MARK TWAIN'S IMPERISHABLE CHARACTERS.
It might seem that one of the great tests of an author's success, and especially of a writer of stories is whether his characters are sufficiently well differentiated and clearly enough drawn to become stock allusions, to form part of familiar conversation, his people being so widely known and loved that the slightest reference to them is at once understood. If this is a true test of a book's or a writer's real value, it is easy to see that many an otherwise charming work fails to pass this ordeal, for the characters in fiction that will live and be known and quoted and so become in a fashion part of our common daily lives are all too few.
Mark Twain has certainly succeeded in giving us a few imperishable characters; Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer being far more real to us than most of the actual boys of our acquaintance, and we hardly need Mr. Clemens's assurance that the one was drawn from life, while the other is a sort of composite picture of three boys of his acquaintance. His book being intended for grown-up children quite as much as for boys and girls, he has succeeded admirably in reminding us of what we were and how we felt and thought and talked in our own early days. It might seem that a certain boy - Tommy - whose strongest characteristic was "sentimentality," might almost have been suggested by Tom Sawyer's adventures in Sherwood Forest; the "den" and its association being far from an actual copy, but just possibly suggested by it - both Toms being extremely fertile "in finding a way."
What could be finer than the village school exhibition, with its "wig" story, unless, indeed, it is our own favorite portion of Tom's adventures, where a Saturday's task of thirty yards of board fence, nine feet high, to whitewash, was turned from an endless task into a glorious achievement by Tom's ingenuity. For by the most skillful management, did he not contrive to make the boys think such work an honor rather than a task, so that when the middle of the afternoon arrived, Tom was literally rolling in wealth, derived from the boys whom he had allowed to do his work upon payment of all sorts of treasures?
But while we are disposed to linger over Tom's charms perhaps unduly, he is only one of the characters whom Mark Twain has given us which are sure of immortality. Co. Sellers "feeding his family on expectations" is equally fine. Who can forget the apparently cheerful fire, which the accidental opening of the stove door revealed to be a candle burning behind the mica; or the plain family dinner, "an abundance of clear, fresh water, and a basin of raw turnips" - early Macolms imported by the Colonel himself. Or all the other meals described, which were far from sumptuous, but so talked up by the Colonel as to seem veritable feasts - this article having been sent him by some titled personage; the guest being told to sip the coffee - which had seemed horrible - slowly, so that none of its delicious flavor should escape him; the bread from corn which could be grown only in one favored locality, and so on, until one might fairly think they were having a most exquisite feast. The Salt Lick Branch Railroad, too, is inimitable, and best of all is that, thanks to the powerful way in which Colonel Sellers himself is drawn, and especially his great faith in himself and his own schemes, he is able to renew and keep at a high level the belief of his family, his friends, and, we might almost add, his readers, in all his big undertakings, regardless of their usual fate.
"The Innocents Abroad" is probably considered one if not quite the best of all Mark Twain's books, but it has never been among our own favorites, the one character standing out prominently and unforgettably being his "poet," who would insist upon writing "poetry" upon all and every occasion giving copies of his verses to "Consuls, commanders, hotel keepers, Arabs, Dutch - to everybody in fact who will submit to the genuine infliction." The "Oracle" and "The Interrogation Point" are interesting members of the Quaker City expedition - to read about - but they do not become numbered among our friends as do Tom and always delightful Colonel.
"Roughing It" is a charming picture of vagabonding, and represents a phase of our early history which has long since passed, so that this and others of Mark Twain's Western sketches will come to have a historical value quite apart from the interest of his treatment. In this book will be found characteristic pictures of half-breeds, as, for instance, where the Indian who had been hired for a day's washing lighted a fire in a stove in the oven of which several cans of rifle power had been hidden, and after the explosion which followed, sending even portions of the shed 200 feet, calmly looked on and remarked "Stove heap gone," and resumed his washing.
"The Prince and the Pauper" seems never to have received quite the attention it merits. The tale is charming in itself and in its treatment, while the lesson it conveys of the power of circumstances, environment, and even clothes, is an extremely valuable one.
It is impossible to attempt to touch upon Mr. Clemens's later work, but a careful examination of his books will show other portraits to add to the gallery in which hang Tom, Huck Finn, and our beloved Colonel Sellers. The man who has given us these three imperishable creations might well rest satisfied with his additions to American literature had he done nothing else.
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search