American, preferred always to express his opinion of monarchical societies; like the older patriots, he set hatred for kings as the first article in his political creed. Of this important side of his nature the most characteristic utterances are to be found in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), which deserves also to be considered one of the most thoroughly typical books yet produced by the American democracy. It is typical in method and typical in conclusion. With the brash irresponsibility of frontier vaudeville it catches up a hard, dry, obstreperous Yankee, hurries him back through thirteen centuries, and dumps him, with all his wits about him, into Camelot. Speaking in terms of literary history, the Yankee is an anti-romance; it indicates a reaction from the sentimentalism about the Middle Ages which had recently been feeding on Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, William Morris’s Earthly Paradise, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Pater, and now was languishing in the sunflower cult of Oscar Wilde. Gilbert and Sullivan had already satirized this cult in Patience, by exposing the affectations of the æsthetes who professed it. Mark Twain, partly aroused by the strictures on America of Matthew Arnold, went to work in a more burly way. Let us see, he said in effect, how this longing for the past would work out if gratified. What about the plain man under Arthur? What about plumbing and soap and medicines and wages and habeas corpus? What filth and superstition and cruelty did the pomps of feudalism not overlay? Mark Twain behaves as the devil’s advocate in the Yankee, candidly ascribing to the sixth century the abuses of other older ages as well as its own. Perhaps, since he habitually read Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and had a natural tenderness for its chivalric postures, he even exhibits a special animus arising from civil war within himself. At any rate, he let himself run almost without check among sixth-century scenes as he imagined them, ridiculing follies with a burlesque as riotous as that in The Innocents Abroad, and adding to it the more serious anger which had grown upon him. To appreciate the fun of the Yankee one must have been accustomed to the rowdy modes of American humor; to feel all its censure one must have at least a strain of the revolutionary. And yet persons equipped with neither may perceive the magnificent vigor of the narrative. It ranges from ludicrous to sublime; from the tears of hysterical laughter to the tears of broken pity. With such consequences a barbarian of genius might burst into the court of some narrow principality; he would shatter a thousand delicately poised decorums—many of them harmless enough—and expose a thousand obnoxious shams.
The irritation caused in England and among cultivated Americans by this slashing satire might have been allayed had Mark Twain turned his weapon toward grievances at home. Instead, his next and last large experiment in fiction was the Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, published anonymously after long incubation in 1896. His decisive preference for this among all his books may perhaps be ascribed to the unusual labor to which he was put by an unprecedented task; it may also be ascribed to a lifelong interest in Joan which, beginning as a boy’s sympathy for a girl’s tragic fate, finally amounted to a genuine reverence for the Maid which saw in her the symbol of innocence undone by malice and corruption. Like his fierce essay In Defense of Harriet Shelley (1894) and his movingly tender Eve’s Diary (1905), Joan of Arc illuminates that region in Mark Twain’s nature which practised a sort of secular Mariolatry. Many American frontiersmen by their quite undoctrinal worship of womankind at large often approached the worship of the Madonna. Of course, this Joan of Arc pretends to be narrated by the friend and secretary of the heroine; but the authentic tones of Mark Twain again and again drown the reminiscent treble of Louis de Conte. Against a confused, somber, truthful enough background he raises the white banner of the Maid. She is herself the banner, the quintessence of a cause. He accepts the voices without a question; nor do they seem particularly superhuman by comparison with the radiant sweetness and wisdom with which he endows her. The book constitutes his answer to the charge brought up by the Innocents Abroad and the Yankee, that he lacked reverence for names made sacred to men by good report; it is proof that he commanded the accents of adoration. In its own right, however, it must rank below an imaginative achievement like Huckleberry Finn because it is less thoroughly grounded than that book in any real experience. Over too many chapters of Joan of Arc droops the languid haze which accompanied all the historical romances of the American nineties. Only in the final third, which deals with the trial and which masterfully employs the original records, does Mark Twain knit his passion with his facts in the degree which breaks down the boundaries ordinarily only too able to divide romance from reality.
After Joan of Arc he wrote nothing equal to it in dimension and ambition. He gave up his house at Hartford and lived somewhat randomly, in various European cities, in New York, at Riverdale-on-Hudson, and finally from 1908 till his death two years later in his new house, Stormfield, at Redding, Connecticut. His sweetness had begun to grow weary and turn more and more insistently to thought which was neither sweet nor gay. His pessimism appears unmistakably in Following the Equator (1897), fruit of a lecture tour round the world which at sixty he had courageously undertaken to pay off the burden of debts due to his failure as a publisher. His great schemes for a fortune had failed; a beloved daughter died while he was on his royal progress; the antiquity of Asia appalled him. Though now a national figure, by popular suffrage the national man of letters, he had for some years suffered from a diffusion, if not a dimimunition, of his power. The American Claimant (1892), returning to Colonel Sellers of The Gilded Age for material, and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), had none of them fulfilled expectations naturally aroused. Even the better novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) defied the efforts he put into it and escaped his control as he wrote. Part of it moved off into unrestrained farce and had to be issued separately as Those Extraordinary Twins; part of it developed into the seriously conceived tragedy of Roxana and her son—but a tragedy founded on the conventional device of infants changed in the cradle. It adds something to Mark Twain’s documentary value by its picture of Virginians in the West and by its principal character, Pudd’nhead Wilson. As an amateur detective he illustrates the interest which Mark Twain, who liked all sorts of ingenuity, took in stories of the detection of crime, an interest also illustrated by A Double Barrelled Detective Story (1902). But Pudd’nhead is more memorable as the village atheist, whose maxims, printed at the head of each chapter in this book and also in Following the Equator, so frequently express the tired disillusionment which was becoming Mark Twain’s characteristic mood. “Pity,” says Pudd’nhead, “is for the living, envy is for the dead.”
“I have been reading the morning paper,” Mark Twain wrote to Howells in 1899. “I do it every morning—well knowing that I shall find in it the usual depravities and basenesses and hypocrisies and cruelties that make up civilization, and cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race.” Some such despair of mankind had furnished a strain in his constitution from his early days. He had the frontiersman’s contempt for the ordinary gestures of idealism. Judged by his simple, though inflexible, code of morals the world fell pitifully short. The human race he observed to be lazy, selfish, envious, given to lying, disposed to disease and vice and crime, fawning in adversity, tyrannical in prosperity, and at all times the dupe of countless errors. “Let me make the superstitions of a nation and I care not who makes its laws or its songs either.” At the same time, Mark Twain largely lacked the outlet of misanthropy; he could not, because of his natural kindliness, help himself by laying his hatred of the race upon his fellows. His hatred came home and condemned him too. “What a man sees in the human race is merely himself in the deep and honest privacy of his own heart.” In such a companionship he pitied men more than he hated them. “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
In various unendurable hours, however, Mark Twain did seek something upon which to throw off his burden. In theology a deist of the school of Paine and Ingersoll, with a tincture of modern science added to the iron conscience of old-fashioned backwoods Calvinism, he invented a machine more or less in the image of a god, and held it to account for the blunders of the world. The human individual, he argued in What Is Man? (written in 1898 but not printed until 1906 and then privately), is a mere automaton, without choice as to his birth or as to any impulse or thought or action, good or bad. Each decision follows irresistibly from precedent circumstances and so on back to the protoplasmic beginnings. Beliefs and resolutions cannot control behavior, which follows instinctively from the temperament with which the individual is endowed and which operates under the sleepless rule of the master-passion, the desire for self-approval. Punishment and censure are consequently meaningless; so is remorse. Mark Twain, who had no more than an amateur’s learning in ethical systems, believed his doctrine of scientific determinism to be far more novel and contributory than it was. As a matter of fact, not the logical but the personal aspects of his contentions are impressive. By them he unconsciously defended himself from the savage, the morbid attacks of self-condemnation and remorse from which he repeatedly suffered for all his peccadilloes. Only by assuring himself that no one deserves such blame could Mark Twain quiet his raging conscience. The fault lies with the bungled system on which the universe is made; with the intelligences which created it and continue to play wanton pranks upon it; still more upon any competent intelligence, if there is one, which refuses to exercise mercy and destroy the miserable race of men.
Such philosophic nihilism did not constantly possess Mark Twain during the disturbed last dozen years of his life. In The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899) he produced a corrosive apologue on the effects of greed, which here overthrows all the respectable reputations in a smug provincial town. Only one of them wins pity; the others appear not as moral automatons but as responsible thieves and hypocrites. And similarly The $30,000 Bequest (1904) traces in a foolish couple the fatal influence of the anticipation of wealth. What Mark Twain had once thought hugely comic in Colonel Sellers he had now come, after his own hot hopes and disappointments, to regard as one of the first of follies, if not of offenses. In neither story, however, are the negligent or malicious higher powers shown at work, unless it is through the poor frailties of the men and women. Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (published 1908 but written fully forty years before) took a very substantial sailor to heaven as the Connecticut Yankee had taken a skeptical mechanic to Arthur’s Court. That Mark Twain originally thought his whimsy blasphemous and suppressed it so long shows how orthodox—and how unimaginative—was the social stratum from which he derived and which might actually have winced at light references to jasper walls and pearly gates.
For intellectual energy Stormfield cannot be mentioned in the same breath with The Mysterious Stranger, written during the dark night of Mark Twain’s spirit in 1898 and issued posthumously (1916). The scene lies ostensibly in sixteenth-century Austria but actually, to all intents, in the Hannibal of Tom and Huck. Boys like these make up the central group; the narrator, Theodor Fischer, is as much Mark Twain as Tom Sawyer ever was. To them comes at times a supernatural playmate calling himself Philip Traum but rightly Satan, nephew of the mightier potentate of that name. Though he plays terrible pranks upon the villagers, he seems beneficence itself as compared to them, with their superstition and cowardice and cruelty. And all the time he acts, for the three boys, as commentator upon the despicable human race, “a museum of diseases, a home of impurities,” which “begins as dirt and departs as stench”; which uses its boasted moral sense to know good from evil and then to follow evil. The sole redeeming fact in human life, Philip assures Theodor in the end, is that “Life itself is only a vision, a dream.… Nothing exists save empty space—and you.… Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fictions. Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane—like all dreams,… the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks—in a word,… they are a dream, and you the maker of it.” “I myself,” says Philip, like Prospero breaking his wand, “have no existence; I am but a dream.… In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever—for you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!”
Although it was out of such deeps of despair that there rose into Mark Twain’s work the profounder qualities which lift him above all other American humorists, he nevertheless customarily lived and wrote nearer the surfaces of existence. Heretical as he might be in his theology, he nevertheless employed—when he employed anything of the sort—the Christian mythology of the Sunday school, God and Satan, Heaven and Eden, the patriarchs and the heathen, all of them referred to in a language immediately understood by the populace which, with or without faith, shared that mythology. So in his political doctrines, though privately he might be now as Utopian as Nietzsche, he spoke in the American idiom as regards the usurping despots of the earth, the rights of the natural man, the superiority of republics to monarchies, the advantage of material well-being, the hope that through individual freedom and public education the human mass might be advanced to a plane never yet reached. He could rage over such abuses as Congressional stupidity and municipal graft, the brutality of the civil mob at home and the military mob in the Philippines, and yet could turn with patriotic fury against foreign detractors, as in his flaying of Paul Bourget for that critic’s sharp remarks about the United States. So also the geographical or historical culture taken for granted in Mark Twain’s books was that of the average American, who knows more about Palestine than about Greece, more about Rome than about all the rest of the Mediterranean, more about England than about all the rest of Europe, more about the American Revolution and Civil War than about all the rest of history put together; who catches readily any references to Cæsar or Shakespeare or George Washington or Napoleon but not so readily those to Cato or Leonardo da Vinci or Goethe or Pasteur. And finally, the typical heroes of Mark Twain’s imagined universe are of the sort considered typical in America. They walk the world, like the Yankee in medieval England, the Innocents in the Holy Land, Captain Stormfield in Heaven itself, erect and confident, neither cultivated nor colonial enough to be embarrassed, testing and measuring all things by the simplest standards. They are as clannish as provincials and as cocksure as pioneers. Occasionally obsessed by the Puritan conscience, they lack the eccentric ideals of holiness, mysticism, poetry. Although brave enough in the flesh, they rarely have the courage to be original. In the spirit they rise as high as to a certain chivalry toward women, and toward children, and to an occasional fine, heroic altruism; but they rarely rise higher. Their moral concerns are about industry, common honesty, domestic loyalty, good comradeship, sensible habits of mind and body. Profane and irreverent enough, they are generally chaste and considerate. They hold cruelty to be the principal vice and democratic friendliness the principal virtue.
The art of Mark Twain springs hardly less truly than his ideas from the American people as a whole. “I like history, biography, travel, curious facts and strange happenings, and science,” he said. “And I detest novels, poetry, and theology.” He would have been the last to reflect in what category his own writing fell, and he scarcely considered himself a novelist at all. For the more sophisticated in that department he had no use. He could not stand Henry James or George Eliot or Hawthorne; he found Scott an unendurable snob and Cooper a literary bungler; he developed his loathing for Jane Austen until he came to take a positive delight in uttering it in the most violent language; and his admiration for the work of Howells must be assigned to his affection for the man. Mark Twain’s taste lay wholly in the direction of large actions, large passions, large scenery. That he moved so casually over the face of the earth and through the historical periods that he knew is proof enough that he possessed none of the professed realist’s timidity when on unaccustomed ground. No Franklin and no later diplomatist in shirt sleeves ever felt more at home in temerarious surroundings than did Mark Twain. This same confidence, which deprived him of the austere seriousness of some men of letters, stood by him also in his methods. He did not mind a sudden change of key, but could fall from passionate eloquence to burlesque, and climb from farce to tragedy without even thinking whether this comported with the dignity of literature. Though at times he seems to have respected academic judgment too much—especially as represented by Howells and the Atlantic’s audience—and though he latterly resented the opinion that he was a humorist merely, he did depend in his art primarily upon the humorist’s technique. “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art,” he said of the oral method of humor. Now the tricks of oral delivery are those he used most, whether he spoke or wrote. His rapid improvisation has the effect of flowing speech. To all appearances—which are borne out by what is known of his habits of composition—he drove his pen through his sentences at almost the rate of conversation, and had constantly a physical audience in mind. On it he tried his “wandering and purposeless” incongruities, his “slurring of the point,” his “dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, apparently as if one were thinking aloud.” When actually lecturing he could hold, with his inflections and pauses, the attention of the most fastidious hearers as well as of the ordinary crowd, making capital of his lower moments and shading down the higher with humorous deprecation. Perhaps he never realized how far the coldness of print limited him in his control over his readers. At any rate, his methods were essentially oral. They reveal themselves in his partiality for autobiographical narrative, in his rambling sentence-structure, in his anticlimaxes and afterthoughts. Above all they are revealed in his humoristic device of occupying the stage so much of the time in his own person. For Mark Twain to practise his art was, more than with any other American writer, to exhibit and expound his own personality. The greatness of his personality was the measure of his fame.