Alas, we can no longer smile at Mark Twain's celebrated jest that the reports of his death were "greatly exaggerated." The laugh which for years has rippled around the world has vanished, and on the coffin of Samuel Langhorne Clemens the nations of earth drop the tribute of their tears.
But it is not a mere farceur who lies dead today. He was, indeed, a fellow of infinite jest and peculiar fancy; he was far more than that, however. He could engulf the whole world in a tidal wave of mirth with "The Jumping Frog" or "Innocents Abroad," but he could also move it to tears with the pathos of "The Prince and the Pauper," sting it with the irony of "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg," or freeze its blood with horror at the recitals of what Leopold did in the Congo. It is true that there are coarse pages in "Roughing It," but where is there a more lifelike transcript from nature than "Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn"? So if the cap and bells lie on his bier today there are plenty of tributes to his other qualities to cover them from sight.
Yet it was as a humorist that he made his reputation and place in American letters, and as such he will no doubt earn recognition from those who come to study his achievements in the future. Taste in humor is at best a fickle thing and not to be too much depended upon. Our fathers roared at Josh Billings, Artemus Ward, Seba Smith, and Orpheus C. Kerr, as they and we older ones have done at Mark Twain's earlier efforts. It remains to be seen whether our children will find "Innocents Abroad" and "Roughing It" as funny as we thought they were. Ward's humor in its evanescent qualities was much like the best of Twain, but the present generation finds "The Genial Showman" a trifle caviar today.
It is not unlikely that Twain realized the shifting and uncertain reputation represented by the jester's bauble, and that this accounts for the varied nature of his literary output. It is certain that he set much more store on what he produced after 1885 than on what he had done before, and that he not only dropped the Gargantuan laugh of "Roughing It" in his later years, but also confined much of his more glancing wit to after dinner speeches and interviews.
This would account in part for his attempts at more serious things, his excursion into biography in his "Joan of Arc," his satires of society and politics, his melodrama, his identification with various civic movements, his delineation of boy life in "Tom Sawyer" and its companion book, and his serious effort at producing real fictional character divorced entirely from the element of laughter.
At any rate, his humor, however it may be criticised, had a strongly native quality. This was as true of his finer as of his coarser moods. Andrew Lang speaks of Twain's "almost Mephistophelean coolness, an unwearying search after the comic side of serious subjects, after the mean possibilities of the sublime--these with a native sense of incongruities and a glorious vein of exaggeration, make up his stock in trade." This was certainly true of his earlier days, but for years he had substituted for those qualities a fine vein of wit which denies analysis as a soap bubble would. With added years his sense of humor took on, as he might have said, a more serious phase, and he used it valiantly as a weapon against corruption, hypocrisy, and cant.
Well, whatever he was--jester, satirist, novelist, or reformer--he has left us the memory of many pleasant hours, of a life honestly and usefully lived, and of a most genial and lovable personality.