The world has had three colossal laughers: Aristophanes of Greece, Rabelais of France and Mark Twain of America; and it is not impossible that the last will finally be ranked first.
For greatness in humorous literature is as much a matter of variety and range of subject as of power and art; and in the scope and richness of his subject-matter Clemens, the nineteenth-century American, surpassed the sixteenth-century Frenchman and the Greek of the fifth century before Christ. The world of the Athenian was the Mediterranean world, that of the Parisian the European world, but that of the Yankee was the whole world; and the modern materials of humor and wit are far more numerous and far richer than those of medieval and ancient days.
Mark Twain was an American of such sort as only western pioneer American could create, and his humor was American to the core. Living the rough life of the Mississippi pilot and the western miner and reporter, he accumulated funds of hard but humorous experience that he, like Cervantes, turned to literary account. Out of it came "Roughing It," which made the country laugh till its sides were sore, to be followed by such stories or novels of humor as "Innocents Abroad," "Tom Sawyer," "Huckleberry Finn" and "Pudd'nhead Wilson." There were other works, sixteen or more of them, but those named best reveal his genius for humorously exaggerated description and sarcastic wit. No other writer so vividly portrayed the irresponsible American boy or so adequately expressed the big-hearted, homespun, violent life of the wild west.
Twain's character had its serious side, to which Joseph Twitchell, his pastor at Hartford, Conn., paid public tribute; and when the failure of his publishers ruined him he played the hero as nobly as Scott and Grant and redeemed his fortunes. But he will be remembered as America's colossal laugher; and Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson and Tom Sawyer will live with Falstaff, Gargantua and Sancho Panza.