It was WILLIAM D. HOWELLS who said of his friend MARK TWAIN that "he will be remembered with the great humorists of all time, with CERVANTES, with SWIFT, or with any others of his company. None of them was is equal in humanity." In an intimate study of MARK TWAIN in the April Atlantic Monthly GAMALIEL BRADFORD dissents. It is true, he says, that MARK TWAIN "could find the laughable element in everything, true that he had that keen sense of melancholy which is inseparable from the richest comedy." Mr. BRADFORD goes on to say, to justify his opinion that his subject should not be classed with the great humorists of the past:
Somehow in MARK the humor and the pathos are not perfectly blended. The laughter is wild and exuberant as heart can desire, but it does not really go to the bottom of things. Serious matters, so-called serious matters, are taken too seriously, and under the laughter there is a haunting basis of wrath and bitterness and despair.
It is declared by this critic, who is an admirer of MARK TWAIN, that he was a superficial thinker, and seemed "like a man discovering things which are perfectly well known to trained thinkers," treating them with such spirit and interest as to convey the impression to casual readers that he had tapped a source of originality. There was no resisting this vivacity, his ingenious extravagance. And a style as versatile as it was vigorous convinced and charmed. There will be many to agree with Mr. BRADFORD that MARK TWAIN in early years "let the great problems alone; did not analyze, did not philosophize, content to extract immense joviality from the careless surface of life, and not to probe further." Can it be disputed that "much of the jesting of MARK'S youthful days is so trivial that it distinctly implies the absence of steady thinking on any subject?" A good deal of "Old Times on the Mississippi," "Roughing It" and "Innocents Abroad" is the broadest, the most extravagant farce, which palls on later readings, when MARK TWAIN does not seem so funny as he was at first; and yet there were no bounds to his efforts to amuse - he did not have that reserve of the great humorists which makes their finest passages immortal.
Mr. HOWELLS is probably right in claiming for MARK TWAIN superior humanity, in the sense that he mingled with all kinds of people, understood them, their good qualities, their individual characteristics, their foibles and their frailties. He liked, but he also hated. He was a man of strong feelings, although he preferred to be thought flippant, except by his friends, who could never admire and esteem him enough. What could be more human and self-revealing than MARK'S summing up of himself: "I have been an author for twenty years and an ass for fifty-five." Who could fail to love a man of jest and sageness for such an avowal, knowing that the depreciation was a unjust as it was sincere?
Friends of MARK TWAIN who knew the man as well as the author will perhaps be offended by the searching candor of GAMALIEL BRADFORD, but they will have to set off against his sometimes caustic judgments, which, however, are always friendly, such tributes as this: "Few human beings ever lived who had a nicer conscience and a finer and more delicate fulfillment of duty." Again, says this critic:
Human tenderness and kindliness and sympathy have rarely been more highly developed than in this man who questioned their existence.
It hardly seems necessary to have said that MARK TWAIN'S place is not
with "the great, broad sunshiny laughers, LAMB, CERVANTES, and the
golden comedy of SHAKESPEARE," but with the satirists, MOLIERE, BEN
JONSON and SWIFT, who had their dark moments and railed against the world.
If MARK TWAIN was not one of the greater humorists and a philosopher of
the first class, he was undeniably and always a fun-maker and just as surely
a moralist. But it can never be said that he was not a true painter of
contemporary life and a lover of his kind. One has only to turn over again
the leaves of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" to
know this and always maintain it. His fame will rest upon these two books,
and it will be permanent.
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search