Speaker [unsigned]
1890: January

Mark Twain is also somewhat affected by the Spirit of his Time, which is didactic; and by the Spirit of his Nation, which is inventive, but not refined. Mr. Lewis Carroll is far beyond Mr. Clemens in points of delicacy and taste; but it may be doubted whether any English author of repute would have tried to win a laugh by an irreverant treatment of the legend of the Holy Grail, as Mr. Clemens has done in A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. It is quite certain that there are few English readers who will care to see the subject begrimed with prime American jests. Mr. Clemens used to be able to make us laugh without resorting to this easy and distressing method; in his last book he fails to make us laugh by any method, even the worst.

But Mr. Clemens is not only dull when he is offensive; he is perhaps even more dull when he is didactic. His views on the peerage, religious tolerance, republics, political economy, and the application of electricity to warfare, may be -- some of them are -- admirable. But they are out of place in a farcical book: the satire is not fresh; the information is second-hand or inaccurate; and the moral -- or immoral, as the case may be -- is clumsily enforced and unduly prominent. Tediousness is still further ensured by the length of the book. The joke is a long joke, and the author has not "gompressed him." It would be idle to point out that the book is not a sketch of the sixth century; because Mr. Clemens is careful to remove by a prefatory note any such objection. But he must not think that his confession of incompetence will make him seem any the less incompetent to the intelligent reader.

The illustrations to the book are occasionally allegorical, and remind us of the hieroglyphic which is to be found at the beginning of prophetic almanacks. In one of them the root of a tree is marked Religious Intolerence; but the artist spells quite as well as he draws. They are very badly arranged; they seldom occur at the right place; and they break into text, making the task of reading very difficult. The task was hard enough, too, without that. We hope -- we may even believe -- that we have seen the artist at his worst; we certainly have not seen the author at his best.

Sometimes we think that we shall never see the author at his best again. American humour depended much upon quaint and happy phrase. When these phrases are repeated ad nauseam, their quaintness and happiness seem to disappear. But we have been saddened and depressed by reading two long and humorous books, and are, perhaps unduly inclined to be pessimistic. We had expected to laugh a little; and, instead of that, we have learned much -- much that we knew before. And, after all, it must be easy for Mr. Clemens to do better; and we know why it must.

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