MARK TWAIN AS A LETTER WRITER
Two Volumes of Hitherto Unpublished Correspondence Full of Delightful Self-Revelations and Noble Friendships
By BRANDER MATTHEWS
MARK TWAIN'S LETTERS, ARRANGED WITH COMMENT BY ALBERT BIGELOW PAINE. Two volumes. Illustrated. New York: Harper & Brothers
Five years ago Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine published his monumental life of Mark Twain, one of the very best of modern biographies, solidly authenticated by laborious research, immitigably honest, setting down naught in malice, instinct with the desire to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. In that book he made constant use of Mark Twain's correspondence, selecting judiciously and quoting from the letters not so much for their own sake as to illuminate characteristics of his subject. Now he has collected two solid volumes of Mark Twain's correspondence, which he has arranged chronologically and which he has elucidated by a running commentary, always modest, always unobtrusive, and always confined to the strictly necessary explanations. In other words, he has let Mark Twain, the letter writer, speak for himself. It is difficult to see how this work could have been done more discreetly or more tactfully.
Mark Twain, in spite of his abiding boyishness, which was continually tempting him into exuberant outbreaks, had an unusual gift for friendships; and these two volumes are a record of noble and enduring friendships. It is true that he had permanent disagreements with Bret Harte and Edward H. House and John T. Raymond. But he bound Howells and H. H. Rogers to him with hooks of steel; and his association with Aldrich and Twitchell, Warner and Gilder, Charles Warren Stoddard and George W. Cable was almost as intimate and as unclouded. The sympathy between Goethe and Schiller, or that between Carlyle and Emerson was not finer or more beautiful than that between Mark Twain and Howells. In these volumes Mr. Paine has given us two or three score of Mark's letters to Howells and only a scant half dozen of Howells's letters to Mark. We want them all; and it is to be hoped that their correspondence will be printed in full, and by itself, sooner or later.
Mark Twain was a marvelous talker; and he was also a marvelous letter writer, because he wrote letters as if he were merely talking to the friend from whom he chanced to be separated. These letters are never composed with any thought of publication; they are never labored; they are always easy; they are sometimes even free and easy. They are the spontaneous expression of the man himself as he happened to be at the moment of taking pen in hand. In the shortest of them as in the longest he is unmistakably himself, setting down in black and white his thoughts and his feelings as they surged up naturally, and assured that the recipient would supply the understanding needed for their complete appreciation. They are highly individual; they abound in whim, in humorous exaggeration, in imagination, and in energy. They are delightful reading, in themselves in the first place, and in the second as revelations of the character and the characteristics of Mr. Samuel L. Clemens, who was in some ways a different person from Mr. Mark Twain known to all the world.
Of course, the earlier letters, written in his boyhood and youth to his mother, his sister, and his brother, are what might be expected in the correspondence of a fledgling author who ripened slowly and who did not discover himself and come into his own until he was 30. Indeed, most of these missives of his immaturity are not only flavorless, but quite without any promise of the later mastery of the accomplished man of letters which their writer was to become. Only in the course of years did he acquire the command of style - the nervous directness, the pungent vitality, the instinct for the unerring adjective and for the inevitable noun - which became his in the course of time and which revealed itself first in the unforgettable description of the Sphinx in the "Innocents Abroad" - to be matched later by the superb account of the Jungfrau in "A Tramp Abroad."
Those belated readers who may even now think of Mark Twain as a mere fun-maker, to be classed carelessly with John Phoenix and Artemus Ward and Josh Billings, will find in these letters cause to revise hasty judgment and to recognize the depth and nobility of Mark Twain's nature. A humorist he was from the beginning to the end; but at the end humor was no longer the dominant element in his work. He made men laugh as no one else was able to do so abundantly in the final twoscore years of the nineteenth century; but his laughter was never forced or trivial or accidental. His humor was rooted in and flowered out of a deep and abiding melancholy; and at the end of his life he was as serious and as sad at heart as Swift or Cervantes or Moliere. His tenderness is beautifully displayed in the letters to his wife, of which Mr. Paine allows us to read only a few, simple and sincere in their direct expression of a love which began at first sight and which grew steadily with the years.
As these years passed he was stricken again and again. His only son was taken from him in infancy. Then his eldest daughter died; and what her loss meant to him can be seen from a letter (Page 641) to Mr. Twichell, in which he laid his heart bare before his friend. Then Mrs. Clemens was snatched away at last after protracted periods of hopeless invalidism. Finally his youngest daughter died in her turn; and there is unspeakable pathos in the letter he then wrote to his sole surviving child, (Page 835.)
Is it only on occasion and to the members of his own family that the deeper aspects of the man are disclosed. For the most part the letters deal with surface of life and with the experiences of the moment. Many of them have a reckless and joyous exaggeration - as in that which he wrote to Mr. Twichell (Page 666) and which was called forth by an article of mine. One paragraph in this, expressing violently his distaste for the ivory miniatures of Jane Austen, was so vehement that Mr. Paine has decorously edited out the most picturesque of its phrases. But its purport can be guessed at from another paragraph in another letter, in which he expresses his wonder why the contemporaries of Jane Austen "allowed her to die a natural death!" Mr. Paine prints without any editing two similar but less vehement letters to me, written after Mark had been reading several of Scott's novels with increasing dissatisfaction, relieved only after he had come to "Quentin Durward" and after he had found that bravura romance more to his liking. These two letters (Pages 737-8) are very like the article he wrote on "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," and in these letter and in that article he reveals his critical insight, his fundamental honesty, which was continually compelling him to read the accredited authors of the past with his own spectacles and to apply his own standards of judgment. He has no reverence for a classic which cannot prove its right to be received as a classic. But while he has the insight of a true critic, he lacks the balance that true criticism demands. Most of the blemishes he dwells on in the stories of Scott and Cooper are there for all to see; yet there are counterbalancing beauties which Mark failed to perceive, or at least to acknowledge.
Here again he discloses his eternal boyishness, so to call it, which is one of his most marked characteristics. A great part of the merit of "Tom Sawyer" and of "Huckleberry Finn" is due to his ability to recapture the temper of his own boyhood with its eagerness of self-assertion and with its youthful intolerance. As he wrote in a letter (given on Page 566): "I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write so that it will not only interest boys but will also strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy; that immensely enlarges the audience." He was himself a man who could never forget that he had been a boy himself - a man who could and did retain an ever fresh boyishness of outlook and of attitude.
It was perhaps this eternal boyishness which led him sometimes to answer a foolish or an indiscreet letter with a volcanic frankness which relieved his own feelings at the time, but which was entirely disproportionate to the offense he had receive. And it was his natural kindliness which induced him not to sent this letter (Page 475) and to substitute for it a colorless and commonplace acknowledgment less likely to arouse resentment.
Now that I have endeavored to describe the House of Fame that Mr. Paine has erected to the memory of Mark Twain as a letter writer, it may be well for me to submit a few specimen bricks that the reader of this review may see for himself a little of the material out of which the stately edifice has been built. Here, for example, is a characteristic passage from a letter sent to Helen Keller, when she had been annoyed by one of those futile and foolish accusations of plagiarism brought by somebody with a mania for uncovering mares' nests:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that "plagiarism" farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul - let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances - is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas, there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men - but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. *** No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagine to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes's poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dictation, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my "Innocents Abroad" with. Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass - no, not he; he was not a collection of human turnips, like your "Plagiarism Court"; and so when I said, "I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal if from?" he said, "I don't remember; I only know I stole it from somebody because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anybody who had."
Rudyard Kipling wrote to a friend that
I love to think of the great and godlike Clemens. He is the biggest man you have on your side of the water by a damn sight, and don't you forget it. Cervantes was a relative of his.
And when this was transmitted to Mark, he wrote:
It makes me proud and glad - what Kipling says. I hope fate will fetch him to Florence while we are there. I would rather see him than any other man.
And earlier in the same acknowledgment Mark had expressed his thanks for a volume of Kipling's verse:
I have been reading "The Bell Buoy" and Kipling's work - and saving up the rest for other leisurely and luxurious meals. A bell buoy is a deeply impressive fellow-being. In these many recent trips up and down the Sound in the Kanawha, (Mr. Rogers's yacht,) he talked tome nightly, sometimes in his pathetic and melancholy way, sometimes with his strenuous and urgent note, and I got his meaning - now I have his words! No one but Kipling could do this strong and vivid thing. Some day I hope to hear the poem chanted or sung - with the bell buoy breaking in out of the distance.
And here, finally, is part of the letter to me about Sir Walter Scott:
I haven't been out of my bed for four weeks, but - well, I have been reading a good deal, and it occurs to me to ask you to sit down, some time or other, when you have eight or nine months to spare, and jot me down a certain few literary particulars for my help and elevation. Your time need not be thrown away, for at your further leisure you can make Columbian lectures out of the results and do your students a good turn.
1. Are there in Sir Walter's novels passages done in good English - English which is neither slovenly or involved?
2. Are there passages whose English is not poor and thin and commonplace, but is of a quality above that?
3. Are there passages which burn with real fine - not punk, fox-fire, make believe?
4. Has he heroes and heroines who are not cads and cadesses?
5. Has he personages who acts and talk correspond with their characters as described by him?
6. Has he heroes and heroines whom the reader admires, admires and knows why?
7. Has he funny characters that are funny, and humorous passages that are humorous?
8. Does he ever claim the reader's interest, and make him reluctant to lay the book down?
9. Are there pages where he ceases from posing, ceases from admiring the placid flood and flow of his own dilutions, ceases from being artificial, and is for a time, long or short, recognizable sincere and in earnest?
10. Did he know how to write English, and didn't do it because he didn't want to?
11. Did he use the right word only when he couldn't think of any other one, or did he run so much to wrong because he didn't know the right one when he saw it?
12. Can you read him and keep your respect for him? Of course a person could in his day - an era of sentimentality and sloppy romantics - but land! can a body do it today?
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