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."

By Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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."

The freedom of language made possible a new depth of moral insight. When Huck convicted himself of sin in helping Jim escape and announced his rejection of the ethos—"All right, I'll go to hell then"—the episode was the fusion of humor and pathos for which Mark Twain so often aimed and less often, in such perfection, achieved. Alone on the raft, floating drowsily down the great river, Huck and Jim (twins?) became, in Lionel Trilling's phrase, a "community of saints." But the problem remained: where could they—and Mark Twain—go from there? Hemingway and many others have complained about Mark Twain's solution. "You must stop where the nigger Jim is stolen by the boys," Hemingway warned readers. "This is the real end. The rest is cheating." Certainly Tom Sawyer's high jinks in the last part of the book involved a disastrous switch in mood and key. Yet did they not, after all, register pressures which the author legitimately felt? Keeping Huck and Jim forever on the raft would have been cheating too. Given the time and the place, was not some parody of acquiescence the only possible ending? And the fact that Jim would be liberated by Miss Watson's will rather than by Huck's blasphemy was surely the climactic irony.

For a season, despite the pressures, the return to boyhood worked. Mr. Kaplan, like Bernard De Voto, sees the early eighties as Mark Twain's time of balance and maturity, permitting him "as a man to live fully in the glorious, opulent present and as an artist to live imaginatively in the transfigured past." But the inner demons were not yet exorcised, nor could such a romantic treatment of twinship as The Prince and the Pauper do more than feed their appetite. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, written in the second half of the decade, verified the continuing agitation within. Howells, always looking for the smiling aspects of life, liked to consider A Connecticut Yankee "the most delightful, truest, most humane, sweetest fancy that ever was," but it reeked with a violence directed impartially against Arthurian Britain, the slave society of the pre-Civil War South, and the technological society of the postCivil War North. Still, it was not enough for Mark Twain. "If it were only to write over again," he told Howells, 'there wouldn't be so many things left out. They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can't ever be said. And besides, they would require a library—and a pen warmed up in hell."

The rage was growing; and no personal outburst, no excoriation of his enemies, no fascination with the new technology, no immersion in the scramble for money, no outpouring of words, no philosophy of life could appease it. It was no doubt reinforced by the despair which contemporaries very unlike Mark Twain -Henry Adams, for example, or, to take an older man, Walt Whitman—felt when they looked out on what they saw as the degradation of the early republic. In any case, a series of private disasters crystallized the chaos of life for Mark Twain. His publishing house failed; the Paige typesetting machine, after swallowing much of his own and his wife's fortune, came to nothing; his wife fell into invalidism; one daughter became an epileptic; another died of meningitis. By the middle nineties, hell had warmed up the pen, and the nightmare had begun. De Voto, in his brilliant essay of nearly a quarter century ago, "The Symbols of Despair," first charted the intensities of Mark Twain's psychological crisis, the mutilation Df his self-image, the terror of artistic impotence and personal collapse, the dualities of life now wildly out of control.

The old palliatives no longer, worked. No matter how hard he tried—and his writing in the late nineties became compulsive and, in De Voto's word, "heliridden"—humor turned into savagery, the fantasy of boyhood resisted revival. It was a time of the transmutation of images; themes which had bobbed up innocently in his earliest writings now recurred in black and awful color. The idyllic raft floating along the river gave way to a desolate ship sailing on a "blind voyage" through Antarctic waters in the "great dark." The sunlit town of St. Petersburg became Dawson's Landing, torn by blood and betrayal, and then Hadleyburg, corrupted by a mysterious stranger. As for the stranger, a Mark Twain familiar since "The Notorious Jumping Frog" ("One day a feller—a stranger in the camp he was -come acrost . . ."), he grew more decisive in each new incarnation. The' Connecticut Yankee, as J. M. Cox has pointed out, was precisely a stranger, in King Arthur's Court, as Pudd'nhead Wilson was a stranger in Dawson's Landing. Finally he 'became Philip Traum, the Mysterious Stranger in Eseldorf; as Eseldorf—Assville—itself became the final metamorphosi of Hannibal. Traum—Dream—represented Mark Twain's ultimate response to duality. This solution was foreshadowed by the triumph of Merlin's magic over the Yankee's machines: dream was stronger than matter. In a letter to Mrs. Theodore Crane four years later he said—more kidding on the level:

I dreamed I was born and grew up and was a pilot on the Mississippi and a miner and a journalist in Nevada and a pilgrim in the Quaker City and had a wife and children and went to live in a villa at Florence—and this dream goes on and on, and sometimes seems so real that I almost believe it is real. I wonder if it is? But there is no way to tell, for if one applies tests they would be part of the dream, too, and so would simply aid the 'deceit. I wish I knew whether it is a dream or real.

More and more, the dream—fluid, invincible, omnipotent—became the metaphor through which he tried to render man passive and helpless and thereby come to terms with his own existential convictions of impotence and guilt. "Life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings," he dictated for his Autobiography. "It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head." He tinkered helplessly with a story called "Which Was the Dream?", in which, as De Voto summarized one of its versions, "a man is to nod for a moment over a cigarette, dream a sequence of 'events which he thinks has lasted for seventeen years, and on waking from his momentary sleep so have confused the dream with reality that he cannot recognize his wife." A leading figure in the unfinished tale which De Voto called "The Great Dark" was another mysterious stranger, the Superintendent of Dreams, impalpable, inescapable, all-powerful. The climax came with Satan's concluding speech in The Mysterious Stranger: "Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars—a dream, all a dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!"

"When we remember that we are all mad," Mark Twain wrote in his notebooks, "the mysteries disappear, and life stands explained." The dream theory justified all: it relieved man of freedom, responsibility, and guilt, whether for a fall from high estate or the death of his loved ones or his own inner chaos. The philosophic determinism, however shallow, served a psychic purpose. The dualities, which had defeated laughter and nostalgia, at last dissolved in dream.

How profound was the resolution? Dc Voto argued that The Mysterious Stranger, coming at the end of the agony, was a work of healing, removing the psychic block, stilling the self-accusation, and bringing Mark Twain peace at last. Later scholarship, however, suggests that the fable of Eseldorf was written, not in 1905, but half a dozen years earlier, when he was still drifting in the great dark. In any case, if a "testament of reconciliation," it is surely, like Billy Budd itself, an expression of fatigue rather than conquest-of resignation rather than regeneration. The testamentary solution was too easy for the antinomies which burst out so violently in black works like Pierre; or the Ambiguities or Pudd'nhead Wilson (Those Extraordinaiy Twins). "He rationalized his guilt away," Mr. Kaplan writes, "but this left him with an insatiable appetite for approval and adulation, and he spent a good part of the last ten years of his. life trying to feed it." Yet even if Mark Twain had not solved his problems, "he survived, and that, considering what he went through, is in itself something of a triumph."

He ended in a blaze of public success, the man in the gleaming white suit with the great mane of white hair, a world celebrity, friendships with Andrew Carnegie and H. H. Rogers of Standard Oil, an honorary degree from Oxford, a staggering parade of banquets and receptions, at home in Tuxedo Park and Palm Beach and Bermuda. The old dark humor occasionally still erupted. When Theodore Roosevelt decided to abolish the motto "In God We Trust" on coins, Mark Twain called it a beautiful motto—"simple, direct, gracefully phrased . . . . I don't believe it would sound any better if it were true." If the United States was a Christian country, he told Carnegie, "so is hell." He lashed out against imperialism in the Congo, South Africa, and the Philippines, against missionaries, lynch mobs, Christian Scientists, and other manifestations of the damned human race. But there was always a sense of limited liability. "Only dead men can tell the truth in this world," he concluded. Before he slipped into his final coma, "his last continuous talking," Mr. Kaplan tells us, "was about 'the laws of mentality,' about Jekyll and Hyde and dual personality."

Howells in a fine phrase called Mark Twain "sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature." So in a sense he was; for, like Lincoln, he came from the heart of America, spent his youth on the river, emancipated the slave, preserved moral awareness in "the raging, tearing, booming 19th century," scorned- romanticism, satirized oligarchy, experienced tragedy, gave melancholy the disguise of humor and vision the discipline of art, vindicated the genius of democracy, and incarnated America before the world. Yet Mark Twain himself was curiously oblivious to Lincoln, who figures in the Autobiography only because his Attorney General got Orion Clemens, Sam's brother, his job in the Nevada Territory, who is mentioned but once (and again in connection with Orion Clemens) in Mark Twain's forty-year correspondence with Howells, and who does not occur at all in Mr. Kaplan's book. The Lincoln of our literature was himself, in fact, far more preoccupied with Ulysses S. Grant, whose life, like his own, had been, in Mr. Kaplan's words, cca saga of the unpredictable and the unlikely, of a man without promise who, after years of drift, failure, alcoholism, and disgrace, was touched by history and the Holy Ghost and achieved greatness . . . . He worshiped Grant, he identified himself with Grant." When Grant died, Clemens, fifty years old, told Livy, "Our faces are toward the sunset."

Why Grant rather than Lincoln? Perhaps because Grant too was destroyed by the dualities of life: the total, granitelike integrity of the Memoirs, written as the author died of throat cancer, as against the slack and hopeless presidency. Like Grant, Mark Twain was a flawed man who never composed his inner schisms, never purged himself of bitterness, never distilled serenity out of torment. "With malice toward none; with charity toward all," Lincoln wrote a year before his death; "I am full of malice, saturated with malignity," Mark Twain wrote a year before his death. He was not, alas, the Lincoln of our literature. But he was a great artist whose struggle with his demon beautifully expressed the anguish, duplicity, and dignity of life in a land where interior conflict was the source and circuit of creation.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1966/08/mark-twain-or-the-ambiguities/305730/