The Two Mark Twains

MARK TWAIN left an autobiography of some 400,000 words, of which Albert Bigelow Paine published about half in 1924. Now Bernard DeVoto publishes half of the other half, and assures us that there is nothing in the remaining quarter of supreme interest. The new book, Mark Twain in Eruption, contains many passages heretofore not only unpublished but suppressed, either by the author’s direction or by the decision of the estate. They do not prove to be soul-shaking revelations.

I approached the book half expecting to find it a kind of chamber of horrors. In it, I suspected, we should at last get to the bottom of Mark Twain’s tragic mystery which we have heard so much about. What I found is extremely interesting and characteristic, sometimes distressing and sometimes laughable, but not different in essence from what was already known. There are records of black moods, but we were already aware that Mark Twain had such moods, in which he looked upon the race as worms, democracy as decaying if not already as good as dead, human conduct as merely a mechanism, as the behaviorists have found it since. But I should not say that these pages reflect the mind of an unhappy old man or of one who thought he had failed.

The darkest impression one gets from the ‘eruptions’ is that Mark Twain was puzzled or baffled by phenomena too complex for him to comprehend. The very violence and irrationality of his tirades are those of a feeling rather than a thinking man. He has set down his dislikes of certain persons with vigor and sometimes with violence, and they help us to round out our picture of him. But his notes on minstrel shows, mesmerism, his early memories, his own methods of writing and speaking, make grand reading. I would not give one of them for all his sombre musings or petulant tirades upon his times and the men and women he despised. Mr. DeVoto’s Introduction, besides compressing much useful information in small space, arrives at what seem sound conclusions regarding Mark Twain’s inability to express the mental confusion I have mentioned.

We now probably have everything anybody is likely to want from the unpublished manuscripts, and, with the publication of Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown (edited with an introduction by Franklin Walker and G. Ezra Dane), everything from the earliest hitherto unreprinted works. This book is a collection of letters written in 18661867 to the Alta California, about Mark Twain’s travels, between the Sandwich Islands voyage and the European tour. All of these sketches were preliminary practice for Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, and are therefore valuable to the scholar as well as amusing to the general reader. The present book has the freshness, good-humored impudence, straight-faced hyperbole, and shrewd observation of the young journalist feeling his oats. Much of it is also very good writing of its kind.

Neither this book nor Mark Twain in Eruption contains much of that which made him magical and inimitable. But the latest work, like the earliest, illustrates his power as a raconteur; and really no one could tell a story better. If the fault of the early writing is uncertainty of taste, that of the late is wordiness, though this may be the result of dictation. But both prove once more his artistry even in telling the most trifling anecdote: the sense of timing and climax, of the very tones of a speaking voice, of the values of over- and under-statement, of the effect of surprise. He is always best when most spontaneous, and yet one can never be certain that his apparent spontaneity is not the result of shrewd planning. But much of this writing is really the result of rhetoric delicately applied. It is when he forgets rhetoric and effect and relies on his intuitions and especially on his memories of his boyhood that he becomes charming.

The history of Mark Twain’s reputation is a curious one, and in some ways exasperating to his lovers. A perverse fate has pursued it. Ever since his greater works appeared, opinion about him has flown off at tangents, until it seemed as if he never would receive a sober appraisal. At one time it was his morality that was questioned; at another, his taste; at a third, his spiritual honesty. He was accepted by the great public as a mere jester, and by the critics was used as an example to illustrate critical theories. Thousands of pages were covered in showing what he was not, but hardly ever did anyone try to show what he really was. The reason was partly that there were two Mark Twains: one, the man I have called the rhetorician; the other, one whom we may call the poet. The former was showy, obvious, and delightful, but hardly competent to win a position as a great writer. The latter was often hidden behind the jester and showman, and was sometimes, even in his best work, in abeyance.

Perhaps the showman was diffident about the poet, afraid of his tenderness, wistfulness, and human sympathy. Strength is always afraid that sentiment is effeminate, and the realist in Mark Twain was never quite at ease with the dreamer. When he relied on his intuitions he was nearly always right and true, and instinctively he was a lover of his kind. But he hardly ever expressed this love without self-consciousness except when he was viewing the world through the somewhat nostalgic atmosphere that surrounded his boyhood memories. In Mark Twain in Eruption it is a little pathetic to see how, the moment his mind goes back far enough, his style kindles, his smartness disappears, charm suffuses the most trivial incident.

I wonder whether his later critics have not mistaken what was really the matter with him in his old age. They have assumed that he became cynical and pessimistic. But he always was so. His mind always told him that life was bad. But his feelings told him that it was good, and as long as his feelings had fuel to burn, as long as they were engaged with affections formed before he became a thinking being, he could safely let them be. All his life he had a good and a bad angel at his two shoulders; there is nothing new in the melancholy of the Autobiography — only, the time came when he had used all the memories about which his good angel could sing and was left only with later impressions about which his bad angel could prose or snarl.

In this he is really not different from other men. The Greeks made poetry the daughter of Memory; and perhaps the myth suggests the reason why so many great novelists have written their masterpiece about the memories of their youth.

If I can trust my own memory, the popular view of Mark Twain before the turn of the century was that he was a writer of excruciatingly funny stories and of books for children. Of the latter, two — The Prince and the Pauper and Joanof Arc — were quite safe reading for children, but two others, — Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, — though no doubt very amusing, were far too rowdy for nice little boys and girls. It is hard for me to believe that Tom Sawyer was published before I was born and Huckleberry Finn when I was five years old, because I certainly never read them until I had grown up. In our provincial neighborhood Mark Twain was a familiar name all through my boyhood, because many of his sketches — no doubt his worst — were favorites with parlor elocutionists; but my own lack of acquaintance with his masterpieces suggests that they were carefully kept out of my reach.

My elders no doubt thought they were protecting my taste and morals, and I cannot believe that they were unique or even unusual in this. Van Wyck Brooks records that the books were excluded from the public libraries of my home town. I certainly remember that some of my playmates were reading Huckleberry Finn secretly in the attic.

It is possible that the general public ran true to form in liking the worst books best; but this hardly accounts for the slowness of the professional critics and literary historians to recognize that Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and Huckleberry Finn were national masterpieces. Reasons can be assigned, the main one being critical inertia and timidity. Gradually, nevertheless, the realization came that Mark Twain was one of our great writers, whom it was not extravagant to compare with Dickens, Molière, Dumas, and Cervantes. These comparisons really were made, though somewhat casually, before he attained, in the nineteen-twenties, a vogue among the intellectuals.

In that peculiar decade he became the centre of a controversy which tended further to postpone a final estimate of his quality. Everyone remembers it, I suppose, and it has not even yet entirely subsided. It began when the cult of the frontier or Middle West found in him a handy example of a product strictly made-in-America. It was only a step to the conclusion that his history presented a parable of the distressful condition of the artist in America. This theory found an eloquent advocate in Van Wyck Brooks and a pugnacious opponent in Bernard DeVoto. The fallacy in the theory was perhaps natural to intellectuals: it treated Mark Twain as if he were an intellectual. But if there was ever an intuitionalist it was he. He was so creative that whenever he attempted philosophic thought he seemed like a great, solemn, lovable baby. His at times astonishing insight and wisdom were the fruit, not of philosophy, but of human sympathy. His illuminations came through his feelings.

Has not the time come to continue the work laid out by DeVoto in Mark Twain’s America? To reëxamine the works, not for what they lack, but for what they have? Concerning his greatest work, nearly everybody is now agreed that it has exuberance of vitality. Like all great fiction, it has a positively therapeutic power, not only because it contains the great cure-all, laughter, but because it is so completely sane. This sanity, which shows as a balance of laughter and tears, of observation and imagination, of thought and feeling, is found only in a few writers, and these of the greatest.