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The New York Times, November 3, 1935


Whose Mark Twain?

Some time ago the dramatic critic of The New York Times advanced the bold proposition that perhaps it is all right for the theatre to try to be theatrical. Mr. Atkinson's suggestion reaches out in many fields. Today, for instance, in the anniversary month of Mark Twain's centennial, you find yourself wondering if the fame of a great humorist might not be primarily due to the fact that he was humorous. In the case of Mark Twain this possibility seems to be successfully evading the critics.

Bernard De Voto has done such magnificent work in rescuing Mark Twain from the psychiatrists that it seems ungracious to quarrel with him for not going far enough. Years ago Mr. De Voto attacked the myth of Mark Twain as the frustrated and crippled genius. His comments on the latest Mark Twain literature in last week's Times Book Review appropriately mark the close of a long debate. But if Mark Twain has been rescued from the hands of the Freudian snatchers, it is not yet true that he has been restored to the arms of the plain American people were he belongs. Mr. De Voto reveals a strong inclination to claim Mark Twain for the American elite.

He Was Funny.

The trouble, of course, is with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Because of them Mr. De Voto calls Mark Twain a great creative artist. This has been said by many people for a long time, and it is probably true; for it is only a world of probabilities that we live in. But Mr. De Voto is very probably wrong when he declares that in Mark Twain's centennial year it is really the author of "Huckleberry Finn" that counts.

Counts with whom? With students of "the intellectual inheritance of Americans"? Perhaps. But with the great body of Americans themselves it is by no means so sure that the creator of Huck Finn counts as much as the author of a short sentence that was quoted in a public speech only the other day. "Always do right," wrote Mark Twain; "it will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

That is the authentic and original Twain. It is the sort of thing that has brought roars of laughter from the world, but not what the critics today call the belly-laugh. Mark Twain's listeners rocked with laughter, but the impulse came from a higher center than the abdomen.

Some of His Admirers.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were still in the womb of time when Mark Twain, having captured his own countrymen, including the inhabitants of the Brahmin enclave around Boston, crossed the seas to achieve the conquest of England. His friend W. D. Howells has recorded how "rank, fashion an culture" surrendered to him, which may sound just a bit stuffy. But among those in London who called to pay their respects were Robert Browning and Ivan Turgeniev, and that, with Howells and Thomas Bailey Aldrich at home, makes pretty good character witnesses. If the Mark Twain of pre-Huck Finn days was only a jester, he was another such jester as the one who a few months after the birth of Mark Twain began the publication of a humorous work called "The Pickwick Papers."

Mark Twain once sat upon a bench in Washington Square with Robert Louis Stevenson and talked about Aldrich, of whom Twain said that in the matter of brilliant conversation he had no peer, ancient or modern. It is in the Autobiography:

"When he speaks, said Twain, "the diamonds flash. Yes, he was always brilliant; he will always be brilliant; he will be brilliant in hell - you will see."

Stevenson, smiling a chuckly smile, "I hope not."

"Well, you will, and he will dim even those ruddy fires and look like a blond Venus backed against a pink sunset."

Mark Twain insisting that Stevenson would find Aldrich's behavior in hell just what he, Twain, predicted, is the essential Mark Twain. So is the Twain who wrote that in Fentress County, Tenn., in 1870, they do not vote for Andrew Jackson; they vote for George Washington. So is the Twain who recalls his early boyhood in Florida, Missouri, and the church which rose upon short timbers two or three feet from the ground. "Hogs slept under there, and whenever the dogs got after them during services, the minister had to wait until the disturbance was over."

Eye and Tongue.

That camera-flash of a Missouri village church in the Eighteen Forties might well be prized by Mr. De Voto as an evocation of American frontier. But he must not overlook that magic word "disturbance" which presses the button and releases the laughter. It is the written counterpart of the famous drawl which Twain's listeners found irresistible.

Twain writes in the Autobiography about the courting of Olivia Langdon, and begins with a text from Susy's Biography. The little girl wrote: "Soon papa came back East and papa and mamma were married." Mark Twain comments: "It sounds easy and swift and unobstructed, but that was not the way of it." And again there is Twain magic in that drawled "unobstructed."

He recalls the episode of Injun Joe, who got lost in a cave and would have starved to death "if the bats had run short." Injun Joe told Mark Twain the story. "In the book called 'Tom Sawyer' I starved him entirely to death in the cave, but that was in the interest of art; it never happened."

It has become the fashion to say that Mark Twain will live because he depicted a whole civilization in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But it is a safe bet that up till now Mark Twain has chiefly lived as the man who could say that he starved Injun Joe entirely to death "in the interest of art." That, at least, was the laughing magic to which Mark Twain's contemporaries succumbed, and there were some very good minds among them.

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