TOPICS OF THE WEEK
It has not needed the careful, retrospective estimate that a great writer's death usually brings to his works for the reading public to have come to the conclusion years ago that SAMUEL L. CLEMENS measures up to a vastly more complex figure in literature than the mere "funny man" that his first and amazingly popular achievements in authorship seemed to make him. Such books as his "Joan of Arc," or "The Man Who [sic] Corrupted Hadleyburg," give evidence enough of the deep vein of seriousness underlying some of his work, and that is present, more or less remotely, it is true, in practically all of it. We think of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" as irresistibly "funny" books; and so they are, but not throughout. The serious Mark Twain is in them, too, even if not quite so unmistakably present as in that mordant satire, "The Mysterious Stranger," or that gloomiest of philosophical essays, "What Is Man?" Thankful should we be, too, that this vein of seriousness was richly overlaid with the grace of laughter, even though that laughter does not seem quite so spontaneous and natural as in the days when we were fairly rolling over with the mirth of "Innocents Abroad," "Roughing It," "The Gilded Age" - books that, if they make us laugh at all today, make us laugh at them, not with them.
But now comes Mr. VAN WYCK BROOKS, who emphasizes and elaborates this view of Mark Twain's genius with the novel and fascinating theory, which he develops in an article appearing in this month's Dial, to the effect that CLEMENS was a humorist purely through force of circumstance; that by inclination, nature, and, to a certain extent, by environment and upbringing, he was a satirist, a sort of speechless Hamlet, oppressed by the world's miseries, or a Dean SWIFT, lacking the courage or the opportunity to flay mankind for its frailties. Thus Mr. CLEMENS appears as a man who failed to give to the world, except through intermittent, elusive flashes, the real truth that was in him, and who forced himself instead to play the part of a buffoon throughout his literary career, a part that, in his secret heart, he most abhorred. We call this theory fascinating because of the dramatic picture it leaves in the mind of a great literary genius who condemns himself to a sort of Jekyll and Hyde existence; who deliberately takes upon himself the role of international funmaker when he would far rather have "drowned the stage in tears." There is always a strong appeal in that perennial story of the famous clown who made the galleries roar with his ridiculous antics while his own melancholy thoughts were with his wife dying alone in her desolate home. In all of us there is enough of the feeling for melodrama aroused to appreciate the pathetic life-tragedy back of that sort of situation; and when somebody tells us, paralleling this old-time story, that one of the world's favorite humorists was accustomed to laugh when he was really in a black mood just the reverse from laughter, we are attracted by the idea and are more than half inclined to believe it before weighing the proof. Moreover, Mr. BROOKS does furnish an abundance of proof in support of his theory, so much so, indeed, that few of us, reading his article on the subject, will come away without a considerably revised opinion as to Mark Twain's genius.
Mr. CLEMENS started his literary career writing for and as a part of American pioneer life. Circumstances threw him during his early, impressionable years, into the rough, uncultured environment of the Western mining camps; and it was there, in defense practically of his own sensitive nature, and longing for some kind of expression, however remote, of his artistic life, that he became the creator of an exaggerated humor that won him instant fame and that he was compelled to keep on creating, much as he despised it, to the end of his career.
Here we have the psychogenesis of Mark Twain's humor. An outlet of some kind that prodigious energy of his was bound to have, and this outlet, since he had been unable to throw himself whole-heartedly into mining, had to be one which, in some way, however obliquely, expressed the artist in him. That expression, nevertheless, had also to be one which, far from outraging public opinion, would win its emphatic approval. Mark Twain was obliged to remain a "good fellow" in order to succeed, in order to satisfy his inordinate will-to-power; and we know how he acquiesced in the suppression of all those manifestations of his individuality - his natural freedom of sentiment, his love of reading, his constant desire for privacy - that struck his comrades as "different" or "superior." His choice of a pen-name, indeed, prove how urgently he felt the need of a "protective coloration" in this society where the writer was a despised type. Too sensitive to relieve himself by horse-play, he had what one might call a preliminary recourse in his profanity, those "scorching, singeing blasts" he was always directing at his companions; and that this in a measure appeased him we can see from Mr. PAINE'S remark that his profanity seemed "the safety valve of his high-pressure intellectual engine. *** When he had blown off he was always calm, gentle, forgiving, and even tender." We can best see his humor, then precisely as Mr. PAINE seems to see it, in the phrase "men laughed when they could no longer swear" - as a harmless "moral equivalent," in other words, of those acts of violence which his own sensitiveness and his fear of consequences alike prevented him from committing. By means of ferocious jokes - and most of Mark Twain's early jokes are of a ferocity that will hardly be believed by any one who has not examined them critically - he could vent his hatred of pioneer life and all its conditions, those conditions that were thwarting his creative life; he could, in this vicarious manner, appease the artist in him, while at the same time keeping on the safe side of public opinion, the very act of transforming his aggressions into jokes rendering them innocuous. And what made it a relief to him made it also popular.
The atmosphere of the mining camp does, indeed, pervade the typical Mark Twain humor, a humor that finds its effect, that makes its "point" in some grotesque bit of exaggeration. It was burlesque, as a rule, the kind of humor that is least akin to nature, that usually springs, on the contrary, from a distortion of nature. And, as Mr. BROOKS points out, during that "epoch of industrial pioneering *** the whole country was a thirsty for humor as it was for ice water," and as a result "Mark Twain's humor fulfilled during its generation a national demand as universal in America as the demand fulfilled in Russia by DOSTOEVSKY, in France by VICTOR HUGO, in England by DICKENS." But it was distinctly a forced humor. Mark Twain was not alone in using it. On the contrary, it was shared by a whole school of pioneer fun-makers, recalled by Mr. BROOKS - Artemus Ward, Orpheus C. Kerr, Petroleum V. Nasby, Dan de Quille, Captain Jack Downing, &c. And today how the national feeling for "fun" has changed! Irresistibly "funny" as these writers all were - with Mark Twain at their head - fifty years ago, how doleful is most of their humor today! When Mr. DRINKWATER'S Lincoln gives the historic reading from Artemus Ward at a Cabinet meeting, how many of his twentieth century audience find food for laughter in what this famous fun-maker of the fifties and early sixties had to say? But it was just the kind of humor that could best lighten the tragic burden borne by the Martyr Resident; if it has lost the secret for producing laughter, it is because we, not Artemus Ward, have changed. Most of the world's humor, indeed, especially if it is born of a transient national mood, belongs distinctly to an age and not to all time. And that is why, perhaps, the humor of Mark Twain does not bulk so large with us today as the satirical, serious side of his work. For it is very certain that his work has its deep, serious side and that this reveals, as Mr. VAN WYCK BROOKS claims, more of the real Mark Twain than the side given up to laughter and literary horse-play.
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