Mark Twain's life may be divided into two nearly equal parts. Of the first part, which includes his boyhood days, his experiences as a journeyman printer and editor, his brief career as a Mississippi pilot, his briefer career as a Confederate soldier, and his adventures in the mining-camps and rude settlements of the West, we have the most vivid of records in his books--in "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" and "Roughing It," and in the countless short stories and sketches which began with "The Jumping Frog" and are probably not yet at an end, for only a part of the work which he humorously styles his "Autobiography" has been put into print. Those early days left him with a fund of recollections upon which his drafts were honored--as was similarly the case with Bret Harte--for long years after the experiences themselves had become old (although not unhappy) far off things. As the recorder of these phases of pioneer life which he knew at first hand, and of which he almost alone has preserved for us the very form and pressure, we are immeasurably in his debt. There are few things that we know as well as what it was to be a bay in a Missouri country town, a futile skirmisher in the early days of the Civil War, and a traveller on the lower Mississippi, few bygone types that are as real to us as the miners and stage-coach drivers and politicians and barroom loafers of the untutored West of the midcentury. The writings in which these things have been preserved for us are Mark Twain's best, because they are his raciest and least self-conscious.
The next best group of his books is provided by "The Innocents Abroad," "A Tramp Abroad," and "Following the Equator," the three extensive records of unconventional travel. Yet in these the touch of sophistication is seen, and becomes progressively pronounced with each succeeding narrative. The second is not as good as the first, and the third is distinctly weaker than the second, more artificial in its conception and more forced in its humor. When the author transplanted himself to the East for permanent residence in the seventies, he abandoned the primal sources of his inspiration, and never developed others of comparable importance. Going farther and farther afield in search of fresh material, he illustrated anew the myth of Antaeus, and displayed a pitiable weakness. Over some of his later flounderings in the alien elements of literary criticism, history, and metaphysics, it were best discreetly to draw a veil. There was in him a streak of the Philistine which might have remained undetected had he "kept to his last," but which was sharply revealed when he infringed upon the domain of intellectual and scholarly concerns.
The present is not, however, the best occasion for dwelling upon Mark Twain's limitations, or for emphasizing the ephemeral character of a considerable part of his work. A fair share of that work, at least, stands upon a level so high as to be in no danger of passing out of sight. Up to an advanced point in his career, he grew steadily in power and wisdom; his sympathies became ever broader and deeper, and his expressive faculty kept pace with the larger demands that were made upon it. From the exuberant journalist who gave us entertainment in his earlier days he developed into something like a sage to whom we came to look no less for counsel than for amusement. We learned to detect in his homely speech the movings of a fine spirit, instinct with the nobler promptings of democracy, hating shams and ostentatious vulgarity, gentle and gracious in its quieter moods, but fanned to burning indignation when facing some monstrous wickedness, such as the corruption of our political life, or the dastardly act of the American soldier in the Philippines who betrayed his rescuer and shamelessly boasted of the shameful deed, or the infamy of the royal libertine who distilled a fortune from the blood of the miserable natives of the Congo. Even more than by his strictly literary work, he earned our gratitude for the brave words which he spoke upon such themes as these, words that cleared the moral atmosphere and made us see things in the light of naked truth.
Nor should we, in our tribute to the man, forget the silent heroism with which he endured loss of fortune in his advancing years, and shouldered the burden of a debt incurred by the rascality of his associates, a debt for which he was only indirectly responsible, and which he might have evaded without serious impairment of his reputation. The strenuous labors of the years of lecturing and writing which enabled him to discharge in full the shadowy obligations which he then assumed took their toll of his vitality, but won for him an esteem higher than is ever the reward of the artist alone. This action ranks with the similar examples set by Scott and Curtis; it is one of those shining deeds that reveal the man himself, in contradistinction to the works by which most men of creative genius are contented to be known.
The attitude of criticism toward Mark Twain as a writer has undergone a slow but complete change during the past thirty years. From being thought of simply as a "funny man," of the kin of Josh Billings and Artemus Ward, he has gradually come to be recognized as one of our foremost men of letters. This is a profoundly significant transformation of opinion, and to account for it fully would require a more careful analysis than we here have space to undertake. The recognition has been unduly delayed, partly because so much of his output has been utterly unworthy of his best self, and partly because his work in its totality is of so nondescript a character. The conventional way to distinction in literature is by the fourfold path of the poem, the play, the novel, and the essay. Occasionally, also, an historian compels literary recognition. But Mark Twain was neither a poet nor a playwright nor an historian. he was hardly a novelist, either, for his share in "The Gilded Age" does not seriously count, and his work in the form of fiction is not remarkable as story-telling pure and simple. If we are to group him at all, it must be with the essayists, using that term elastically enough to include with him our own Irving, and such Englishmen as Swift and Carlyle. We must either do this, of fall back upon the sui generis solution of the problem. Again, if we make a subdivision of the essayist class for the humorists alone, we encounter the difficulty offered by our obstinate association of that term with mere fun-making and the appeal to the lighter interests of human nature. Obviously, our subdivision must take yet another step, and admit that, on the one hand, there are humorists who make us laugh and have hardly any other influence over us, and humorists who are also creative artists, and critics of life in the deeper sense, and social philosophers whose judgments are of weight and import. If we are to classify Mark Twain at all, it must be with the latter distinguished company; and his title to kinship with the three English writers above mentioned, and even with such alien prototypes as Aristophanes and Rabelais and Cervantes, is at least not scornfully to be put aside.