WHEN I was a boy of fourteen, Mark Twain took hold of me as no other writer had then and as few have since. I lay on t he rug before the fire in the long winter evenings, while my father read The Innocents Abroad and Old Times on the Mississippi, and Roughing It and I laughed till I cried. Nor was it all laughter. The criticism of life, strong and personal, if crude, the frank, vivid comments on men and things, set me thinking as I had never thought, and for several years colored my maturing reflection in a way that struck deep and lasted long.
Such is my youthful memory of Mark. For forty years I read little of him. Now, leaping over that considerable gulf, reading and rereading old and new together, to distil the essence of his soul in this brief portrait, has been for me a wild revel, a riot of laughter and criticism and prejudice and anti-prejudice and revolt, and rapture, from which it seems as if no sane and reasoned judgment could ensue. Perhaps none has, or ever does. But I have done what I could.
This much is clear, to start with: that Mark is not to be defined or judged by the ordinary standards of mere writers or literary men. He was something different — perhaps something bigger and deeper and more human; at any rate, something different. He did a vast amount of literary work and did it, if one may say so, in a literary manner. He was capable of long, steady toil at the desk. He wrote and rewrote, revised his writing again and again, with patience and industry. He had the writer’s sense of living for the public, too, instinctively made copy of his deepest personal emotions and experiences. One of his most striking productions is the account of the death of his daughter Jean; yet no one but a born writer would have deliberately set down such experiences at such a moment, with publication in his thought. And he liked literary glory. To be sure, he sometimes denied this. In youth he wrote, ‘There is no satisfaction in the world’s praise anyhow, and it has no worth to me save in the way of business.’ Again, he says in age, ‘indifferent to nearly everything but work. I like that; I enjoy it, and stick to it. I do it without purpose and without ambition; merely for the love of it.’ All the same, glory was sweet to him.
Yet one cannot think of him as a professional writer. Rather, there is something of the bard about him, of the old, epic, popular singer, who gathered up in himself, almost, unconsciously, the life and spirit of a whole nation, and poured it forth more as a voice, an instrument, than as a deliberate artist. Think of the mass of folk-lore in his best, his native books! Is it not just such material as we find in the spontaneous, elementary productions of an earlier age?
Better still, perhaps, we should speak of him as a journalist; for a journalist he was, essentially and always, in his themes, in his gorgeous and unfailing rhetoric, even in his attitude toward life. The journalist, when inspired and touched with genius, is the nearest equivalent of the old epic singer, and most embodies the ideal of giving forth the life of his day and surroundings with as little intrusion as possible of his own personal, reflective consciousness.
And as Mark had the temperament to do this, so he had the training. No man ever sprang more thoroughly from the people or was better qualified to interpret the people. Consider the nomadic irrelevance of his early days, before his position was established, if it was ever established. Born in the Middle West toward the middle of the century, he came into a moving world, and he never ceased to be a moving creature and to move everybody about him.
He tried printing as a business; but any indoor business was too tame, even though diversified by his thousand comic inventions. Piloting on the vast meanders of the Mississippi was better. What contacts he had there, with good and evil, with joy and sorrow!
But even the Mississippi was not vast enough for his uneasy spirit. He roved the Far West, tramped, traveled, mined, and speculated, was rich one day and miserably poor the next; and all the time he cursed and jested alternately and filled others with laughter and amazement and affection, and passed into and out of their lives, like the shifting shadow of a dream. Surely the line of the old poet was made for him, —
And thus it was that he met his friend’s challenge to walk the city roofs, where they promenaded arm in arm, until a policeman threatened to shoot and was restrained only by the explanatory outcry, ’Don’t shoot! That’s Mark Twain and Artemus Ward.’
This was his outer youthful life, and within it was the same. For with some the feet wander while the soul sits still. It was not so with him. Though he always scolded himself for laziness, complained of his indolence or gloried in it, yet when he was interested in anything, his heart was one mad fury of energy. Hear his theory on the subject: ‘If I were a heathen, I would rear a statue to Energy, and fall down and worship it! I want a man to — I want you to — take up a line of action, and follow it out, in spite of the very devil.’ And practice for himself never fell short of theory for others.
To be sure, his energy was too often at the mercy of impulse. Where his fancies led him, there he followed, with every ounce of force he had at the moment. What might come afterwards he did not stop to think — until afterwards. Then there were sometimes bitter regrets, which did not prevent a repetition of the process. He touches off the whole matter with his unfailing humor: ‘I still do the thing commanded by Circumstance and Temperament, and reflect afterward. Always violently. When I am reflecting on these occasions, even deaf persons can hear me think.’
Perhaps the most amusing of all these spiritual efforts and adventures of his youth were his dealings with money. He was no born lover of money, and he was certainly no miser; but he liked what money brings, and from his childhood he hated debt and would not tolerate it. Therefore he was early and always on the lookout for sources of gain, and was often shrewd in profiting by them. But what he loved most of all was to take a chance. His sage advice on the matter is: ‘There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can.’ Apparently his own life escaped from these all-embracing conditions, for he speculated always. A gold mine or a patent, an old farm or a new printing machine—all were alike, to him, vast regions of splendid and unexplored possibility. And much as he reveled in the realities of life, possibility was his natural domain—gorgeous dreams and sunlit fancies, strange realms of the imagination, where his youthful spirit loved to wander and shape for itself cloud futures that could never come to pass, as he himself well knew, and knew that to their unrealizable remoteness they owed the whole of their charm.
But, you say, this was, after all, youthful. When years came upon him, when he had tasted the sedate soberness of life, dreams must have grown dim or been forgotten. Far from it. His lovely wife called him ‘Youth’ till she died, and he deserved it. Though he was married and a great author, and had a dozen homes, he never settled down, neither his feet nor his soul. The spirit of his early ideal, ‘A life of don’tcare-a-damn in a boarding-house is what I have asked for in many a secret prayer,’ lingered with him always. You see, he had restless nerves, to which long quiet and solitary, sombre reflection were a horror. And then he had perfect, magnificent health, the kind that can endure boarding-houses without ruin. ‘In no other human being have I ever seen such physical endurance,’ says his biographer. And Mark himself declared that he never knew what fatigue was. Who that was made like this would not be glad to wander forever? So Mark was most happy and most at home when he was wandering.
He saw and liked to see all things and all men and women. The touch of a human hand was pleasant to him, and the sound of a human voice, speaking no matter what lingo. He made friends of pilots and pirates and miners and peasants and emperors and clergymen — above all, clergymen, over whom he apparently exercised such witchery that oaths from him fell on their ears like prayers from other people. No man ever more abused the human heart or railed more at the hollowness of human affection, and no man ever had more friends or loved more. To be sure, he could hate, with humorous frenzy and, it would seem, with persistence. But love in the main prevailed; and, indeed, what anchored his wandering footsteps was not places but souls, was love and tenderness. He had plenty for the pilots and the pirates and clergymen. He had much more for those who were nearest him. His infinite devotion to his daughters, most of all to his wife, who was fully worthy of it, and who understood and brought out the best in him and tolerated what was not so good, is not the least among the things that, make him lovable.
As he was a creature of contradictions, it is no surprise to find that, while he prayed for boarding-houses, he loved comfort and even luxury. He would have eaten off a plank in a mining-camp, and slept on one; but the softest beds and the richest tables were never unwelcome, and one attraction of wandering was to see how comfortable men can be, as well as how uncomfortable.
Now, in order to have luxury, you must have money. And Mark, in age as in youth, always wanted money, whether from mines in Nevada, or from huge books sold by huge subscription, or from strange and surprising inventions that were bound to revolutionize the world and bring in multi-millions. He always wanted money, though rivers of it ran in to him — and ran out again. He spent it, he gave it away, he never had it, he always wanted it.
And always, till death, his soul wandered more than his body did. And his adventures with money were always matters of dream, even where the dreams were punctuated with sharp material bumps. Again and again some exciting speculation appealed to him, as much for its excitement as for its profit. He built great cloud-castles, and wandered in them, and bade his friends admire them, and made colossal calculations of enormous success. Then the clouds collapsed and vanished, and the flaw in the calculations became evident — too late. Calculations were never a strong point with him, whether of assets or liabilities. He spent a white night working over the latter. ‘ When I came down in the morning, a gray and aged wreck, and went over the figures again, I found that in some unaccountable way I had multiplied the totals by two. By God, I dropped seventy-five years on the floor where I stood! ’
Even his loves had an element of dream in them, and surely dream made up a large portion of his hatred. Certain natures offended him, exasperated him, and he amused himself with furious assertion of how he would like to torment them. If he had seen one of them suffer, even in a finger’s end, he would have done all in his power to relieve it. But in the abstract, how he did luxuriate in abuse of these imaginary enemies, what splendor of new-coined damnation he lavished on them, and all a matter of dreams.
Something of dream entered also into his widespread glory; for such wealth of praise and admiration has surely not often fallen upon walkers of the firm-set earth. During the first decade of the twentieth century he drifted in his white dream-garments — as Emily Dickinson did in solitude — through dream-crowds, who applauded him and looked up to him and loved him. And he ridiculed it, turned it inside out to show the full dream-lining, and enjoyed it, enjoyed his vast successes on the public platform, enjoyed the thronging tributes of epistolary admirers, enjoyed the many hands that touched his in loving and grateful tenderness.
And at the end, to make the dream complete, as if it were the conception of a poet, a full, rounded, perfect tragedy, misfortunes and disasters piled in upon the dream-glory and thwarted and blighted it, even while their depth of gloom seemed to make its splendor more imposing. Money, which had all along seduced him, betrayed him, for a time, at any rate, and he wallowed in the distress of bankruptcy, till he made his own shoulders lift the burden entire. One of his daughters, who was very dear to him, died when he was far away from her. His wife died, and took happiness with her, and made all glory seem like sordid folly. His youngest daughter died suddenly, tragically. What was there left?
Nothing. Toys, trifles, snatched moments of oblivion, billiards, billiards till midnight, then a little troubled sleep, and more billiards, till the end.
In perhaps the most beautiful words he ever wrote he summed up the fading quality of it all under this very figure of a dream: —
‘Old Age, white-headed, the temple empty, the idols broken, the worshipers in their graves, nothing but you, a remnant, a tradition, belated fag-end of a foolish dream, a dream that was so ingeniously dreamed that it seemed real all the time; nothing left but You, centre of a snowy desolation, perched on the ice-summit, gazing out over the stages of that long trek and asking Yourself, “Would you do it again if you had the chance?”’
Mark Twain is generally known to the world as a laugher. His seriousness, his pathos, his romance, his instinct for adventure are all acknowledged and enjoyed. Still, the mention of his name almost always brings a smile first. So did the sight of him.
There is no doubt that he found the universe laughable and made it so. The ultimate test of the laughing instinct is that a man should be always ready to laugh at himself. Mark was. The strange chances of his life, its ups and downs, its pitiful disasters, sometimes made him weep, often made him swear. But at a touch they could always make him laugh. ‘There were few things that did not amuse him,’ writes his biographer, ‘and certainly nothing amused him more, or oftener, than himself.’ One brief sentence sums up what he was never tired of repeating: ‘I have been an author for twenty years and an ass for fifty-five.’
And he not only saw laughter when it came to him: he went to seek it. He was always fond of jests and fantastic tricks, made mirth out of solemn things and solemn people, stood ready, like the clown of the circus, to crack his whip and bid the world dance after him in quaint freaks of jollity, all the more diverting when staid souls and mirthless visages played a chief part in the furious revel.
On the strength of this constant sense and love of laughter many have maintained that Mark was one of the great world-humorists, that, he ranks with Cervantes and Sterne and the Shakespeare of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, as one who was an essential exponent of the comic spirit. With this view I cannot wholly agree. It is true that Mark could find the laughable element in everything; true also that he had that keen sense of melancholy which is inseparable from the richest comedy. Few have expressed this more intensely than he has. ‘Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’ Yet the very extravagance of expression here suggests my difficulty. Somehow in Mark the humor and the pathos are not perfectly blended. The laughter is wild and exuberant as heart can desire, but it does not really go to the bottom of things. Serious matters, so-called serious matters, are taken too seriously; and under the laughter there is a haunting basis of wrath and bitterness and despair.
To elucidate this, it is necessary to examine and follow the process and progress of Mark’s thinking. In early years, as he himself admits, he thought little—that is, abstractly. His mind was active enough, busy enough, and, as we have seen, his fancy was always full of dreams. But he let the great problems alone, did not analyze, did not philosophize, content to extract immense joviality from the careless surface of life, and not to probe further. Even the analysis of laughter itself did not tempt him. In this he was probably wise, and he maintained the attitude always. ‘Humor is a subject which has never had much interest for me.’ Indeed, the analysis of humor may be safely left to those gray persons who do not know what it is. But much of the jesting of Mark’s youthful days is so trivial that it distinctly implies the absence of steady thinking on any subject. Not that he was indifferent to practical seriousness. Wrong, injustice, cruelty could always set him on fire in a moment. There was no folly about his treatment of these. But at that stage his seriousness was busy with effects rather than with causes.
Then he acquired money and leisure and began to reason on the nature of things. This late dawning of his speculative turn must always be remembered in considering the quality of it. It accounts for the singular gaps in his information about simple matters, for the impression of terrific but not very well guided energy which comes from his intellectual effort. It accounts for the sense of surprise and novelty in his spiritual attitude, which Mr. Howells has so justly pointed out. He seems always like a man discovering things which are perfectly well known to trained thinkers, and this gives an extraordinary freshness and spirit to his pronouncements on all speculative topics.
When he grew aware of his reasoning powers, he delighted in them. His shrewd little daughter said of him, ‘He is as much of a philosopher as anything, I think.’ He was a philosopher by inclination, at any rate. He loved to worry the universe, as a kitten worries a ball of yarn. Perhaps this seemed to make up in a small way for the worries the universe had given him. He loved to argue and discuss and dispute and confute, and then to spread over all bitterness the charm of his inextinguishable laughter. His oaths and jests and epigrams convulsed his interlocutors, if they did not convince them.
As to his theoretical conclusions, it may be said that they were in the main nihilistic. But before considering them more particularly, it must be insisted and emphasized that they were wholly theoretical and did not affect his practical morals in the least. Few human beings ever lived who had a nicer conscience and a finer and more delicate fulfilment of duty. It is true that all his life he kept up a constant humorous depreciation of himself in this regard. If you listened to his own confessions, you would think him the greatest liar in existence, and conclude that his moral depravation was equaled only by his intellectual nullity. This method is often effective for hiding and excusing small defects and delinquencies. But Mark needed no such excuse. What failings there were in his moral character were those incident to humanity. As an individual, he stood with the best.
The most obvious instances of his rectitude are in regard to money. In spite of his dreams and speculative vagaries, he was punctiliously scrupulous in financial relations, his strictness culminating in the vast effort of patience and self-denial necessary to pay off the obligations of honor which fell upon him in his later years. But the niceness of his conscience was not limited to broad obligations of this kind. ‘Mine was a trained Presbyterian conscience,’ he says, ‘and knew but the one duty — to hunt and harry its slave upon all pretexts and all occasions.’ He might trifle, he might quibble, he might jest; but no one was more anxious to do what was fair and right, even to the point of overdoing it. ‘I don’t wish even to seem to do anything which can invite suspicion,’ he said, as to a matter so trivial as taking advantage in a game.
And the moral sense was not confined to practical matters of conduct. Human tenderness and kindliness and sympathy have rarely been more highly developed than in this man who questioned their existence. The finest touch in all his writings is the cry of Huck Finn, when, after a passionate struggle between his duty to society and his duty to friendship, he tears the paper in which he proposed to surrender the nigger, Jim, and exclaims, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’ And Mark himself would have been perfectly capable, not only of saying he would go, but of going.
As he loved men, so he trusted them. In the abstract, judging from himself, he declared they were monsters of selfishness, greedy, deceitful, treacherous, thoughtful in all things of their own profit and advantage. In the individual, again judging from himself, he accepted them at their face value, as kindly, self-sacrificing, ready to believe, ready to love, ready to help. Being himself an extreme example, both in skeptical analysis and in human instinct, he often fell into error and trusted where there was no foundation to build on.
In consequence, his actual experience went far to justify his skeptical theories, and he presents another example, like Swift, like Leopardi, of a man whose standard of life is so high, who expects so much of himself and of others, that the reality perpetually fails him, and excess of optimism drives him to excess of pessimism. For example, his interesting idealization or idolatry of Joan of Arc, his belief that she actually existed as a miracle of nature, makes it comprehensible that he should find ordinary men and women faulty and contemptible enough compared with such a type.
It is not the place here to analyze Mark’s speculative conclusions in detail. They may be found theoretically elaborated in What is Man? practically applied in The Mysterious Stranger and the Maxims of Pudd’nhead Wilson, and artistically illustrated in The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg and innumerable other stories. They may be summed up as a soulless and blasting development of crude evolutionary materialism, as best manifested in the teachings of Robert Ingersoll. Man’s freedom disappears, his best morality becomes enlightened selfishness, his soul is dissipated into thin air, his future life grows so dubious as to be disregarded, and the thought of death is tolerable only because life is not. The deity, in any sense of value to humanity, is quite disposed of; or, if he is left lurking in an odd corner of the universe, it is with such entire discredit that one can only recall the sarcasm of the witty Frenchman : ‘The highest compliment we can pay God is not to believe in him.’
In all this perpetually recurrent fierce dissection of the divine and human one is constantly impressed by the vigor and independence of the thinking. The man makes his views for himself; or since, as he repeatedly insists, no one does this, at least he makes them over, rethinks them, gives them a cast, a touch that stamps them Mark Twain’s and no one else’s, and, as such, significant for the study of his character, if for nothing more.
On the other hand, if the thinking is fresh and vigorous, one is also impressed and distressed by its narrowness and dogmatism. Here again the man’s individuality shows in ample, humorous recognition of his own weakness, or excess of strength. No one has ever admitted with more delightful candor the encroaching passion of a preconceived theory. I have got a philosophy of life, he says, and the rest of my days will be spent in patching it up and ‘in looking the other way when an imploring argument or a damaging fact approaches.’ Nevertheless, the impression of dogmatism remains, or, let us say better, of limitation. The thinking is acute, but does not go to the bottom of things. The fundamental, dissolving influence of the idealistic philosophy, for instance, is not once suggested or comprehended. This shows nowhere more fully than in the discussion of Christian Science. Everything is shrewd, apt, brilliant, but wholly on the surface.
The effect of the bitter and withering character of Mark’s thought on his own life was much emphasized by the lack of the great and sure spiritual resources that are an unfailing refuge to some of us. He could not transport himself into the past. When he attempted it, he carried all the battles and problems of to-day along with him, as in A Connecti-cut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He had not the historical feeling in its richest sense. Art also, in all its deeper manifestations, was hidden from him. He could not acquire a love for classical paint ing or music, and revenged himself for his lack of such enjoyment by railing at those who had it. Even nature did not touch great depths in him, because they were not there. He felt her more theatrical aspects—sunsets, ice-storms. Her energy stimulated a strange excitement in him, shown in Twitchell’s account of his rapture over a mountain brook. I do not find that he felt the charm of lonely walks in country solitude.
It is on this lack of depth in thinking and feeling that I base my reluctance to class Mark with the greatest comic writers of the world. His thought was bitter because it was shallow; it did not strike deep enough to get the humble tolerance, the vast self-distrust, that should go with a dissolving vision of the foundations of the individual universe. His writing alternates from the violence of unmeaning laughter to the harshness of satire that has no laughter in it. In this he resembles Molière, whose Scapins are as far from thought as are his Tartuffes from gayety. And Mark’s place is rather with the bitter satirists, Molière, Ben Jonson, Swift, than with the great, broad, sunshiny laughers, Lamb, Cervantes, and the golden comedy of Shakespeare.
Indeed, no one word indicates better the lack I mean in Mark than ‘sunshine.’ You may praise his work in many ways; but could anyone ever call it merry? He can give you at any time a riotous outburst of convulsive cachinnation. He cannot give you merriment, sunshine, pure and lasting joy. These are always the enduring elements of the highest comedy. They are not the essential characteristics of the work of Mark Twain.
But perhaps this is to consider too curiously. The total of Mark’s work affords other elements of interest besides the analysis of speculative thought, or even of laughter. Above all, we Americans should appreciate how thoroughly American he is. To be sure, in the huge mixture of stocks and races that surrounds us, it seems absurd to pick out anything or anybody as typically American. Yet we do it. We all choose Franklin as the American of the eighteenth century and Lincoln as the American of the nineteenth. And most will agree that Mark was as American as either of these.
He was American in appearance. The thin, agile, mobile figure, with its undulating grace in superficial awkwardness, suggested worlds of humorous sensibility. The subtle, wrinkled face, under its rich shock of hair, first red, then snowy white, had endless possibilities of sympathetic response. It was a face that expressed, repressed, impressed every variety of emotion known to its owner.
He was American in all his defects and limitations. The large tolerance, cut short with a most definite end when it reached the bounds of its comprehension, was eminently American. The slight flavor of conceit, at least of self-complacent satisfaction, the pleasant and open desire to fill a place in the world, whether by mounting a platform at just the right moment or wearing staring white clothes in public places, we may call American with slight emphasis, as well as human.
But these weaknesses were intimately associated with a very American excellence, the supreme candor, t he laughing frankness which recognized them always. Assuredly no human being ever more abounded in such candor than Mark Twain. He confessed at all times, with the amplitude of diction that was born with him, all his enjoyment, all his suffering, all his sin, all his hope, all his despair.
And he was American in another delightful thing, his quickness and readiness of sympathy, his singular gentleness and tenderness. He could lash out with his tongue and tear anything and anybody to pieces. He could not have done bodily harm to a fly, unless a larger pity called for it. He was supremely modest and simple in his demands upon others, supremely depreciative of the many things he did for them. ’I wonder why they all go to so much trouble for me. I never go to any trouble for anybody.’ The quiet wistfulness of it, when you know him, brings tears.
Above all, he was American in his thorough democracy. He had a pitiful distrust of man; but his belief in men, all men, was as boundless as his love for them. Though he lived much with the rich and lofty, he was always perfectly at home with the simple and the poor, understood their thoughts, liked their ways, and made them feel that he had been simple and poor himself and might be so again.
He was not only democratic in feeling and spirit, he was democratic in authorship, both in theory and practice. Hundreds of authors have been obliged to write for the ignorant many, for the excellent reason that the cultivated few would not listen to them. Perhaps not one of these hundreds has so deliberately avowed his purpose of neglecting the few to address vast masses as Mark did. The long letter to Mr. Andrew Lang, in which he proclaims and explains this intention, is a curious document. Let others aim high, he says, let others exhaust themselves in restless and usually vain attempts to please fastidious critics. I write for the million, I want to please them, I know how to do it, I have done it. ‘I have never tried in even one single instance, to help cultivate the cultivated classes. . . . I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game — the masses. I have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but have done my best to entertain them. To simply amuse them would have satisfied my dearest ambition at any time.’
It is hardly necessary to dwell upon the weak points in this theory. Whatever Mark, or anyone else, professes, it cannot be questioned that he prefers the approbation of the cultured few, when he can get it. Moreover, it may easily be maintained that the many in most cases take their taste from the few; and if this does not hold with a writer’s contemporaries, it is unfailing with posterity. If a writer is to please the generations that follow him, he can do it only by securing the praise of those who by taste and cultivation are qualified to judge. In other words, if Mark’s works endure, it will be because he appealed to the few as well as to the many.
However this may be, there can be no question that Mark reached the great democratic public of his own day and held it. To be sure, it is doubtful whether even he attained the full glory of what he and Stevenson agreed to call ‘submerged authorship,’ the vast acceptance of those who are wept over at lone midnight by the shop-girl and the serving-maid. But his best books — Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper — may justly be said to belong to the literature of American democracy; and the travel books and many others are not far behind these.
In view of this fixed intention to appeal to the masses and to affect the masses, it becomes an essential part of the study of Mark’s career and character to consider what his influence upon the masses was. He talked to them all his life, from the platform and from the printed page, with his sympathetic, human voice, his insinuating smile. What did his talk mean to them, how did it affect them, for good or for evil?
In the first place, beyond a doubt, enormously for good. Laughter in itself is an immense blessing to the weary soul — not a disputable blessing, like too much teaching and preaching, but a positive benefit. ‘Amusement is a good preparation for study and a good healer of fatigue after it,’says Mark himself. And amusement he provided, in vast abundance, muscle-easing, spirit-easing.
Also, he did more than make men laugh, he made them think, on practical moral questions. He used his terrible weapon of satire to demolish meanness, greed, pettiness, dishonesty. He may have believed, in the abstract, that selfishness was the root of human action, but he scourged it in concrete cases with whips of scorpions. He may have believed, in the abstract, that men were unfit to govern themselves, but he threw scorn biting as vitriol on those who attempted to tyrannize over others.
Finally, Mark’s admirers insist, and insist with justice, that he was a splendid agent in the overthrow of shams. He loved truth, sincerity, the simple recognition of facts as they stand, no matter how homely, and with all his soul he detested cant of all kinds. ‘His truth and his honor, his love of truth, and his love of honor, overflow all boundaries,’ says Mr. Birrell. ‘He has made the world better by his presence.’ From this point of view the praise was fully deserved.
Yet it is just here that we come upon the weakness. And if Mark made the world better, ho also made it worse — at any rate, many individuals in it: for, with the wholesale destruction of shams, went, as so often, the destruction of reverence, ‘that angel of the world,’ as Shakespeare calls it. The trouble was that, when Mark had fairly got through with the shams, there was nothing left. One of his enthusiastic admirers compares him to Voltaire. The comparison is interesting and suggestive. Voltaire, too, was an enormous power in his day. He wrote for the multitude, so far as it was then possible to do it. He wielded splendid weapons of sarcasm and satire. He was always a destroyer of shams, smashed superstition and danced upon the remains of it. But Voltaire was essentially an optimist and believed in and enjoyed many things. He enjoyed literature, he enjoyed glory, he enjoyed living; above all, he believed in and enjoyed Voltaire. When Mark had stripped from life all the illusions that remained even to Voltaire, there was nothing left but a naked, ugly, hideous corpse, amiable only in that it was a corpse, or finally would be.
Mark himself frequently recognizes this charge of being a demolisher of reverence, and tries to rebut it. I never assault real reverence, he says. To pretend to revere things because others revere them, or say they do, to cherish established superstitions of art, or of morals, or of religion, is to betray and to deceive and to corrupt. But I never mock those things that I really revere myself. All other reverence is humbug. And one is driven to ask, what does he really revere, himself? His instinctive reverence for humanity in individual cases is doubtless delicate and exquisite; but in theory he tears the veil from God and man alike.
To illustrate I need only quote two deliberate and well-weighed utterances of his riper years. How could you wither man more terribly than in the following?
‘A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities; those they love are taken from them and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year; at length ambition is dead; pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last, — the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them, — and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence, where they have achieved nothing, where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they have left no sign that they have existed — a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever.’
For those who thus envisaged man there used to be a refuge with God. Not so for Mark. Man deserves pity. God —at least, any God who might have been a refuge—deserves nothing but horror and contempt. The criticism is, to be sure, put into the mouth of Satan; but Satan would have been shocked at it: he was not so far advanced as Mark: —
‘A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one . . . who mouths justice and invented hell — mouths mercy and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him.’
Can it be considered that doctrines such as this are likely to be beneficial to the average ignorant reader of democracy, or that the preacher of them made the world wholly better by his presence? It is true that they do not appear so openly in Mark’s best-known books, true that the practical manliness and generosity of Tom and Huck largely eclipse them. Yet the fierce pessimism of Pudd’nhead Wilson stares at the reader from the popular story of that name and from the equally popular Following the Equator, and even in the history of Tom and Huck the hand that slashes reverence is never far away.
The charge of evil influence fretted Mark as much as that of irreverence. He defends himself by denying that there is such a thing as personal influence from doctrines. Our happiness and unhappiness, he says, come from our temperament, not from our belief, which does not affect them in the slightest. This is, of course, gross exaggeration, as the story of Mark’s own life shows again and again. One can perhaps best speak for one’s self. It took years to shake off the withering blight which Mark’s satire cast for me over the whole art of Europe. For years he spoiled for me some of the greatest sources of relief and joy. How many never shake off that blight at all! Again, in going back to him to write this portrait, I found the same portentous, shadowing darkness stealing over me that he spread before. I lived for ten years with the soul of Robert E. Lee, and it really made a little better man of me. Six months of Mark Twain made me a worse. I even caught his haunting exaggeration of profanity. And I am fifty-six years old and not very susceptible to infection. What can he not do to boys and girls of sixteen?
It is precisely his irresistible personal charm that makes his influence overwhelming. You hate Voltaire; you love Mark. In later years a lady called upon him to express her enthusiasm. She wanted to kiss his hand. Imagine the humor of the situation — for Mark. But he accepted it with perfect dignity and perfect tender seriousness. ‘How God must love you!’ said the lady. ‘I hope so,’ answered Mark gently. After she had gone, he observed as gently and without a smile, ‘I guess she has n’t heard of our strained relations.’
How could you help being overcome by such a man and disbelieving all he disbelieved? When he clasps your hand and lays his arm over your shoulder and whispers that life is a wretched, pitiable thing, and effort useless, and hope worthless, how are you to resist him?
So my final, total impression of Mark is desolating. If his admirers rebel, declare this utterly false, and insist that the final impression is laughter, they should remember that it is they, and especially Mark himself, who are perpetually urging us to take him seriously. Taken seriously, he is desolating. I cannot escape the image of a person groping in the dark, with his hands blindly stretched before him, ignorant of whence he comes and whither he goes, yet with it all suddenly bursting out into peals of laughter, which, in such a situation, have the oddest and most disconcerting effect.
Yet, whatever view you take of him, if you live with him long, he possesses you and obsesses you; for he was a big man and he had a big heart.
- The material essential to an intelligent estimate of Mark Twain’s character will be found, of course, in Albert Bigelow Paine’s monumental and very human biography, in three volumes, published by Messrs. Harper and Brother, and referred to in this article. — THE EDITOR.↩