The Official Three-Volume Biography of Mr. Clemens
By Prof. Brander Matthews.
MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY. The personal and literary life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. By Albert Bigelow Paine. With letters, comments, and incidental writings hitherto unpublished; also new episodes, anecdotes, &c. Three volumes, fully illustrated. Harper & Brothers. $6.
Whenever an important biography of an important author appears, there are two courses open to the reviewer. He may write his article wholly about the new book and give his opinion of that, letting his opinion of its subject be taken for granted; or, he may say as little as he pleases about the new book itself, accepting it merely as a peg upon which to hang his opinions of its subject. But when the new book happens to have Mark Twain for its subject, and to possess the amplitude and the authority of these three volumes with their seventeen hundred solid pages, then the present reviewer declines the privilege of choice between these two methods of consideration, and he feels impelled to avail himself of both methods, one after the other - to consider first of all, the book itself, and then to consider its subject as revealed in this new account of his career and this new revelation of his characteristics.
To begin with the book itself. The bard of the British Empire has insisted that there are nine and sixty ways of writing tribal laws and every single one of them is right. So may it be said that there are nine, or at least six, different ways of writing a biography and every single one of them is right. Mr. Paine has chosen the right way for him - which might not be the right way for another biographer. He has written not a critical study of the author, but a detailed account of the man; he has preferred to be an annalist rather than a historian. What he has here given us is the chronicle of Mark Twain's long life, the record of that career, year after year, month by month, and almost week by week. He has availed himself of all the sources of information available. He was selected for the task by Mark himself, and accepted by the family, so he has been able to use all the correspondence and all the multiplied memorandums and all the many unpublished writings that Mark put aside or never finished. He has had the advantage of the abundant reminiscences dictated by Mark, especially for his benefit. He has verified and rectified all this by diligent and incessant labor. He has interviewed all sorts and conditions of men, who knew Mark in his boyhood, in his youth, and in his maturity. He has sought to buttress his narrative "from direct and positive sources," and he has never been content with "hearsay or vagrant printed items."
One result of this method and of the biographer's conscientiousness is that he has given us one of the longest biographies in the English language - quite the longest which has ever been written about any American author. He supplies us with abundant information about Mark's father and mother, abut his brother and his sister, about his wife and his children, about his many friends and his innumerable acquaintances, and even about the strangers within his gates. With infinite care and with infinite detail he traces Mark's career from the cradle to the grave - omitting nothing which could in any way cast light upon his character. With Mark's death he stops; and as a result he does not record the memorial meeting at Steinway Hall, arranged by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Here, once for all, are the final materials for all who may hereafter want to write about the most interesting figure American literature at the beginning of the twentieth century - a figure as intensely and inexpugnably American as the figures of Franklin and Lincoln. The gleaners who come after may have access to correspondence not now accessible, and they may be able to add inconsiderable items of information here and there; but now, in these three volumes, the record is substantially complete. In these pages we have Mark Twain as he lived his long life.
A large part - a very large part - of Mark's work was autobiographical. He told us about his own boyhood in "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." He described in "Life on the Mississippi" how he began as a pilot, and how he learned the river. He narrated his travels in "The Innocents Abroad" and "A Tramp Abroad" and "Following the Equator." He began a formal autobiography of which fragments have been published. To all these Mr. Paine supplies a running commentary, correcting the slips of Mark's memory, and noting the variations from fact, which Mark often made, sometimes for reasons of his own - literary reasons only - and sometimes from sheer inadvertence. In some ways Mark's memory was marvelous, but it was uncertain. "When I was younger," so Mr. Paine records him as saying, "I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I'm getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter." In the memory of every man possessed of imagination there is ever an irrepressible conflict between poetry and truth - Dichtung und Wahrheit, and Mark was subject to this rule as well as Goethe, whose good faith is equally indisputable.
Mr. Paine straightens out the facts for us, even though Mark had somehow twisted them; and he gives us a host of other facts not derived from Mark himself or from Mark's writings, published or unpublished. He tells a plain tale, not extenuating Mark's mistakes, his peculiarities, or his misunderstandings. Here Mr. Paine fulfills the first duty of a biographer. He is sincere, honest, frank - as Mark himself. He has a superb belief in the nobility of his subject, and he paints him, as Cromwell wished to be portrayed, with his warts. This is how Mark also would wish to be delineated, and taken as a whole the book completely justifies Mr. Paine's belief that Mark was so big that there is nothing lost by revealing the infrequent littlenesses he chanced to have, the few defects, and the many inconsistencies. To know him was to understand him and to love him, and Mr. Paine will help thousands who already love him without knowing him to understand him as they never did before.
What I for one - if a book reviewer who warrants his opinion by his signature may for a moment speak for himself - what I have found in these volumes only confirms and strengthens the impression formed by many years of friendship. I was only a boy of 15 when I bought the "Jumping Frog," issued by Charles H. Webb in 1867. A few years later I heard the speech which Mark made at the hundredth performance of Col. Sellers by John F. Raymond, and I recall that this was not one of his most appropriate addresses, since it consisted mainly in his telling the tale of his unfortunate experiences with a certain Mexican plug. Not long after I met him, and even before the little dining club called The Kinsmen was founded, I came to know him better. I had the satisfaction of pleasing him by an article on "Huckleberry Finn," written for The London Saturday Review in 1884. We helped to found the Authors Club about that time - as later we helped to found The Players. We served together on the Executive Committee of the American Copyright League, which led to our having a little passage at arms in the pages of The New Princeton Review; then more than a score of years ago we spent the better part of a Summer together at Oneteora, where I was made witness of the beautiful happiness of his home life. When the complete edition of his works was planned I was asked to prepare a biographical criticism for the first volume. Only seven years ago, at my request, he gladly became a member of the Simplified Spelling Board, for the absurdities of our English orthography appealed irresistibly to his sense of humor. And the Mark Twain I came to know in the course of all these years is the Mark Twain I find portrayed in this biography.
Although these volumes are intended rather as a record of Mark's career than as a study of his character, they lay that character bare before us that we may analyze it for ourselves. Here is the full story of his life, an we can see for ourselves what manner of man he was in the beginning, and what manner of man he was at the end. As we turn Mr. Paine's pages what is borne in upon us is that although the boy is father to the man, and although Mark was in many respects at the end what he had been at the beginning, yet there had been a wonderful development in him, an amazing expansion of unexpected power; a transformation which we might be tempted to call unprecedented if we did not remember that it has been paralleled by Franklin and by Lincoln - a transformation possible only in these United States, and perhaps characteristic of these United States. Here is a boy born in a primitive Missouri village, with no advantages, as these are called; he starts as a journeyman printer, roaming as far East as New York; he turns pilot on the mighty river he always loved; he sets off pioneering in Nevada; he becomes a newspaper man in San Francisco; and it is as a newspaper correspondent that he first crosses the Atlantic. The book in which he describes this trip makes him famous, and launches him on the voyage to fame. He travels, he writes other books, he makes a fortune and he loses it; and when he is 70 he is universally recognized as one of the half dozen living authors whose reputation is truly international. Universities are glad to honor him, and Kings are glad to talk to him and to let him talk to them. He is welcome in all circles and in every circle he holds his own with the best. Yet he remains himself, the simple creature he had been at the beginning. Perhaps better than any other of our authors had he seen the full spectroscope of American life, that spectroscope which is so curiously akin to a kaleidoscope.
How did this expansion come about? How did the idle boy who was more or less Tom Sawyer - and rather more than less - how did he grow up to be the austere satirist who wrote "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg"? How came it about that the profane pilot of a Mississippi steamer rose to be the reverent recorder of the life and death of the Maid of France? How was it that the newspaper reporter whose earliest efforts at authorship are little better than the comic copy, common enough in the journals of fifty years ago, should have so mastered our stubborn language that he became as remarkable as a stylist as he was a moralist? He achieved a control over the multifarious vocabulary of English, a command of the exact noun and of the inevitable adjective not inferior to that of swift or Bunyan. No one of the monarchs of English prose has surpassed in power, in dignity, and in beauty the description of the Jungfrau, (which Mr. Paine quotes from "A Tramp Abroad,") or one descriptive of a gentleman; (also here quoted from his tribute to the dead coachman who had served his family for years.)
Mr. Paine's narrative sets before us the successive stages of this most interesting and most mysterious transformation, even if they cannot explain the secret or genius. For one other puzzle, however, they do supply an explanation, or at least they present the facts from which an explanation may be deduced. The puzzle is this: How are we to account for the strange inequality in Mark's writing, late as well as early? How was it that after the veracity of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" he descended to the labored unreality of "Tom Sawyer, Detective," and its fellow artificialities? It will not do to answer that Mark's taste was uncertain and that he could not distinguish his bad work from his good. The question lies deeper. How did he come to write so much that was distinctly inferior to his own average? How did he come to make so many mistakes in name and treatment?
Mr. Paine frankly tells us that there are still in manuscript a host of these, discarded by Mark himself, under advice from Mrs. Clemens or from Mr. Howells.
The explanation seems to be that Mark was rarely at his best when he was relying solely or mainly on his own invention. He seems to have needed the sustaining power of the actual fact. What he invented himself was likely to have the artificiality and the fantasticality of mere invention. What he had seen himself or what he had heard from an eyewitness, he could absorb and make his own and set his imagination at work to interpret. It is a commonplace of criticism that great poets do not invent their myths. They are content to take an old tale and tell it anew, bringing out its latent beauty, and its human significance. In this way Mark was a poet, and he was happiest when he did not tax his invention, but let his imagination play with the actual fact.
I can recall that forty years ago, when Tom Kennett, the man from whom Mark had bought his share of The Buffalo Express, said that Mark liked to get hold of true stories to tell them in his own fashion. I rather resented this as an unfair aspersion on Mark's literary honesty. But I am a little older now, and I can see that this slur was only the offensive expression of the truth. Mr. Paine gives us the names of the men from whose lips Mark heard the original of the "Jumping Frog" and of the bluejay tale (in "A Tramp Abroad,") and of other similar humorous narratives. Mark told me once that there was not a chapter in "Tom Sawyer" that was not taken straight from life, and that what happened to Tom in the book had happened to Mark himself or to some other boy he knew. As there is little of sheer invention in "Tom Sawyer" - however much there may be of coordinating and interpreting imagination - so there is little sheer invention in the autobiographic books, the "Innocents Abroad" and "A Tramp Abroad," "Life on the Mississippi" and "Following the Equator." Mark made his profit out of what he said himself, out of what happened to him or to the friend who was with him, and out of what the friend told out of a persona experience. This was the raw material that he needed and that he could use to best advantage. He wanted the concrete fact to embroider with humorous fancy. And when he started by himself inventing the fancy the result was likely to be fantastic. This accounts for the disconcerting unreality of some of his inventions as it accounts also for the solidity of the stories originally rooted in reality. Mr. Paine described how Mark took down "A True Story" and declares that this gave him "a chance to exercise two of his chief gifts - transcription and portrayal; he was always greater at these things than at invention."
But the temptation to quote and to comment must be resisted once for all. Mr. Paine has done a work well worth doing; and on the whole he has done it well. If the reader, after having followed Mark's career n Mr. Paine's pages, wants a more intimate and a more imaginative interpretation of Mark's character, he will find it in Mr. Howells's sequence of criticisms and confidences which he aptly entitled "My Mark Twain." The long friendship of Mr. Howells and Mark, its absolute loyalty on both sides, may be set by the side of the friendships - not nobler or more helpful - of Moliere and Boileau and of Goethe and Schiller. Mr. Paine gives many alluring excerpts from the innumerable letters they interchanged in the course of two score years. Perhaps some day this correspondence may be printed in full for the delight of all lovers of good writing and good humor, good thinking and good fellowship.
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