From The American Review of Reviews
June 1910
By William Lyon Phelps
Mark Twain, Artist

If necessity is the mother of invention, misfortune is the mother of literature. When Nathaniel Hawthorne was ejected from the Custom-House at Salem he went home in a despondent frame of mind, only to be greeted by his wonderful wife's pertinent remark, "Now you can write your book." He responded to this stimulus by writing the best book ever written in the Western Hemisphere, "The Scarlet Letter." We learn from a famous chapter in "Roughing It" that if Samuel Clemens had not gone to help a sick friend, or if his partner had received the note he left for him before starting on this charitable expedition, Samuel L. Clemens would have been a millionaire. This episode has since his death been printed in a list of the misfortunes that marked his romantic and tragic career. But if at that time Mr. Clemens had become a millionaire, and he missed it by the narrowest possible margin, he never would have become Mark Twain. He struggled against his destiny with all the physical and mental force he possessed. He tried to make a living by every means except literature, and nothing but steady misfortune and dire necessity made him walk in the foreordained path. Mark Twain always regarded himself as the plaything of chance; professing no belief in God, he never thanked Him for his amazing successes, nor rebelled against Him for his sufferings. But is ever there was a man whose times were in His hand, that man was Mark Twain.

Mark Twain was a greater artist than he was humorist; a greater humorist than he was philosopher; a greater philosopher than he was thinker. Goethe's well-known remark about Byron, "The moment he thinks, he is a child," would in some respects be applicable to Mark Twain. The least valuable part of his work is found among his efforts to rewrite history, his critical essays on men and on institutions, and his contributions to introspective thought. His long book on Joan of Arc is valuable only for its style; his short book on the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy shows appalling ignorance; his defense of Harriet Shelley is praiseworthy only in its chivalry; his attack on Fenimore Cooper is of no consequence except as a humorous document; his labored volume on Christian Science has little significance; and when his posthumous essay on the "Meaning of Life" is published, as I am afraid it will be before long, it will surprise and depress more readers than it will convince.

As a philosopher, Mark Twain was a pessimist as to the value of the individual life and an optimist concerning human progress. He agreed with Schopenhauer that non-existence was preferable to existence; that sorrow was out of all proportion to happiness. On the other hand, he had absolutely nothing of Carlyle's peculiar pessimism, who regarded the human soul as something noble and divine, but insisted that modern progress was entirely in the wrong direction, and that things in general were steadily growing worse. Carlyle believed in God and man, but he hated democracy as a political principle; Mark Twain apparently believed in neither God nor man, but his faith in democracy was so great that he almost made a religion out of it. He was never tired of exposing the tyranny of superstition and of unmasking the romantic splendor of medieval life.

Mark Twain was one of the foremost humorists of modern times; and there are not wanting good critics who already dare to place him with Rabelais, Cervantes, and Moliere. Others would regard such an estimate as mere hyperbole, born of transient enthusiasm. But we all know now that he was more than a funmaker; we know that his humor, while purely American, had the note of universality. He tested historical institutions, the social life of past ages, political and religious creeds, and the future abode of saints by the practical touchstone of humor. Nothing sharpens the eyes of a traveler more than a sense of humor; nothing enables him better to make the subsequent story of his journey pictorially impressive. "The Innocents Abroad" is a great book, because it represents the wonders of Europe as seen by an unawed Philistine with no background; he has his limitations, but at any rate his opinions of things are formed after he sees them, and not before. He looks with his own eyes, not through the colored spectacles of convention. "Roughing It" is still a greater book, because in the writing of that no background was necessary, no limitations are felt; we know that his testimony is true. The humor of Mark Twain is American in its point of view, in its love of the incongruous, in its fondness for colossal exaggeration; but it is universal in that it deals not with passing phenomena, or with matters of temporary interest, but with essential and permanent aspects of human nature.

As an artist Mark Twain already seems great. The funniest man in the world, he was at the same time a profoundly serious artist, a faithful servant of his literary ideals. The environment, the characterization, and the humanity in "Tom Sawyer" remind us of the great novelists, whose characters remain in our memory as sharply defined individuals simply because they have the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. In other words, "Tom Sawyer" resembles the masterpieces of fiction in being intensely local and at the same time universal. Tom Sawyer is a definite personality, but he is also eternal boyhood. In "Huckleberry Finn" we have three characters who are so different that they live in different worlds, and really speak different languages, Tom, Huck, and Jim; we have an amazingly clear presentation of life in the days of slavery; we have a marvelous moving picture of the Father of Waters; but, above all, we have a vital drama of humanity, in its nobility and baseness, its strength and weakness, its love of truth and its love of fraud, its utter pathos and its side-splitting mirth. Like nearly all faithful pictures of the world, it is a vast tragi-comedy. What does it matter if our great American had his limitations and his excrescences? To borrow his own phrase, "There is that about the sun that makes us forget its spots."

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