Mark Twain, or the Ambiguities

"When we remember that we are all mad," Mark Twain wrote in his notebooks, "the mysteries disappear, and life stands explained."
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Justin Kaplan's remarkable new biography of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (Simon and Schuster, $7.95), confronts us with the problem, once again, of defining Mark Twain's relationship to American literature and life. Not that such definition would appear Mr. Kaplan's primary purpose: his book is nonportentous and nonideological, concerned with telling Clemens' story rather than with making points about America. He has mastered the Mark Twain scholarship (even if he is something less than generous about acknowledging debts to those who went before) but has moved beyond the familiar Mark Twain controversies: one is no longer asked to decide whether Olivia Langdon Clemens or William Dean Howells or Clemens himself administered the psychic wound and the symbolic castration. Mark Twain's books are considered less for their own sake than for the light they throw on their author -which, in a way, is too bad, since Mr. Kaplan's literary comments are always perceptive and stimulating. Absorbing the best insights of his predecessors, Mr. Kaplan had deeply meditated the central issues of Clemens' career on his own and entered into the inner anguish with great tact and subtlety. His narrative is vivid, penetrating, and brilliantly distilled. His book will undoubtedly be the portrait of Mark Twain for this generation.

The title—Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain—signifies the dualities which dominated Clemens' life. It was not only that he was both man and pseudonym, or that he was a humorist steeped in pessimism, or that he was a Confederate who made a runaway slave the hero of his greatest novel, or that he was a Western vagabond who luxuriated in Connecticut gentility, or that he simultaneously condemned and embraced the acquisitive values of amaterialistiç age, or that he was a prude who told smoking-room stories and circulated scatological sketches among his friends, or that, the most American writer of his day, he spent a sixth of his life abroad, or that he believed that "every man is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody." It was more specific and obsessive than that. He was fascinated by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by the idea of men possessed by demons, by "my double, my partner in duality, the other and wholly independent personage who resides in me," by the comedy and tragedy of twins Siamese twins (Chang was a teetotaler, but when Eng had too much, Chang was drunk too), babies exchanged in cradles, the pauper who traded places with the prince—"ignorant as the unborn babe!" he wrote in Roughing It, "ignorant as unborn twins!" Twin? Twain.

No one can know the ultimate sources of such an obsession. But Clemens' sense of being twain as well as Twain was plainly the haunting theme of his life. There is nothing inherently disabling about convictions of duality. "The test of a firstrate intelligence," Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Surely for Mark Twain the interior tension was enormously exhilarating and productive and helps explain the unimaginable discharge of literary energy over half a century. The double perspective informed his humor, made irony his inevitable mode, and strengthened his capacity at one and the same time to stand aside and take part, to be the bemused bystander and the agent or victim. But it also created problems. Ttaccounted for those dismaying shifts in tone which so often spoiled his effects and to which he seemed so oddly impervious. It made sustained composition difficult: probably no other great writer started and stopped so often, worked on so many different things at once, or left behind such a conglomeration of half-finished pieces. And so deeply rooted were the dualities in the mysteries of Clemens' unconscious that they were always a lurking threat to his poise, even at times to his sanity. (Fitzgerald proposed his "test of a first-rate intelligence" in a book about himself called The Crack-Up.) The problem was forever to contain the dualities, to keep them in equilibrium, to prevent them from breaking out of control and destroying the unity of consciousness and identity. Mark Twain's life was a succession of strategies designed to protect the wholeness of the self.

He began as a professional funnyman out of a rich and robust frontier tradition just beginning to find a commercial audience in the East. Van Wyck Brooks once suggested that he regarded his comic writing "as something external to himself, as something other than artistic self-expression." No doubt Mark Twain resented being taken as no more than an entertainer, and no doubt he had small regard for his more mechanical squibs and sketches. But humor was his spontaneous form of expression and absolutely organic to his artistic vision. And his humor was, of course, profoundly devious and perfectly serious: "Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years." It was, so to speak, kidding on the level. Shaw understood this: "He is in very much the same position as myself. He has to put things in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hang him believe he is joking." But no more than Shaw did he employ this tactic just to disarm the respectable and escape the hangman. He could do no other, and laughter was the only way of taming despair. "Everything human is pathetic," he wrote in Following the Equator. "The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven."

He never quite abandoned his hope for humor. "Your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter," said Satan in The Mysterious Stranger. "Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug push it a little weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast." Yet humor by itself was evidently not enough to soothe the dualities. It neither relaxed his tensions nor satisfied his needs. The Gilded Age represented his attempt to move beyond the skit and sustain his satire against "the present era of incredible rottenness"; but, for all its brightnesses of language and characterization, the defects of structure and tone must have discouraged him from going any further along the contemporary road.

It was now the 1870s, and Mark Twain, defeated by the present, sought to repair the fissures within by the recovery of the past. The return to Hannibal, Missouri—"St. Petersburg"—and to what Bernard De Voto called the "fantasy of boyhood" held out the expectation of wholeness. There were the usual false starts, but the first part: of Life on the Mississippi, Tom Sawyer, and above all, Huckleberiy Finn offered the reconciliation and release for which he had been searching. Huck Finn was the breakthrough, both in technical style and in moral vision. By making Huck the narrator. Mark Twain freed himself from the genteel English of the Eastern seaboard and brought into full play for the first time the rich and delicate resources of the American idiom. Huck was an illiterate kid; there was nothing in the book that he could not plausibly have said; yet the language, without ever departing from Huck, transcended him, and in its lovely, easy -cadences, became the vehicle of the most complex, subtle, and exquisite expression. "All American writing comes from that," Hemingway said. "There was nothing before."

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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. He taught at Harvard University and the City University of New York.

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