The Ordeal of Mark Twain

by Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1920. 8vo, x+267 pp. $3.00.
IT IS inevitable that a man who was as eminent in life and letters as Mark Twain should be much written about. We have had Mr. Howells s hasty but wholly charming reminiscences of him, and Mr. Paine’s long and excellent biography. Now comes this book by Mr. Van Wyck Brooks: a serious and important work, but a sort of moral indictment of Mark Twain both as artist and as man, in which the author constitutes himself prosecuting attorney, jury, and judge, and finds the great humorist guilty of having prostituted his genius to friendship, conventionality, and the desire for money and power. The arraignment is severe, the argument ingenious and elaborate; but the great public, which is the court of last resort, will not sustain the finding.
What the author tries to prove is this: that Mark Twain, a born artist, and a great one, became a pessimist because he perceived, more and more clearly as he grew older, that his bent was satire rather than humor; and that he had allowed friendship to check his pen, and love to dilute the vitriol in his ink, and the desire for fame and money to stay his hand, until he saw at last that his artistic gifts had been hidden in a napkin and his life was a failure. It is an honest attempt; the book bears evidence of that on every page; but it bears evidence also of the author’s having been obsessed by his thesis, and of that obsession’s having blinded him to everything on the other side of the argument.
The real argument begins with a brief review of Mark Twain’s mischievous and irresponsible boyhood. Then comes a picture of the boy standing by the body of his dead father, and in the contrition for things done and things left undone that is natural to every boy in such a situation, promising his mother to lead a better life and ‘make good,’ in the conventional sense. To that scene we are led back again and again, in the attempt to make us see that the promise there made was the first false step in the artist’s career. His next great mistake, we are asked to believe, was his marriage to the ‘daughter of a wealthy coal-dealer and mine-owner’ of Elmira, New York, which established as his ideal of success the standards of ‘a stagnant, fresh-water aristocracy, one and seven eighths or two and a quarter generations deep, densely provincial, resting on a basis of angular sectarianism, eviscerated politics, and raw money.’ The lifelong influence of that refined and gentle wife in purging her husband’s writings of their coarseness, the loving ministrations of Mr. Howells to the same end, the friendship of the beloved ‘Joe’ Twitchell and of Henry H. Rogers — all are presented as clogs upon Mark Twain’s genius and misfortunes in his artistic life.
One closes the book with a feeling of depression and in the spirit of revolt. The questions that it raises are bigger than can be settled, or even discussed, in this brief review. What is art? To be great, must it trample on love and betray friendship and scoff at all the decencies and gentle refinements that ages of civilization have built up? Is it greater than life itself? or is life the highest art of all? The author seems to take one point of view; Mark Twain chose the other.
E. W. F.