Mark Twain's New Departure
INCLINATION to forsake the field of assured success, and seek distinction in untried paths, has shown itself a controlling impulse in many an artistic mind. Examples are most frequent, probably, amongst actors, whose eagerness to shine in unexpected situations, and to demonstrate merits apart from those by which they have achieved prominence, is a common characteristic. For reasons sufficiently obvious, these efforts of theatrical aspiration are seldom satisfactory; nor would they be likely to win applause, even if based upon sound judgment and sustained by positive ability. The actor, as a rule, must be content with fame in a single branch of his vocation, unless he is prepared to undertake a fresh career in regions where his person and his precedents are unknown. In other arts ambition is subject to no such restraints. If the power of versatility exists, it is fairly sure of recognition. A Doré may desert the narrower channel of his early fortune, and enlarge his fame in proportion to the breadth of his spreading canvas. Rossini, with a reputation founded upon dozens of dazzling comic operas, could not rest, in his old age, until he had produced a solemn mass which might stand beside the grave works of more majestic composers. Scott, after securing eminence enough to content his modest nature through the exercise of one gift, built himself secretly a higher renown by means of another. Bulwer’s less brilliant light shone with a still greater variety of rays. The “ deed ” may not in all cases he equal to the “ attempt,” but the evidences of determined endeavor to establish this sort of manifold claim upon public attention and regard have always been abundant, and will be as long as the imagination of men can be turned to creative account.
The publication of Mark Twain’s new story, The Prince and the Pauper,1 supplies a rather striking instance in point, — or, at least, supplies material for illustration of the tendency of writers whose position is fixed and prosperous to give their faculties a new and unexpected range, and strive for a totally different order of production from any previously accomplished. It would be impertinent to pronounce too confidently upon the author’s motive, but what he has done is, in one particular, plain to every comprehension. He has written a book which no reader, not even a critical expert, would think of attributing to him, if his name were withheld from the title-page. There is nothing in its purpose, its method, or its style of treatment that corresponds with any of the numerous works by the same hand. It is no doubt possible to find certain terms of phraseology, here and there, which belong to Mark Twain, and characteristically convey his peculiar ideas ; but these are few, and would pass unnoticed as means of identification, although we recognize their familiarity readily enough, when we are already aware from whom they come. It is also possible to recall episodical passages in his earlier volumes — quaint legends and antique fantasies — which seem to be animated by a spirit similar to that of the present tale ; but these, again, would have suggested nothing as to the origin of The Prince and the Pauper, if it had appeared anonymously. So far as Mark Twain is concerned, the story is an entirely new departure ; so much so as to make it appear inappropriate to reckon it among that writer’s works. It is indisputably by Clemens ; it does not seem to be by Twain, — certainly not by the Twain we have known for a dozen or more years as the boisterous and rollicking humorist, whose chief function has been to diffuse hilarity throughout English - reading communities, and make himself synonymous with mirth in its most demonstrative forms. Humor, in quite sufficient proportion, this tale does assuredly contain ; but it is a humor growing freely and spontaneously out of the situations represented,— a sympathetic element, which appeals sometimes shrewdly, sometimes sweetly, to the senses, and is never intrusive or unduly prominent ; sometimes, indeed, a humor so tender and subdued as to surprise those who are under its spell with doubts whether smiles or tears shall be summoned to express the passing emotion.
The book is not only a novelty of Mark Twain’s handiwork ; it is in some respects a novelty in romance. It is not easy to place it in any distinct classification. It lacks the essential features of a novel, and while principally about children, is by no means a tale exclusively for children, although the young may have their full share in the enjoyment of it. The subject is so absolutely simple that to know it beforehand deprives the reader of none of the pleasure he has a right to expect. There is no pretense of a formal plot, and all the charm is owing to the sincerity, the delicacy, and the true feeling with which the story is told. Two little boys (one a bright figure in history, the other a gem of fiction ; the former King Edward the Sixth of England, the latter a pauper vagrant) accidentally exchange stations at the age of about twelve years, and each remains for several days in his strangely altered condition. A strong resemblance between the two, coöperating with accidents of time and place, makes it possible for the substitution to remain undetected. The sharply contrasting adventures of the pair constitute the whole tale. The incident of the exchange is the sole point that would seem to be hazardous for the narrator ; but whether the skill is conscious or not, whether that particular passage gets its truthfulness from the author’s own sense of its validity, or is carefully elaborated with a view to the reader’s beguilement, it certainly presents no difficulty as it stands. The rest follows naturally and ingenuously. There is no strain upon credulity, for the characters come and go, live and breathe, suffer and rejoice, in an atmosphere of perfect reality, and with a vivid identity rarely to be found in fictions set in mediæval days. The same lifelike verisimilitude that is manifest in many pages of Scott, and throughout Reade’s Cloister and the Hearth, glows in every chapter of this briefer chronicle of a real prince’s fancied griefs and perils. To preserve an illusion so consistently, it would seem that the author’s own faith in the beings of his creation must have been firm, from beginning to end of their recorded career. Unless the teller of a story believes it all himself, for the time, he can hardly impress such conviction as he does in this case upon the mind of the reader.
However skillful in invention a writer may be, it is certain that his work loses nothing of effect from a studious harmonization with the period in which it is placed. In The Prince and the Pauper this requirement has been scrupulously observed. The details are not made obtrusive, and the “ local color ” is never laid on with excess ; but the spirit of the age preceding that of Elizabeth is maintained with just the proper degree of art to avoid the appearance of artfulness. Critical examination shows that no inconsiderable labor has been given to the preservation of this air of authenticity; but the idea that the results of research are inflicted with malice aforethought is the last that would occur to any reader. On the other hand, if irrelevant phrases may be once or twice detected, their employment is obviously intentional, — the indulgence of some passing whim, the incongruity of which, it is taken for granted, will be excused for the sake of its fun. Such might easily be spared, no doubt, though they do no serious harm. It is in every way satisfactory to observe that the material accessories are brought into view with an accuracy which coherently supports the veracity of the narrative. Dresses, scenery, architecture, manners and customs, suffer no deviation from historical propriety. It would be a pity if our trust in the existence of the little pair of heroes, or of the well-proportioned figures that accompany them, were to be shaken by short-comings in these respects. But there is no danger. The big-hearted protector of guileless childhood is as palpable to our senses as to the grateful touch of the prince’s accolade. The one soft spot in the hard old monarch’s nature reveals itself to our apprehension as clearly as to the privileged eyes of the courtiers at Westminster. The burly ruffian of the gutters, the patient, sore-afflicted mother, the gracious damsels of pure estate and breeding, the motley vagabonds of the highway, the crafty and disciplined councilors of the realm, the mad ascetic, and the varied throng of participants in the busy scenes portrayed, — all these take to themselves the shape and substance of genuine humanity, and stamp themselves on our perceptions as creatures too vital and real to be credited to fable land. We go beyond the author’s cautious proposition in the prefatory lines, that the story " could have happened : ” we are sure that it ought to have happened, and we willingly believe it did happen.
It will be interesting to watch for the popular estimate of this fascinating book. Of the judgment of qualified criticism there can be little question. That it will be accorded a rank far above any of the author’s previous productions is a matter of course. It has qualities of excellence which he has so long held in reserve that their revelation now will naturally cause surprise. Undoubtedly, the plan upon which most of his works have been framed called for neither symmetry, nor synthetic development, nor any of the finer devices of composition. Generally speaking, they served their purpose, without the least reference to the manner in which they were thrown together. They stood, and stand, at the head of all the genuine successes of modern comic writing; but, notwithstanding the frequent flashes of power that give them vigor, the felicities of characterization that brighten them, the pathos that chastens them, and no one can say how many other manifestations of cleverness, they remain the most heterogeneous accumulations of illassorted material that ever defied the laws of literature, and kept the public contentedly captive for half a score of years. Now the same public is called upon to welcome its old favorite in a new guise, — as the author of a tale ingenious in conception, pure and humane in purpose, artistic in method, and, with barely a flaw, refined in execution.