From The Denver Post
24 April 1910
[Hugh O'Neill]
Democracy in Literature

Even in dying Samuel Langhorne Clemens bequeathed to the literature of the moment a touch of unconscious humor. Estimates of his career as a citizen and of his standing as an author were purveyed simultaneously with the announcement of his death. Most of those critiques -- that's how they spelt them -- were unanimous in the opening sentence, "Mark Twain is Dead," and were common in choosing as their final peroration, "Hail and Farewell." It was all very affecting and prompt and self-reliant. As an example of "red hot" writing it was inspiring, but as a contribution to literary criticism it was worthless.

For it is not criticism, but the crucible of time, that must test the writings of Mark Twain and give them their place in permanent fame, while comparing him with the other makers of books, for men or boys, is a futile and unenlightening endeavor. He cannot be classed with Cervantes, or Stevenson, or LeSage, or Dickens, or any of the other numberless authors chosen for his compeers. His stories conform to none of the canons of fiction. His essays in biography were altogether lacking in any evidence of the historical sense. In his Joan of Arc there is a complete absence of comparative values. Eve's Diary is funny in spots and both dull and vulgar where it is not funny. His attack on Christian Science and Mrs. Eddy has already been mercifully forgotten. His polemic against the harmless travel book of M. Paul Bourget was in poor taste. And yet both the man in his own personality and in his earlier writings was essentially great; as typical and original in the democracy of literature as was Lincoln in the statesmanship of democracy.

Both Lincoln and Mark Twain were the children of poor parents. Both were self-educated. They were both the intellectual products of a conception of humanity that had no respect for tradition and no patience with ritual. They both viewed life from a shrewd, individual standpoint, and they will both endure as much for their personality as their achievements.

Had the Confederacy succeeded Lincoln would have lost none of his glory. Had Mark Twain written nothing but Huckleberry Finn, or Tom Sawyer, or Roughing It, he would have earned an abiding place in human affection and left a permanent record of one passing phase of American life. For Mark Twain, above all else, was a historian, and no history that has yet been written of his country contains such records of life and character as those books which made him so well beloved of the boyhood of the world. In England, in all the British colonies, in some of the countries of Europe, as well as in American, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn have enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, a popularity equal to that of Tom Browne and Gil Blas and Robinson Crusoe; while Life on the Mississippi has an attraction for the soul of youthful adventure that runs parallel with the boys of Ballantyne and the hero of Treasure Island.

Yet Mark Twain was no master of style, as were Stevenson, or Cervantes, or LeSage. His language had, in itself, no particular charm. You do not marvel at the mere wizardry of his words as you do at the delicate craftsmanship of Catriona. He gets his effects by obvious methods; he goes after his story in a downright fashion; his University was life at large; and, when thousands of his contemporaries were getting whipped into shape in the class room and on the campus, Mark Twain was taking a post-graduate course on the river boats of the Mississippi. And, had he gone to Yale or Harvard he would have been lost to literature.

For, the higher education is essentially aristocratic. Culture is an anesthetic to the broader sense of humor. Academic thought smiles, but never laughs. Mark Twain as a Bachelor of Arts of Harvard would have made an excellent banker, or a first rate Managing Editor; but the life that he sucked in with every breath during his crude and youthful days would have gone unnoticed, and that Iliad of the West of which he was the Homer would have passed away unsung. For Mark Twain proved in his later years that he was an excellent business man. He died wealthy. Wealthier than Stevenson, or Dickens, or Thackeray, or any of our own American authors. And he succeeded in leaving that wealth in spite of many financial reverses, and many intimate family sorrows that would have denuded men with the "artistic temperament" of whatever "money sense" they might have started with.

Also, it is noticeable, that his genius did not strengthen, but decreased, as his affluence increased and contact with the sophisticated world made his thoughts and observations more conventional. The quality of his literary product fell off just as it fell off Kipling when prosperity came to scorch his inspiration. "Roughing It" was written forty years ago. "Tom Sawyer" was published thirty-five years ago. "Huckleberry Finn" was published twenty-four years ago. Thereafter came books, many books, but the freshness that made the earlier stories so delightful was absent; the certainty of a large income had sterilized his imagination. Mark Twain was Mark Twain still; a loveable companion; a humorous commentator on men and things; one of the conspicuous figures of the world; but he was "written out," and his fame must rest on the work that he did whilst the glamor of the old West still possessed his soul and he must needs write and he wished to live.

As a literary craftsman, then, and not as a financially successful author, we must go back thirty years for the fountain of Mark Twain's immortality, and it is rich enough in its flow to keep his memory green as long as boys are boys. For Mark Twain was essentially a boys' writer. When he wrote for men, as he did in his later work, he became dull, didactical, polemical; his humor smelt of the lamp. But when he wrote for boys, or for the boy that is in some men to the last -- for which they may thank Heaven -- he lined his gallery with characters that stand the peers of Tartarin and Jourdan, and Sancho Panza, and Tam O'Shanter, and Don Quixote, and Sam Weller. But to compare him with the creators of those other inventions of literary genius is gauche and unnecessary; a dull and unilluminating exercise. Indeed, no comparison could be more odious. For, Mark Twain in literature was a law unto himself. He made his own canons of art. Ignoring the methods of the schools, he worked in the clay of life with the firm, strong hands of a journeyman delving in immediate things, and what he moulded in those leaner years will shine firm and clear when his later efforts are forgotten.