Mark Twain will live as the historian of an epoch. He is a humorist because the epoch was humorous. We begin to realize that as we get away from it. No nation can take a joke at its own expense.
The most vital, native and racy period of American history was the nineteenth century. Before that we imitated Europe. Since then we have begun to imitate Europe again. But for near a century we lived our own national life in our own way, as fresh as the land we spread over, as original as the experiences we met. The period culminated about the middle of the century in the middle of the country. That was the time and scene of Clemens' biggest books.
We had grown hot when European tourists laughed at us. We grew cool when our own writers taught us to laugh at ourselves. He was not the first to portray the fugitive type of the American in the making, but he was the greatest. Cooper began it. His sentimental slush would not have outlived him but for the unconscious humor in it, and the fidelity to type under all exaggeration.
The New England writers caught and preserved local phases of the new human species. Less known writers of the Middle states added others. It was not till the lure of gold drew a thin sheet of plastic American population across the continent that the social ferment of new life on new soil under new stimuli carried the native type to its highest development. Then came its clearest expression in books.
Again Mark Twain was one of many to make the new literature, Bret Harte and the others for California, the post bellum school for the South, Howells for the West and the newer New England, caught imperishable films of the kind of American people and institutions McMasters tries to portray in serious history. We believe that posterity will see this vanished time most plainly in the books of Clemens' early period. They are the supreme Americans.