|[The Nation published two obituary notices, six weeks apart. The second may have been intended as a kind of corrective of the first -- at least, in the first Stuart Sherman writes that Innocents Abroad seems to be "of appalling seriousness," while in the second Simeon Stransky says that he won't "attempt to classify the writer" who could offer such an assessment.]|
From Nation, 90
May 12, 1910
[Stuart P. Sherman]
No American writer has ever enjoyed a more purely democratic reputation than Mark Twain. From village celebrity to international renown, he has been advanced stage after stage by popular suffrage. The plain, unbookish burgess holding both his sides at a public lecture has helped roar him into eminence. The freckled, brown-legged pirate who finds Tom Sawyer nearer to his business and his bosom than Robinson Crusoe has played no negligible part in the campaign. The vote of a retired merchant reading "A Tramp Abroad" in preparation for a European holiday told decisively in his favor before the tardy voice of the professional critic assented. When an overwhelming majority of his fellow countrymen had established his position, the universities recognized the fact, so that one day not long ago, he strolled into the Sheldonian Theatre, clad in scarlet, and, after a "very satisfactory hurrah" from the audience, was created doctor of letters by the University of Oxford.
During the last few years of his life, he attained a still higher honor. It is to be hoped that no one will attempt to distinguish the customary "three periods" of his development, because, contrary to custom, he was essentially the same in all parts of his career. One may distinguish, however, three aspects of his reputation. Like a political orator making his maiden speech or invading hostile territory, he broke through the reserve of his audience with a string of irresistible stories. Handicapped by uproarious laughter, he produced two or three pieces of fiction which demanded serious attention; but his leonine head had grown gray before he lived down his reputation as a "platform humorist." At his seventieth birthday he obtained a reconsideration of his case, and the highest tribunals decided that he indubitably belonged in the history of literature, if, indeed, he was not "the foremost American man of letters." After that, national feeling about him crystallized rapidly. He appeared in white flannels in midwinter, declaring that white was the only wear for a man with seventy years behind him; we were significantly pleased. After our newspapers had made one of their little breaks, he sent word to us that reports of his death were "greatly exaggerated." It was a phrase that we all envied, from the President down; we saw that he was not mere literary man -- he was a public man. When he died, we abandoned the last reservation. We said with one voice: He was an American.
To the foreign critic this ultimate tribute may seem perplexingly cheap and anticlimactic. That is, of course, due to the mistaken notion that we number some four score millions of Americans. As a matter of fact, we number our Americans on our ten fingers; the rest of us are merely citizens of the United States. Any one who will take a little pains with the alphabet may become a citizen; to become an American demands other talents. We are more than doubtful about Washington. Lowell said that Lincoln was the first American, but he forgot about Franklin. There have been one or two since Lincoln's time. From certain indications, it looks as if Mr. Roosevelt might turn out to be an American. Only the other day he sent us a message to this effect: "I know that the American people will agree that I could have acted in no other way than I did act." The American is a man of destiny. His word and deed flow inevitably out of the American character. On the one hand, he does a thing because it is right; on the other hand, the thing is right because he does it. Revising the thought of Henry V, we may say, Nice customs curtsy to great Americans.
The point is strikingly illustrated by a story which Mark Twain tells on himself in one of the chapters of his autobiography. It was in 1877, before a company including all the leading geniuses of New England, banqueting in honor of Whittier's birthday. When Mark Twain's turn came, he rose and entered upon a fictitious "reminiscence." Out in southern California he had knocked at a miner's cabin and announced himself as a literary man. The miner replied with marked ill-humor that he had just got rid of three of them, "Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes -- consound the lot. . . . Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap, red headed; Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon; he weighed as much as three hundred, and had double chins all the way down to his stomach. Mr. Longfellow was built like a prizefighter. . . . They had been drinking, I could see that." And so on.
At the words "consound the lot," Twain had expected a peal of laughter, but to his amazement "the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost." The whole story was a dismal failure; it was years before the author recovered from the shame of it. Speaking as a mere reader of Lamb, Jane Austen, Thackeray, O.W. Holmes, I am not in the least surprised at the New England frost. I know very well that Congreve or Addison or George Meredith would have agreed with the New England geniuses that Mark Twain's reminiscence was a piece of crude, heavy, intellectual horse-play -- an impudent affront offered to Puritan aristocracy by a rough-handed plebian jester from Missouri. But hear Mark Twain thirty years later:
I have read it twice, and unless I am an idiot, it hasn't a single defect in it from the first word to the last. It is just as good as can be. It is smart; it is saturated with humor. There isn't a suggestion of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere. What could have been the matter with that house? . . . If I had those beloved and revered old literary immortals back here . . . I would melt them till they'd run all over that stage!
In his mellow Indian summer Mark Twain himself grew conscious that he had become an American. He knew, therefore, that the speech was right, because he had made it. I confess to a doubt whether those "old literary immortals" would laugh at it even now; if they would not, as a countryman of Lincoln I should be ashamed of them. The man who cannot laugh with Twain must be either better or worse than the "overwhelming majority" of his fellow-citizens. To accept him is almost equivalent to accepting the American flag. When once you have sworn allegiance, you may find fault with both for the rest of your life without impeachment of your patriotism. "I paint myriads of heads," cried Walt Whitman, "but I paint no head without its nimbus of gold-colored light." He was prophesying the golden mean, which he called the "divine average," and which he knew was actually rarer than either extreme. He was prophesying Mark Twain. "Who are you, indeed," he exclaims, "who would talk or sing in America?" The antiphonal voice replies:
I swear I will have each quality of my race in myself,
Humor, it is agreed, consists in contrasts and incongruities, and the essence of Mark Twain's most characteristic humor consists in contrasting this typical, nimbused American, compacted of golden mediocrities, against the world -- consists in showing the incongruity of the rest of the world with this nimbused American. It necessarily follows that the heights and depths of humor are beyond the reaches of Mark Twain's soul. It necessarily follows that his laughter is burly, not fine; broad, nor profound; national, not universal. When he that sitteth in the heavens laughs, he is not constrasting the year 1910 with the year 1300, nor the President of the United States with Louis XVI, nor the uncrowned sovereigns of Missouri with the serfs of Russia, Germany, or England. The comparison is intolerable -- let us mark a lowlier difference. When Puck, in the "Midsummer Night's Dream," looking out upon the bewildered lovers exclaims, "Lord, what fools these mortals be"; when Titania, waking from magical sleep, murmurs drowsily, "Methought I was enamoured of an ass" -- the mirth of these subtle creatures is kindled by the contrast between sentimental and bottom humanity, respectively, and the exquisite manners and passions of elfland. If Twain had written the play, he would have put Puck into overalls and Titania into a hoop-skirt. For he ignored the ethereal hunger which troubled the creator of Falstaff, and never entered into the secret laughter of the idealist. Let us descend once more. It is said that the last book Mark Twain read was Carlyle's "French Revolution." I suppose he loved it incidentally for its picturesque and savage energy, but mainly because it proclaims that a man's a man for all that. He shows traces both of its style and of its central thought in his own work. But so far as I know, he never shows a trace of its heart-searching irony, of that universal world-humor which arises when the upstart, red-blooded pageant of time's latest hour is confronted with the grim, dim phantasms of eternity --
Charlemagne sleeps at Salzburg, with truncheon grounded, only fable expecting that he will waken. Charles the Hammer, Pepin Bow-legged, where now is their eye of menace, their voice of command? Rollo and his shaggy Northmen cover not the Seine with ships, but have sailed off on a longer voyage. The hair of Tow-head (Tete d'etoupes) now needs no combing; Iron-cutter (Taillefer) cannot cut a cobweb; shrill Fredegonda, shrill Brunhilda, have had out their hot life-scold, and lie silent, their hot life-frenzy cooled. . . . They are all gone; sunk -- down, down with the tumult they made; and the rolling and trampling of ever new generations passed over them; and they hear it not anymore forever.
Carlyle makes ducks and drakes of Charlemagne and shrill Fredegonda, but he laughs with a by-gone eternity. When Whitman asks that stupendous question, "Whom have you slaughtered lately, European headsman?" millions of strange shadows tend on him. He, too, is a humorist, and a grave one. He makes ducks and drakes of the "old literary immortals," for he laughs with an eternity to come. Mark Twain cannot be persuaded that we are such stuff as dreams are made of; looking neither before nor after, he laughs with the present hour; and he cannot stand the comparison.
Not by his subtlety, then, nor his depth, nor his elevation, but by his understanding and his unflinching assertion of the ordinary self of the ordinary American did Mark Twain becomes our "foremost man of letters."
He was geographically an American; he knew his land and its idioms at first hand -- Missouri, the Mississippi River and its banks, Nevada, California, New England, New York, the great cities. It is insufficiently recognized that to love one's country intelligently one must know its body, as well as its mind. He had the good fortune to be born in the West; so that, of course, he had to go East -- otherwise he might, instead of becoming an American, have remained a Bostonian or New Yorker all his life, and never have learned to love Chicago and San Francisco at all. At various times and places, he was pilot, printer, editor, reporter, miner, lecturer, author, and publisher. But during the first half of his life, he went most freely with "powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families." The books in which he embodies his early experiences -- "Tom Sawyer," "Roughing It," "Huckleberry Finn" -- are almost entirely delightful. They breathe the spirit of eternal boyhood, they are richly provincial, they spring out of the fresh earth. There is a touch of melodrama in the first, and more than a touch of farce in the last, but in the main, they are as native as a bluff to the Mississippi or a pine tree to a red spur of the Rockies.
It is when an American carries his virtues abroad that the lines of his character become salient. Mark Twain was a self made man, of small Latin and less Greek, indifferent to abstractions, deficient in historical sympathy and imagination, insensitive to delicate social differences, content and at home in modern workaday realities. I confess with great apprehension that I do not much care for his books of foreign travel. Like the story told on Whittier's birthday, they are "smart and saturated with humor"; but for some almost indefinable reason my emotions fail to enter into the spirit of the occasion. An uneasy doubt about the point of view binds my mirth as with a "black frost." I find myself concerned for my fellow-citizen, the author behind the books; beneath the surface gayety, the whole affair seems to be of appalling seriousness for us both. Ostensibly light-hearted burlesques of the poetical and sentimental volumes of travel, these books are in reality an amazingly faithful record of the way Europe and the Orient strike the "divine average" -- the typical American -- the man for whom the world was created in 1776. Wandering through the exhumed Pompeii, he peoples its solemn ruins with the American proletariat, and fancies that he sees upon the wall of its theatre the placard, "Positively No Free List, Except Members of the Press." He digresses from an account of the ascent of Vesuvius to compare the prices of gloves, linen shirts, and dress suits in Paris and in Italy. At length arrived at the summit of the mountain, he describes its crater as a "circular ditch"; some of the party light their cigars in the fissures; he descends, observing that the volcano is a poor affair compared with Kilauea, in the Sandwich Islands. He visits the Parthenon in the night; obviously, the memorable feature of the expedition was robbing the vineyards on the way back to the ship. The most famous picture galleries of Europe are hung with "celebrated rubbish"; the immemorial Mosque of St. Sophia is the "mustiest barn in heathendom"; the Sea of Gallilee is nothing to Lake Tahoe. The Mississippi pilot, homely, naive, arrogantly candid, refuses to sink his identity in the object contemplated -- that, as Corporal Nym would have said, is the humor of it. He is the kind of travelling companion that makes you wonder why you went abroad. He turns the Old World into a laughing-stock by shearing it of its storied humanity -- simply because there is nothing in him to respond to the glory that was Greece, to the grandeur that was Rome -- simply because nothing is holier to him than a joke. He does not throw comic light upon counterfeit enthusiasm; he laughs at art, history, and antiquity from the point of view of one who is ignorant of them and mightily well satisfied with his ignorance. And, unless I am very much mistaken, the "overwhelming majority" of his fellow-citizens -- those who made the success of "Innocents Abroad" and "A Tramp Abroad" -- have laughed with him, not at him. So, too, unquestionably, in the nearly parallel case of that bludgeoning burlesque, "A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court."
What endears a public man to us is what he has in common with us -- not his occasional supereminences. It does not damage Franklin to say that he was not so graceful as Lord Chesterfield; nor Lincoln to say that he was not so handsome as Count D'Orsay; nor Mr. Roosevelt to say that one misses in his literary style I know not what that one finds in the style of Walter Savage Landor. Writing from Khartum, the hunter tells us that, in consequence of hard service in camp, his pigskin books were "stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes." We have a mystical feeling that this is very appropriate and beautiful -- that a good American's books ought to be stained with gun oil and ashes. "Fear grace -- fear delicatesse," cries the author of "Chants Democratic." It does not damage Mark Twain to say that there was not a drop of the aristocrat in his veins.
In politics he was an intelligent but unspeculative democrat, committed to the principles of the preamble to the Constitution, preserving a tang of Tom Paine's contempt for kings, and not without a suggestion of the republican insolence caricatured by Dickens in "Martin Chuzzlewit." I do not think that he gave a "square deal" either to Europe or to the Arthurian realm; but within his own territory he had a very genuine sense of the brotherhood of man. He was not, like some more exquisite men of letters, a democrat in his study and a snob in his drawing room; he was of the people and for the people at all times. His tender regard for the social contract permeated his humor. It will be remembered that Pudd'nhead Wilson earned his nickname and ruined his chances as a lawyer for twenty years by an incomprehensible remark about a howling dog. "I wish I owned half of that dog," said Wilson. "Why?" somebody asked. "Because I would kill my half." No one understood him -- the sensitive, symbolic democracy of the expression was too compact for their intelligence, and they fell into a delicious discussion of how one-half could be killed without injury to the other half. That, to be sure, is also one of the problems of democracy; but Wilson's implications were, I believe, both simpler and deeper than that. In not molesting another man's dog, he showed the American reverence for property. The American desire to be moderately well-to-do (Mr. Roosevelt's "neither rich nor poor") he indicated by desiring to own only half the dog. In saying that he would kill his half he expressed his sacred and inalienable right to dispose of his own property as he chose, while at the same time he recognized his neighbor's sacred and inalienable right to let his half of the property howl. Indeed, I am not sure that he did not recognize that the dog itself had a certain property right in howling.
With almost every qualification for a successful political career, Mark Twain could never have aspired to the Presidency, for he was not a regular attendant at church -- a short-coming, by the way, which interfered seriously with Mr. Taft's campaign till his former pastor testified in the public prints that once at a church social taken the part of a fairy. In religion, Twain appeared to be a mugwump, or, more classically speaking, an agnostic over whom had fallen the shadow of Robert Ingersoll of pious memory. The irreligion of that generation is touched with a raw, philistine rationalism, but is thoroughly honest. Like all Americans, the author of "Tom Sawyer" received his religious culture in the Sunday-school, but stumbled over the book of Genesis and kindred difficulties, and was "emancipated." The loss of faith which, in proper conditions, is a terrible bereavement, was to him a blessed relief; when the God of the Sunday-school and camp meeting ceases to terrify, he ordinarily becomes a deadly bore. Having never known the magnificent poetry of faith, he never knew the magnificent melancholy of unbelief. His experience was typical, however, and his very unspirituality was social. In his examination of Christian Science, he admitted that every man is entitled to his own favorite brand of insanity, and insisted that he himself was an insane as anybody. That was enough to assure most of us that he was sound on "all essentials."
"Be good and you will be lonesome" is, I suppose, one of Mark Twain's most widely quoted utterances on moral topics. At first thought one may wonder why this apparently Bohemian apothegm should have taken such hold upon the heart of a nation which above all things else adores virtue. But the difficulty disappears the instant one reflects that these seven words express as in a nutshell precisely the kind and temper of virtue that the nation adores. Like Wilson's observation on the dog, the saying is cryptic and requires explication. Twain tells us in his autobiography that when he was a boy his mother always allowed about thirty per cent. on what he said for "embroidery" and so "struck his average." The saying means, as I take it, first of all, don't lose your sense of humor as those do who become infatuated with their own particular hobbies in goodness. Calculate to keep about in the middle of the road, but make allowances for all reasonable shades of difference in taste and opinion. Don't be too good or you will find yourself in a barren and uninfluential minority of one. In America, whatever is not social is not virtue. When he put his shoulder under the debts of his bankrupt publishing house, the author of the apothegm himself explained its meaning. Natively fond of strong language, careless of peccadilloes, tolerant of all human frailties though he was -- kin-making touches of nature -- his feet were "mortised and tenoned" in domestic rectitude and common morality.
"We cannot live always on the cold heights of the sublime -- the thin air stifles" -- I have forgotten who said it. We cannot flush always with the high ardor of the signers of the Declaration, nor remain at the level of the address at Gettysburg, nor cry continually, "O Beautiful! My country!" Yet, in the long dull interspaces between these sacred moments we need someone to remind us that we are a nation. For in the dead vast and middle of the years insidious foes are stirring -- anaemic refinements, cosmopolian decadencies, the egotistic and usurping pride of great cities, the cold sickening of the heart at the reiterated exposures of giant fraud and corruption. When our countrymen migrate because we have no kings or castles, we are thankful to anyone who can tell us what we can count on. When they complain that our soil lacks the humanity essential to great literature, we are grateful even for the firing of a national joke heard round the world. And when Mark Twain, robust, big-hearted, gifted with the divine power to use words, makes us all laugh together, builds true romances with prairie fire and Western clay, and shows us that we are at one on all the main points, we feel that he has been appointed by Providence to see to it that the precious ordinary self of the Republic shall suffer no harm.
STUART P. SHERMAN.
One gets dreadfully weary of such topsy-turvy criticism. There are times when one would like to believe that Napoleon will be remembered because he won Austerlitz and Marengo, and not because he divided up France into a vast number of small peasant holdings; that Lincoln was a great man because he signed the Proclamation of Emancipation and wrote the Gettysburg address, and not because he kept his temper under criticism and in adversity. It is well to try to pierce behind the veil of Maya, but no amount of analysis can do away with the popularly accepted beliefs that mothers are primarily maternal, that actresses' talents lie in the direction of the stage, that joyful people laugh, and that people who make wry faces are either pessimists or dyspeptics. What use is there in trying to make a serious book out of the "Innocents Abroad," when we know well that the Mark Twain who wrote it was primarily a fun-maker? For ourselves, we confess that we have been unable to find any grave purpose in the "Jumping Frog of Calaveras." We recall the Hawaiian stranger whom Mark Twain kissed for his mother's sake before robbing him of his small change. We recall the horse he rode in Honolulu; it had many fine points, and our traveller hung his hat upon one of them. We recall that other horse behind which he went driving one Sunday with the lady of his choice; it was a milk-dealer's horse on week-days, and it persisted in travelling diagonally across the street and stopping before every gate. These adventures are easy to recall, but the hidden serious purpose within them remains hidden from us.
The serious element in Mark Twain the man and the writer, it would, of course, be futile to deny. His hatred of sham, his hatred of cruelty, his hatred of oppression, appear in the "Innocents Abroad," as they do in his "Connecticut Yankee" and in his bitter assaults on the Christian Scientists and the American missionaries in China of the Boxer days. But to say that Mark Twain was a great humorist because he was an intensely serious man is not true, whatever truth there may be in the formula that humorists are humorists because they are men of sorrow. We would reverse the formula. We would say that humorists are often sad because they are humorists, and that from much laughing the rebound must necessarily be towards much grief. If it is commonly asserted that the humorist laughs because of the incongruities of life, it is, nevertheless, just as sale to maintain that the man born to laughter will be driven by his instincts to search for incongruities. There was no fundamental pessimism in Mark Twain. As Mr. Howells brings out in his chapter of reminiscences in the last Harper's, Mr. Clemens had the soul of untamed boyishness. He was boyish in his exuberance of manner, in his taste for extraordinary clothes, and in his glee at earning a great deal of money:
The postals [announcing his share of the daily profits from the "Gilded Age"] used to come about dinner-time, and Clemens would read them aloud to us in wild triumph. $150--$200--$300, were the gay figures which they bore, and which he flaunted in the air before he sat down at table, or rose from it to brandish, and then, flinging his napkin into his chair, walked up and down to exult in.
One thing there was in Mark Twain that was not apparently boyish or simple. Mr. Howells asserts positively that in his later years Twain believed neither in the Christian theology, in God, nor in immortality:
All his expressions to me were of a courageous renunciation of any hope of living again, or elsewhere seeing those he had lost. He suffered terribly in their loss, and he was not fool enough to try ignoring his grief. He knew that for that there were but two medicines; that it would wear itself out with the years, and that meanwhile there was nothing for it but those respites in which the mourner forgets himself in slumber. I remember that in a black hour of my own when I was called down to see him, as he thought from sleep, he said, with an infinite, an exquisite compassion, "Oh, did I wake you, did I wake you?" Nothing more, but the look, the voice, were everything; and while I live they cannot pass from my sense.
Here at last we have the disillusion that is said to dwell in the innermost soul of the great humorist. But here, too, we seem to feel that the gray vision of the future was with him not a cause, but a result. When the buoyant soul sinks back upon itself it is apt to feel the riddle of life very keenly indeed.