Mark Twain Our Finest Humorist

( Originally Published 1916 )


IF a canvas of intelligent readers were made in any Western State today, the first place among American men of letters would be given by popular vote to Mark Twain. The East does not yet hold him in the same high regard, but every year sees a gain in his popularity with the reading public. More American than Whitman himself, he appeals to a very wide audience because he is not only the ablest of our humorists, but in his later years he proved that he was a novelist of the first rank as well as an historian and a philosopher. It took Mark Twain many years to live down the idea that he was simply a teller of funny stories; but Huckleberry Finn and the Recollections of Joan of Arc abundantly proved that he was far more than a humorist.

In no other country could Mark Twain have reached such eminence as he enjoyed during the last ten years of his life. It is a far cry from the barefooted boy of Hannibal, Missouri, to the first citizen of New York. Occasionally in Europe is seen such a spectacular rise as that of Lloyd-George, but in the main the political and literary honors in the Old World belong to those born to ample leisure and fortune. Had Mark Twain been born abroad he would probably have remained a printer or a river pilot. In this country, where opportunity beckons to everyone who has brains and ambition, Mark Twain dropped piloting and took up newspaper work, which proved, as in the case of many American authors, the stepping-stone to success.

The life of Mark Twain affords a good example of the splendid opportunities in America open to those who have the ability to grasp them. Mark Twain had something more than mere literary talent; he had genius of the highest order, for only genius will explain the astonishing develop ment of his literary faculty in an environment which was distinctly hostile to any imaginative work. The poor boy of Hannibal, Missouri, had no advantages beyond those of his companions, but like most of the famous American writers he was a tireless reader and early in life he drifted into a printing office, that training school which inspired Whitman, Howells and Bret Harte. There he found the tools which he learned to use so deftly; but his was no sudden success. Probably the rough life of Nevada and California in early mining days served to develop his humorous ability and The Jumping Frog of Calaveras, a very amusing story which he heard told by a miner in the California foothills, first made his name known from, Atlantic to Pacific. Then came lecturing, and the Great Opportunity. This was nothing less than the first organized pleasure excursion to the Old World. Out of it came The Innocents Abroad, which set a new record for books of travel, and established Mark Twain's fame as a humorist.

This book should have demonstrated that its author was among the greatest of prose writers, because scattered through it are brilliant pages of description and fine bits of philosophy, all couched in a style that is true, strong and original. But the great public paid no attention to anything except the jokes and the delightfully irreverent passages in which this new humorist flayed the travel writers of the old school. Many since Mark Twain's day have ex-pressed their lack of appreciation of the Old Masters, but it remained for him to kill by savage ridicule the absurd affectations of those who simply followed in the footsteps of former critics. No one can read the chapters on the Holy Land without being impressed by Mark Twain's graphic pictures of sacred shrines now in the hands of the Unspeakable Turk. These chapters reveal the author's genuine reverence as well as his close study of the Bible. Years after, Mark Twain wrote A Tramp Abroad, in which he followed the route of his first pilgrimage, but though this book is written with more artistic finish, it lacks the rollicking fun and the spontaneity of the early work.

Life on the Mississippi an autobiography with some imaginative touches is one of Mark Twain's great books. As readable as a novel, it takes you back to those old days when passenger boats ran up and down the great river from St. Louis to New Orleans, and when the pilot of one of these fine steamers was as great a man as the driver of a six-horse stage coach in Nevada. You see at once that Mark Twain loved this life on the river and that it is pure joy for him to tell of his hard training as a cub pilot and of the many episodes that marked his life at the wheel. With consummate art he has told this story of a strange life, so that today it is one of his most popular books in this country as well as in France and Germany.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed in the next season two masterpieces in successive years. Tom Sawyer is a book for boys, although thousands of mature readers have enjoyed it. It is a faithful picture of the author's boyhood in a sleepy little Mississippi river town, and as a study of boy psychology it has never been surpassed; but it is not literature in the same sense that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is literature. Many readers bracket these two books together, but they have little in common except their literary art. All the details of Huckleberry Finn serve to paint the most graphic pitture ever drawn of life in the Southern States before the War. The freeing of the negro Jim from the calaboose, the floating of Huck and Jim down the Mississippi on their raft, the advent of the two tramps and their remarkable adventures, the episode of the terrible blood feud all these go to make up a unique book. It was literary genius that impelled Mark Twain to write this book without elaborating the great scenes. This makes the Grangerford-Shepperdson family feud one of the most impressive things in all literature.; One can fancy the fun Mark got out of the tricks of the Duke and the King, who are among the most lovable rogues in picaresque fiction. If you think my praise of this book too high take down the book and read it again. I think you will agree with me that as pure literature it is worthy of a place among the great books of the world.

Mark Twain always had a keen desire to show that the "good old times" did not compare with the present age. This resulted in two very attractive stories The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The first is a delightful romance full of real pathos and humanity, which has warmed the heart of many youthful readers. The second is Mark Twain's tremendous onslaught upon British class tyranny and time-honored privilege. Through the per-son of the Connecticut Yankee the American vents his hatred of many British institutions, but he is so extravagant in his language that he defeats his own purpose. The book, which should have been one of Mark Twain's best, is really one of his worst because of its many artistic blemishes.

The great romance in Mark Twain's life was his passion for Joan of Arc; When a boy he picked up in the street a scrap of paper containing an outline of the life and the terrible tragedy of the Maid of Orleans, and this incited him to read everything he could find -about her. Twelve years he devoted to reading and research and two years to the actual writing of the Recollections of Joan of Arc. The result is not his best book, as he fondly imagined, because his genius did not move as freely in the past as in the present, but it is a splendid historical picture, full of that spiritual power which will make it endure as long as the language in which it was written.

Of Clemens, the man, as contrasted with Mark Twain, the author, it is a pleasure to say that he developed with the years from a rather hard, irreverent, frequently cruel humorist into one of the wisest and most lovable of men. Much of this refinement was due to the daily influence of the wife whom he adored and of association with men like Howells, Warner and the Rev. Joseph Twichell, who was his constant companion. No American author during his life enjoyed his popularity more than Mark Twain, and none was so singularly honored in England. His later years were clouded with many sorrows, but through all he preserved the sweetness of his nature. To meet many authors is a keen disappointment, as they reveal petty traits and unlovely characters but no one ever met Mark Twain without being impressed by his great sincerity and his goodness of heart.

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