Boston Literary World [unsigned]
1890: February 15

Mark Twain's latest book, which his publishers have brought out in a handsome volume, seems to us the poorest of all his productions thus far. The conceit of taking a Yankee of this generation of telephones and the electric light back to King Arthur's Court may please some minds, if presented in a story of moderate length, but there can be few who will really enjoy it when long-drawn out to the extent of nearly six hundred pages. Whatever value Mr. Clemens might have incidentally imparted to his burlesque by giving something like a correct picture of the customs of the time in which the mythical King flourished is entirely absent. He has crowded into his picture a great number of episodes illustrating "ungentle laws and customs" which are historical, indeed; but he says:

It is not pretended that these laws and customs existed in England in the sixth century; no, it is only pretended that, inasmuch as they existed in the English and other civilizations of far later times, it is safe to consider that it is no libel upon the sixth century to suppose them to have been in practice in that day also. One is quite justified in inferring that wherever one of these laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one.

Mr. Clemens' method of writing history would justify him in picturing the Connecticut of the seventeenth century as afflicted with loose divorce customs and great corruption at the polls -- or something worse -- simply because these are vices of the nineteenth century! To crowd into a representation of one age the social evils of all its successors known to us, and to omit those special redeeming features of the time which made life tolerable, is a very irrational proceeding.

The serious aim under Mark Twain's travesty is the glorification of American Protestant democracy. The effort fails through the extreme partiality of the procedure. Even a Mark Twain, the persistent teacher of irreverence for great men and great events, should have some little respect left for fair play. Mr. Clemens' previous books have been bad enough in their strong encouragement of one of the worst tendencies in a democratic State, the inclination to sheer flippancy and unmanly irreverence in the face of the natural sanctities of private life and the grand heroisms of human history. But this volume goes much further in its endeavor to belittle a century surrounded with romantic light by men of later times, who thus fell back upon poetry as a slight relief to the hard prose of their actual lot. A buffoon, like the hero of this tale, playing his contemptible tricks where Sir Thomas Malory has trod with a noble teaching of knightly courtesy, and uttering his witless jokes where Tennyson has drawn so many a high moral of true gentleness, is a sorry spectacle. It is not calculated to make a reflecting person proud of a shallow and self-complacent generation which can enjoy such so-called humor.

The one consolation to be derived from this melancholy product of the American mind in the ninth decade of the nineteenth century is that, equally in its serious and in its jesting parts, it must bring about a healthy reaction in some of its admiring readers because it overshoots the mark; because its history is perverse, in its one-sided accumulation of evils; and because its humor will be wearisome in the extreme when its falsity is seen.

When Mr. Clemens relates his Life on the Mississippi with characteristic American exaggeration, we cannot fail to laugh and become friends. But when he prostitutes his humorous gift to the base uses of historical injustice, democratic bigotry, Protestant intolerance, and nineteenth-century vainglory, we must express the very sincere animosity we feel at such a performance. If anything could be less of a credit to our literature than the matter of this book, it certainly is the illustrations which disfigure it. A Protestant of the Protestants himself, the writer of this review cannot refrain from thus freeing his soul in the cause of literary decency when the Roman Catholic Church, that is to say the Christian Church in one of the noblest periods of its history, is thus grossly assailed by the writer and the illustrator of this tiresome travesty.

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