When it is a matter not of chance but of choice, it is interesting to note what book a great writer turns to in his last hours--what Eminence of that vast company to which he belongs he, about to die, salutes.
Tennyson breathed his last with Shakespeare's Cymbeline in his hand, open at the place of that spritely dirge beginning with the stanza:
Fear not thou the heat o' the sun,
It was this, we feel sure, rather than the drama itself, which especially engaged his dying eyes--this lyric, with its strangely playful solemnity and with a touch of quaintness that he, the Master of lyrics, had somehow missed and therefore wistfully regarded, accepting its novel illumination of his final vision. The lighter play of fancy commends itself to the old in their waning days, however seriously they may have taken themselves at their full strength; it gives vivacity and grace, even gaiety, to the lengthening shadows. Isaac, the name Sara gave the child of her barren years, means laughter.
Now Mark Twain, for forty years, personally and in letters, the chief provoker of the world's laughter, when he was about to die, turned to Carlyle's French Revolution, not by way of reaction, but straightforwardly following the course of a passion that had ruled his life. He loved to regard men and women in the open, in action prompted by strong impulses. The characters which most strongly appealed to him were developed in this large atmosphere, and Carlyle was a master in the portrayal of such characters--the inside as well as the outside of them. Doubtless, too, Mark admired the master's vivid and picturesque description and narration as well as the complexity of expression which was so foreign to his own.
But my object in alluding to the books selected by authors for reading in their last hours is to call attention to another instance which seems very significant. All my mature readers will easily recall the stories written for boys and girls by Juliana Horatio Ewing, some thirty years ago, showing a rarely delicate sense of humour and pathos. This author, in the face of death, turned to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn for delight and satisfaction. That is enough, it seems to me, to define Mark Twain's place in our modern humanism. The spiritual kinship which determined this selection is an infallible test, in the case of such a woman and at such a time, as to certain essential quality in this man's work that is of everlasting value. Huckleberry Finn appealed to Mrs. Ewing's sensibility as Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi would have done, because it was a creative illumination of frank, genuine, red-blooded boyhood. It was a quality as native as Nature, spontaneous, expansive, with Nature's excesses; but it was humanly embodied, mightily self-conscious, imperatively demanding attention, after the haughty manner of buoyant youth. We are reminded of Rabelais's Gargantua entering Paris for his university course, on a mare as big as six elephants, the whisking of whose tail laid low a whole forest.
The effectiveness of this quality of Mark Twain's imagination does not always depend upon external grandeurs and striking surprises. He wrote out of a living experience--that of a boyhood nourished in open spaces and stimulated by rough adventure, and of a manhood which, in all its contacts and world-wide wanderings, kept alive that boyhood. But he had also mental adventure, not subtly or complexly, yet widely, speculative.
There was the same directness and openness here as in his regard of external things. He relished the autobiography of men who, like Benvenuto Cellini and Montaigne, frankly and boldly disclosed their most intimate dispositions and tempers, and he undertook one himself on so expansive a scheme that it could never have been completed, since the longer he lived the less were the chances of any conclusion of the ever-widening vista.
The art which premeditatively determines the scope of its venture so that one sees at every step the curvature of its rounding up--in a word the literary art--was foreign to Mark Twain's nature. Some stories are self-limited and wind up themselves. Mark sometimes told such stories, but generally we note no conscious organisation of the material he has in hand, no literary method. Whatever art of expression was developed in his maturer work was an art which Nature made, not the result of syntatic discipline. In his Joan of Arc--the ripest fruit of his genius--the historic sequence gave him a constructive plan not apparent in work of his that was wholly inventive. He could not have written a play depending wholly upon invention, meeting the requirements of the art, to save his life, but he would have contributed to one made by an expert playwright out of his material just those features which would be indispensable to a great popular success.
He always wanted room--the whole open sky--for his action. The requirement of literary and of the specially dramatic art, as generally understood, because of the concentration demanded, imposed a constraint he could not tolerate. But he was master of the eccentric drama, with limitless expansion and projection
In his early career he drove hard and with Icarian boldness. So gigantic were some of his practical journalistic jokes when he was connected with the Virginia City Enterprise that he fled temporarily from the scene of his exploits to escape their reaction upon himself. There was much in his Innocents Abroad which appealed to only crude taste; but the book promised richer vintages of humour, and it won for him a world-wide popularity, which stimulated him to greater earnestness in a more natural use of experiences which were real, with however much of grotesquery and extravagance he invested them. It may seem strange to use such a word as "earnestness" in connection with a humorist's writings, as it would not be in the case of Charles Lamb. Mark Twain was not a humorist in the sense that Lamb was--the two were at antipodes. Mark inherited from nobody, but, if not as purposeful, he was as masterful as Rabelais, Cervantes, and Swift were. He was not learned or literary as those men, and had not their kind of conscious purpose, but there was a strain of earnestness in all his work--a Western strain. Walt Whitman got one year's big whiff of the West and it transformed him, made him vastly panoramic and megaphonic. Mark Twain, like Lincoln, was a native of the West, and, like him, though in so different a vein, was gigantically in earnest. What stern stuff was in him was shown in the wreck of his personal fortunes, like that shown in Lincoln when the fortunes of the nation were at stake.
Lincoln passed away before Mark Twain became famous. He found his greatest relaxation and relief from the stress of grave responsibilities during the war in the writings of professional humourists like Artemus Ward and Petroleum Nasby. Did he miss something in not having Mark Twain's humour? For the purposes served by those other writers, possibly not. Mark, with all his drollery, might have borne down too heavily upon him at such a time, however much he might have enjoyed him at another. The two men had too much in common, in their natural mood and strain.
If in the main course of his writings--those which have had the widest appreciation--he so far retained boyhood himself, and embodied it in his characters, regardless of age or sex, for Colonel Sellers was a boy in one way and Joan of Arc in another--yet his was not a case of arrested development. He did a man's work manfully. The mature attitude toward life became apparent in his own maturity--a deepened spiritual sensibility; and a considerable proportion of his work is the outcome of this riper growth.
In his maturer work, Mark Twain showed a finer and gentler touch, grotesquery yielding to grace. This was apparent in his personality as well as in his work. Misfortune, though repaired, did its work in him.
His griefs, which were irreparable, subdued his spirit. His loneliness after the death of his wife was inconsolable, but the absent sweetness dwelt in his nature to the end. What the loneliness meant for him I could see, on a well-remembered occasion, when, at a luncheon given to a friend and his wife on their departure for Europe, Mark "toasted" them, expressing the hope that if either should be drowned in shipwreck that fate might be shared by the other!
It is not likely that the future estimate of Mark Twain's work will very greatly differ from that put upon it now by his most thoughtful readers, the products of his maturer genius--I do not thereby mean his latest, but those in which his earnestness counts most for human meaning and value--may come to have their just place in the general popular esteem.