London Examiner [unsigned; Moncure D. Conway]
1876: June 17

This newest work of Mark Twain increases the difficulty of assigning that author a literary habitat. "American humorist" has for some time been recognised as too vague a label to attach to a writer whose "Jumping Frog" and other early sketches have been reduced to mere fragments and ventures by such productions as The Innocents Abroad and The New Pilgrim's Progress, in which, while the humour is still fresh, there is present an equal art in graphic description of natural scenery, and a fine sense of what is genuinely impressive in the grandeurs of the past. Those who have travelled with Mark Twain with some curiosity to observe the effect of the ancient world interpreted by a very shrewd eye, fresh from the newest outcome of civilisation, may have expected to find antiquity turned into a solemn joke, but they can hardly have failed to discover a fine discrimination present at each step in the path of the "new pilgrim"; while he sheds tears of a kind hardly relished by the superstitious or sentimental over the supposed grave of his deceased parent Adam, he can "listen deep" when any true theme from the buried world reaches his ear. Without being pathetic he is sympathetic, and there is also an innate refinement in his genius felt in every subject it selects and in his treatment of it. Tom Sawyer carries us to an altogether novel region, and along with these characteristics displays a somewhat puzzling variety of abilities. There is something almost stately in the simplicity with which he invites us to turn our attention to the affairs of some boys and girls growing up on the far frontiers of American civilisation. With the Eastern Question upon us, and crowned heads arrayed on the political stage, it may be with some surprise that we find our interest demanded in sundry Western questions that are solving themselves through a dramatis personae of humble folk whose complications occur in a St. Petersburg situated on the Missouri river. Our manager, we feel quite sure, would not for a moment allow us to consider that any other St. Petersburg is of equal importance to that for which he claims our attention. What is the deposition, death, or enthronement of a Sultan compared with the tragical death of "Injun Joe," the murderer, accidentally buried and entombed in the cavern where his stolen treasures are hid? There he was found.

The poor unfortunate had starved to death. In one place, near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick -- a dessertspoonful once in four and twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was "news." It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history, and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect's need? and has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come? No matter. It is many and many a year since the hapless half-breed scooped out the stone to catch the priceless drops, but to this day the tourist stares longest at that pathetic stone and that slow-dropping water when he comes to see the wonders of McDougal's cave. Injun Joe's cup stands first in the list of the cavern's marvels; even "Aladdin's Palace" cannot rival it.

In such writing as this we seem to be reading some classic fable, such as the Persian Sadi might point with his moral, "Set not your heart on things that are transitory; the Tigris will run through Bagdat after the race of Caliphs is extinct." Nor is this feeling of the dignity of his subject absent when the author is describing the most amusing incidents. Indeed, a great deal of Mark Twain's humour consists in the serious -- or even at times severe -- style in which he narrates his stories and portrays his scenes, as one who feels that the universal laws are playing through the very slightest of them. The following is a scene in which the principal actors are a dog, a boy, and a beetle, the place being the chapel: --

The minister gave out the hymn, and read it through with a relish, in a peculiar style which was much admired in that part of the country. His voice began on a medium key and climbed steadily up till it reached a certain point, where it bore with strong emphasis upon the topmost word and then plunged down as if from a spring-board:
Shall I be car-ri-ed toe the skies, on flow'ry beds of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize, and sail thro' blood-y seas?
    He was regarded as a wonderful reader. At church "sociables" he was always called upon to read poetry; and when he was through, the ladies would lift up their hands and let them fall helplessly in their laps, and "wall" their eyes, and shake their heads, as much as to say, "Words cannot express it; it is too beautiful, too beautiful for this mortal earth."
    After the hymn had been sung, the Rev. Mr. Sprague turned himself into a bulletin-board, and read off "notices" of meetings and societies and things till it seemed that the list would stretch out to the crack of doom -- a queer custom which is still kept up in America, even in cities, away here in this age of abundant newspapers. Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.
    And now the minister prayed. A good, generous prayer it was, and went into details: it pleaded for the church, and the little children of the church; for the other churches of the village; for the village itself; for the county; for the State; for the State officers; for the United States; for the churches of the United States; for Congress; for the President; for the officers of the Government; for poor sailors, tossed by stormy seas; for the oppressed millions groaning under the heel of European monarchies and Oriental despotisms; for such as have the light and the good tidings, and yet have not eyes to see nor ears to hear withal; for the heathen in the far islands of the sea; and closed with a supplication that the words he was about to speak might find grace and favor, and be as seed sown in fertile ground, yielding in time a grateful harvest of good. Amen.
    There was a rustling of dresses, and the standing congregation sat down. The boy whose history this book relates did not enjoy the prayer, he only endured it -- if he even did that much. He was restive all through it; he kept tally of the details of the prayer, unconsciously -- for he was not listening, but he knew the ground of old, and the clergyman's regular route over it -- and when a little trifle of new matter was interlarded, his ear detected it and his whole nature resented it; he considered additions unfair, and scoundrelly. In the midst of the prayer a fly had lit on the back of the pew in front of him and tortured his spirit by calmly rubbing its hands together, embracing its head with its arms, and polishing it so vigorously that it seemed to almost part company with the body, and the slender thread of a neck was exposed to view; scraping its wings with its hind legs and smoothing them to its body as if they had been coat-tails; going through its whole toilet as tranquilly as if it knew it was perfectly safe. As indeed it was; for as sorely as Tom's hands itched to grab for it they did not dare -- he believed his soul would be instantly destroyed if he did such a thing while the prayer was going on. But with the closing sentence his hand began to curve and steal forward; and the instant the "Amen" was out the fly was a prisoner of war. His aunt detected the act and made him let it go.
    The minister gave out his text and droned along monotonously through an argument that was so prosy that many a head by and by began to nod -- and yet it was an argument that dealt in limitless fire and brimstone and thinned the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving. Tom counted the pages of the sermon; after church he always knew how many pages there had been, but he seldom knew anything else about the discourse. However, this time he was really interested for a little while. The minister made a grand and moving picture of the assembling together of the world's hosts at the millennium when the lion and the lamb should lie down together and a little child should lead them. But the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy; he only thought of the conspicuousness of the principal character before the on-looking nations; his face lit with the thought, and he said to himself that he wished he could be that child, if it was a tame lion.

The scene we have selected is not so laughable, perhaps, as some others in the volume, but it indicates very well the kind of art in which Mark Twain is pre-eminent in our time. Every movement of boy, beetle, and poodle, is described not merely with precision, but with a subtle sense of meaning in every movement. Everything is alive, and every face physiognomical. From a novel so replete with good things, and one so full of significance, as it brings before us what we can feel is the real spirit of home life in the far West, there is no possibility of obtaining extracts which will convey to the reader any idea of the purport of the book. The scenes and characters cannot be really seen apart from their grouping and environment. The book will no doubt be a great favourite with boys, for whom it must in good part have been intended; but next to boys we should say that it might be most prized by philosophers and poets. The interior life, the everyday experiences, of a small village on the confines of civilisation and in the direction of its advance, may appear, antecedently, to supply but thin material for a romance; but still it is at just that same little pioneer point that humanity is growing with the greatest freedom, and unfolding some of its unprescribed tendencies. We can, indeed, hardly imagine a more felicitous task for a man of genius to have accomplished than to have seized the salient, picturesque, droll, and at the same time most significant features of human life, as he has himself lived it and witnessed it, in a region where it is continually modified in relation to new circumstances. The chief fault of the story is its brevity, and it will, we doubt not, be widely and thoroughly enjoyed by young and old for its fun and its philosophy.

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