The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.VIII. Mark Twain
§ 8. Artistic Ideals
Mark Twain’s literary independence is generally conceded. Except for a certain flavour of Dickens in The Gilded Age there is hardly an indication of any important relationship between him and modern writers. He was a lover of the elemental in the midst of the refinements of an English and an American Victorian Age. “I can’t stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people,” he said. “And as for ‘The Bostonians,’ I would rather be damned to John Bunyan’s heaven than read that.” Modern fiction generally impressed him as namby-pamby and artificial. Jane Austen was his pet abhorrence, but he also detested Scott, primarily for his Toryism, and he poked fun at Cooper for his inaccuracies. His taste for books was eminently masculine. The literary nourishment of his style he appears to have found chiefly in history, travel, biography, and such works of imagination as one puts on a “five-foot shelf”—Shakespeare and the Bible, Suetonius’s Lives of The Cæsars, Malory, Cellini, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, the Memoirs of Casanova, Lecky’s History of Civilization, and Carlyle’s French Revolution.
In his prose as in the verse of Whitman there is an appearance of free improvisation concealing a more or less novel and deliberate art. “So far as I know,” wrote W. D. Howells in 1901, “Mr. Clemens is the first writer to use in extended writing the fashion we all use in thinking, and to set down the thing that comes into his mind without fear or favour of the thing that went before, or the thing that may be about to follow.” Beside this assertion of a spontaneity approaching artlessness let us put Professor Matthews’s caution: “His colloquial ease should not hide from us his mastery of all the devices of rhetoric.” In a letter to Aldrich he acknowledges great indebtedness to Bret Harte, “who trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently until he changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesquenesses to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favour in the eyes of even some of the very decentest people in the land.” Finally, let the reader who doubts whether he was conscious of his own art read carefully his little article, How to Tell a Story, beginning: “I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told, for I have been almost daily in the company of the most expert story-tellers for many years.” The art which he had learned of such American masters of oral rhetoric as Artemus Ward, John Phoenix, and J. H. Riley he tested and developed in print and by word of mouth with constant reference to its immediate effect upon a large audience. Those principles the observance of which he found essential to holding and entertaining his public he adopted and followed; but literary “laws” which proved irrelevant to his business as entertainer of the masses he disregarded at pleasure as negligible or out of place in a democratic æsthetic. Howells calls him “the Lincoln of our literature”; and with that hint we may add that his power and limitations are alike related to his magnanimous amibition to beguile all the people all the time.