MR. HOWELLS'S MARK TWAIN
A Book That Throws Interesting Side-Lights on a Many-Yeared and Memorable Friendship
By H. W. BOYNTON
MY MARK TWAIN. By W. D. Howells. Harper & Brothers. $1.40
Half of this book is made up of an estimate of Mark Twain based upon Mr. Howells's personal acquaintance with him - an acquaintance of forty-odd years, and an intimacy almost as long. The other half, or nearly that, is filled with a collection of reviews and criticisms by Mr. Howells ranging from the publication of "The Innocents Abroad" to "Joan of Arc" - and after. Mr. Howells possesses another body of material in connection with Clemens which he does not choose to make use of here, even by way of the most meagre quotation. This is a long series of letters to himself amounting, as he reckons, to some fifteen hundred pages in all. "They will no doubt some day be published," he says. We suspect that he himself lacks the courage to deal with these memorials of friendship as literary material.
The present book we should have liked as well if the little memoir had been allowed to stand by itself. The republished reviews have a different sort of interest. They have undergone no revision or change, and, as here printed in the order of their original publication, make up a commentary upon their author as well as upon his theme. As Mr. Howells notes, "they begin rather stiffly, pedantically, and patronizingly, but they grow suppler, wiser, and more diffident as they go on." This is the normal evolution of manner for the professional critic who begins young; but these criticisms register a change in more than manner. The writer's attitude toward Mark Twain gradually changes from one of good-humored recognition of an entertaining humorist to one of strong admiration for a force in modern letters. "The Innocents Abroad," is, according to the first of the reviews, "Mr. Clemens's very amusing book"; its author is "worthy of the company of the best" humorists that have come out of California. "Tom Sawyer" (six years later) is "a book full of entertaining character and the greatest artistic sincerity." In 1882 Mark Twain not only "transcends all other American humorists in the universal qualities," but is "an artist of uncommon power." Some twenty years later Mr. Howells declares him "not only the greatest living humorist, but incomparably the greatest, and without a rival since Cervantes and Shakespeare, unless it be that eternal Jew, Heinrich Heine, who of all the humorists is the least like him." And now, after almost another decade, he perceives that the man Clemens possessed "the depths of a nature whose tragical seriousness broke in the laughter which the unwise took for the whole of him. Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes - I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another, and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature."
So, with this large tribute, closes Mr. Howells's hundred pages of personal reminiscence and estimate. During the last ten years of his life Mark Twain received a continually wider acknowledgment of the dignity of his work. The funny man of the seventies and eighties, held in delight by the man in the street, but regarded at best with amused indulgence by the authorities, has become a great public figure. The honors conferred upon him by that most conservative of bodies, the University of Oxford, merely stood for a general tribute. Authorities have not been lacking to proclaim him not only the greatest of American humorists, but the greatest of American authors in any kind. This is going too far. The pendulum, it seems, is bound to swing back, and find its steady and permanent beat.
But Mark Twain's interest as a human figure does not depend upon the literary rank we may be disposed to yield him. Mr. Howells's reminiscences do much toward setting that figure before us in the flesh. His appalling frankness, his profanity, his "Elizabethan breadth of parlance," his extraordinary physique, made more striking by a "a keen feeling for costume which the severity of our modern tailoring forbids men" - all these traits are set forth vividly. And the writer's tributes of personal affection, his account of their early alliance, and of the meetings in later years between the two old and aging friends, have the value of an intimate and perfectly frank testimony to the lovableness of the great joker. Mr. Howells is as incapable as Mark Twain himself of whitewashing the subject of his study. He makes some admissions as to character and habit which the mere eulogist would be careful to avoid. But it is clear enough that there was no serious fault in that robust life to b concealed. The worst charge that can be brought against him was an incurable boyishness: "He was a youth to the end of his days," says Mr. Howells: "the heart of a boy with the head of a sage; the heart of a good boy, or a bad boy, but always a wilful boy, and wilfulest to show himself out at every time for just the boy he was."
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