Critic [unsigned]
1895: May 11

The literary critic is often puzzled how to classify the intellectual phenomena that come within his ken. His business is of course primarily with literature. A work may be infinitely amusing, it may abound even with flashes and touches of genius, and yet the form in which it comes into the world may be so crude, so coarse, so erring from the ways of true classicism, so offensive to immemorial canons of taste, that the critic, in spite of his enjoyment and wonder, puts it reluctantly down in the category of unclassifiable literary things only to take it up and enjoy it again!

Of such is Pudd'nhead Wilson, and, for that matter, Mark Twain in general. The author is a signal example of sheer genius, without training or culture in the university sense, setting forth to conquer the world with laughter whether it will or no, and to get himself thereby acknowledged to be the typical writer of the West. He is the most successful of a class of American humorists whose impulse to write off their rush of animal spirits is irresistible, and who snatch at the first pen within reach as the conductor of their animal electricity. If we look at other national humorists, like Aristophanes, Cervantes, Moliere or Swift, we find their humor expressed in an exquisite literary form, in which a certain polish tempers the extravagance, and annoying metrical (or it may be imaginative) difficulties have been overcome. What wonderful bird-rhythms and wasp melodies and cloud-architecture, so to speak, emerge from the marvellous choral interludes of the Greek comedian; what suave literary graces enclose the gaunt outlines of Don Quixote; in what honeyed verse are Alceste and Tartuffe entangled, and what new, nervous, powerful prose describes the adventures of Gulliver! When we turn our eyes westward we encounter Judge Haliburton, Hosea Biglow, Uncle Remus, Mark Twain -- an absolutely new genre distinct from what we had previously studied in the line of originalities. The one accomplished artist among these is Lowell, whose university traditions were very strong and controlled his bubbling humor. The others are pure "naturalists" -- men of instinctive genius, who have relied on their own conscious strength to produce delight in the reader, irrespective of classicity of form, literary grace or any other of the beloved conventions on which literature as literature has hitherto depended. This is true in a less degree of Uncle Remus than of Judge Haliburton and Mark Twain.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is no exception to the rule. It is a Missouri tale of changelings "befo' the wah," admirable in atmosphere, local color and dialect, a drama in its way, full of powerful situations, thrilling even; but it cannot be called in any sense literature. In it Mark Twain's brightness and grotesqueness and funniness revel and sparkle, and in the absurd extravaganza, "Those Extraordinary Twins," all these comicalities reach the buffoon point; one is amused and laughs unrestrainedly but then the irksome question comes up: What is this? is it literature? is Mr. Clemens a "writer" at all? must he not after all be described as an admirable after-dinner storyteller -- humorous, imaginative, dramatic, like Dickens -- who in an evil moment, urged by admiring friends, has put pen to paper and written down his stories? Adapted to the stage and played by Frank Mayo, the thing has met with immediate success.