Scots Observer [unsigned]
1890: January 18

Mrs. Smedes' A Southern Planter and Mark Twain's new lapse into Ibsenity and the cultus of the thesis, A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, appear about the same time, and both are pretty sure to be widely read in Britain: the latter because Mark Twain is currently believed to have been once a writer of funny books, and the former because the Sage of Hawarden has blessed it. He is not always happy, is the Sage of Hawarden, in his selection of books to dignify with his imprimatur, having a natural and peculiar leaning to religious fiction; but in commending A Southern Planter to British readers he has done well. Mrs. Smedes' book and Mark Twain's have at first sight little enough in common but their transatlantic origin; but that view is naught. Nothing could be further removed from the blatant frivolity of the Yankee exwag -- "our arch-humourist," as Mr. de Howells styles him in the current Harper, not without a hint of unconscious pathos -- than the record of a noble life which Mrs. Smedes has written with such simple piety; and had Mr. Clemens been content to write about the court of King Arthur as he wrote about Arkansas and the Mexican Plug no one would have mentioned the two in the same breath.

For in those days Mr. Clemens lived to make the light-hearted laugh; and his life was a success. But he has exhausted his vein, and with faded cap and fools' bells jangled has got bewrayed with seriousness and bedevilled with a purpose. He treats you to a "lecture" in dispraise of monarchical institutions and religious establishments as the roots of all evil, and in praise of Yankee 'cuteness and Wall Street chicanery as compared to the simple fidelity and devotion of the knightly ideal. The key to this precious piece of apostolics is contained in a frontispiece where the Supreme Yank, the Connecticut man in a state of heroism, the Bagman in excelsis, is pictured in the act of tickling the nose of the British Lion with a switch. Now the life of Thomas Dabney -- Virginian aristocrat and slave-owner-- is an effective commentary on such violent vulgarity. He was full of just those qualities which make the memory of King Arthur fragrant. The mainspring of his life was not the almighty dollar but noblesse oblige. Amid the prosperity of his plantation times, as amid the havoc wrought on his and his country's fortunes by the war, his supreme purpose was to fulfil the honourable ideal of a gentleman. Such an ideal is no doubt inconsistent with the democratic notions of the superior Yank; but it is not the least precious heritage in the world's history for all that, and Mr. Clemens stamps himself when he makes the bagman's mistake of bedaubing it with cheap wit. It is the ideal which in English literature animated Sir Roger de Coverley, and Mr. Allworthy, and Colonel Newcome, of whose virtues, indeed, the life of Thomas Dabney was in many ways a realisation. Mrs. Smedes has done her part of the work very well, except that she might have cut down the correspondences with advantage. As for Mark Twain, he has turned didactic, and being ignorant is also misleading and offensive. His method, which was that of Hamibel Chollop, consists in attributing every social, political, and economic evil to the Crown and the Church. That slavery and Protection have flourished under American republican institutions does not hinder the ingenious creature from attributing their existence to monarchy and what he calls the Established Roman Catholic Church. To him that is decorous and just. But then he is a bagman with a thesis, and his notions of justice and decorum are of those that commend themselves to none but renegade Europians -- Europians of the stamp of Mr. Andrew Carnegie. To add to all this that Mr. W. de Howells has taken occasion to contrast him and his achievement in bagmanising with Cervantes and Don Quixote, somewhat to the disadvantage of the latter, is to begin to pity the poor devil. After all, he knows no better; after all, he is the parent of Huck Finn and Jim the Nigger and the genuine Mexican Plug and the incomparable Blue Jay. What should he do where Arthur first in court began whose proper place is the Capitol, or Tammany Hall, or the shadow of the Saint Louis Bridge? What should he do with a thesis? What he really wants is a wooden nutmeg or a razor-strop.

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