So much for the Mark Twain of banquet hall and popular fancy. He will recede slowly, but recede he must, for there is something pitifully insubstantial about fame of that sort. The new generation will have its own philosophers and its own comedians, and their pressing reality will make poor Mark's white dress suit, his chrysanthemum of white hair and his eternal cigar grow faint and wavering. Oldsters will chuckle and wag their heads when they think of him, but as a living figure he will sink into the past. In that human certainty, however, there is no need for mourning, for there remains the Mark Twain of literature, in stature vastly above the post-prandial wit--a Mark Twain whose place among the immortals is generally conceded--a Mark Twain whose life work as satirist, humorist and philosopher is measured in the estimation of many critics by that of Cervantes, Thackeray and Fielding, Aristophanes and Molière.
There is great temptation, of course, to overestimate a man in the presence of his death, but here, we believe, there is no such extravagance. More than 15 years ago the true rank of Samuel Langhorne Clemens began to impress itself upon the more discerning of his contemporaries. It was the late Sir Walter Besant who first made earnest and effective protest against the popular tendency to regard him as a funny man, and as a funny man only. To show the absurdity of this error, Sir Walter entered upon an elaborate analysis of "Huckleberry Finn," as one who might claim expert knowledge of the literary craft and its problems, pointing out its marvelously accurate characterizations, its vivid picture of a civilization, its Homeric sweep and throb. Here, said Sir Walter, was a literary feat of the first magnitude, for a grown man had entered into the soul of a boy and looked at the world through that boy's eyes. The result, he thought, was the greatest novel ever written by an American, if not the greatest ever written in English.
Enthusiasm seemed to color this revolutionary judgment, but it won unexpected support and in unexpected places. The English critics, strangely enough, were the first to say aye with hearty good will. While we were still roaring over "The Jumping Frog," as over some masterpiece of empty clowning, they were comparing "A Connecticut Yankee" to "Don Quixote" and "Gulliver's Travels," and setting up "A Tramp Abroad" as unique and incomparable. The Germans followed the English and the French came after, and then at last we Americans began to realize that a truly great man was among us--a man who would be remembered when some of our Presidents were forgotten. In 1891, when Yale University made Mr. Clemens a doctor of letters, this turn of the tide was publicly marked. He lost, after that, nothing of his popular vogue, but he began to gain the less noisy but more lasting fame of an artist of world rank. Honors came thick and fast, and in 1907, when he was called to Oxford to receive the doctorate of that ancient university, England received him with almost royal pomp.
The Mark Twain of the last phase was little more than a shadow of the Mark Twain who wrote "Huckleberry Finn." There was still abundant foolery in him, but his old Rabelaisian joy in the human comedy seemed to be gone. He no longer got beneath the surface; he was no longer the universal satirist, dealing with broad types and touching the heart as well as the midriff. He was old, and maybe a bit weary. But the world will not take account of these weak echoes of his former self when it comes to reckon his worth, any more than it considers "Lovell the Widower" when it judges Thackeray. He must be estimated by his best, as Cervantes and the others are estimated. And that best will give delight so long as the English of today remains a living tongue.
Let us take leave of him here. The time is not one for elaborate essays. He had the great human qualities. Reading him, one came to love him, as one loves Chaucer, Fielding and Ben Jonson. For all his war upon shams and frauds, there was a vast benevolence in him, a genial tolerance, a deep human note. Truly a great man has gone from among us.