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Mark Twain in Perspective

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Mark Twain: The Man and His Work. By Edward Wagcnknccht. New Haven: Yale University Press. $3.00. Mark Twain’s Notebook. Prepared for publication with comments by Albert Bigclow Paine. New York: Harper and Brothers. $4.00. Mark Ttvain Wit and Wisdom. Edited by Cyril Clemens, and with a Preface by Stephen Lcacock. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. $1.75. Slovenly Peter (Dcr Struwivclpcter) or Happy Tales and fanny Pictures. Freely Translated by Mark Twain. With Dr. Hoffman’s Illustrations. New York: Harper and Brothers. $1.50.

Given a man endowed with great sensitiveness and great vigor; let him start his path of life in a new land in the process of emerging from wilderness into civilization; let this business of civilization depend upon men of various racial strains struggling to express ideas and feelings brought from an old world, so that what is tragic, comic, and romantic in human life goes into the forming of a rich matrix; and you have Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his region. You have a man with an excitable mind that made it necessary for him to submit himself to the stream of life at its broadest, with the vitality to stay in the stream for a long struggle. He was kept afloat by curiosity and amusement at the motives of men past and present, and by love of those involved with him in the stream. Moreover, he felt the impulse to record the impressions he experienced from childhood to old age. As Mark Twain he became the author for the common man in every man, and he could call himself the Ambassador at Large for the Human Race.

A feeling for the tragic struggle of his fellows imparted an undercurrent of melancholy to his nature, not much noticeable while his fortunes were in the making, but rising toward the surface until, in his last days, it all but submerged him. The courage for adventure and the appeal that the new country made to his imagination developed the romantic strain in his temperament. But corrective fact, under the hard conditions of the frontier, kept him amused at the fantastic spectacle of man’s vanity and stupidity. And so it comes about, as his life is seen in some perspective twenty-five years after his death, that when he is called the authentic historian of the American frontier, he is, also, an authentic spokesman for man wherever he lives his life.

Of the books about Mark Twain which the centennial of his birth has called forth, the one that most nearly puts the reader in the way of realizing this broad human significance in his life and writings is Edward Wagenknecht’s “Mark Twain: The Man and His Work.” Mr. Paine’s great storehouse of Twainiana had set forth the main facts of his life-story; somewhat the same devoted work Mr. De Voto had done for the American setting of the story. It remained for Mr. Wagenknecht to analyze the conflicting trends of thinking and feeling that made Mark Twain the most interesting personality America has yet produced. If the reader cannot agree with him in what seems to be his thesis, that Mark Twain lived his life “inwardly rather than outwardly,” one is indebted to him none the less for having made clear of how full an inner life the outer life was the expression. Fortunately he touches his thesis lightly. Few men’s days have been so “filled to the brim with the wine of life” as were Mark Twain’s. Few men in America or elsewhere have known how to dramatize themselves so completely. The magnetism of his presence came from his glowing capacity for life. Mr. Wagenknecht shows what the humanities (to use the word in the broader modern sense) contributed to his life. It is, perhaps, not quite fair of Mr. Wagenknecht to expect, of one so bent upon discovering standards for himself, that he should measure up to accepted standards in his appreciation of music and pictures; but Mr. Wagenknecht’s book brings up much evidence to show how the man struggled to evaluate materials, to know for himself what was essentially first rate. It produces a record of his reading that makes one suspicious of the pronouncement that “letters counted for little with Mark Twain.” It makes it evident that, as a writer, his “ragbag structure” is compensated for by the God’s plenty of his material. But it is when it surveys the contradictions that make Mark Twain’s life and temperament so complex that the book is most worth reading: his uproarious fun-making is succeeded by bitter philosophizing; his vanity misleads him, at the same time that he is essentially modest; his devotion to fact and scorn of romance do not prevent half his writings from being tinged with romantic sentiment; his concern for his wife’s judgment at all times does not interfere with his fierce spirit of independence; his bitter indictment of the human race is as sincere as his love of human association; his preoccupation with conscience and religion and God is as real as his irreverence and his interest in Satan.

“Mark Twain’s Notebook,” in a more direct way, furnishes further evidence of these same contradictions. It is not the humorist one sees here so much as the impressionable inquirer into life. There is almost nothing about Sam Clemens and his region, but the mature man speaks as he takes stock of the world and wrestles with business and family and social problems. He exercises himself much in striking off epigrams, usually satiric or sardonic: “Truth is more of a stranger than fiction.” He is a defender of woman: “No civilization can be perfect until equality between man and woman is included.” His negative reactions from novels are as stimulating as his love of Browning: “I must read that devilish Vicar of Wakefield again. Also Jane Austen.” He jots down germs for stories; two of them show that Hannibal, Missouri, was first in his mind as the setting for “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” and “The Mysterious Stranger.” The reader searches Mr. Wagenknecht’s book almost in vain for a discussion of Mark Twain’s dream philosophy. There is some material in the “Notebook” for piecing it out: “When my physical body dies my dream body will doubtless continue its excursions and activities without change, forever.” In the “Notebook” almost a new autobiography has appeared at the end of his century, with Mark Twain a little more clearly revealed than before.

Mr. Cyril Clemens’s book of anecdotes, “Mark Twain Wit and Wisdom,” makes it apparent with what a glow Mark Twain’s unusual personality must have invested his utterances, however commonplace. The words are remembered, but the radiant presence of their author is needed to make them seem significant. The stories of his early California days, however, make the book worth publishing.

“Slovenly Peter” is Mark Twain’s only book of verse-jingles translated from a German folk-tale as a Christmas gift for his three small daughters, and now charmingly introduced to her father’s friends by Mrs. Gabrilowitsch. With its quaint illustrations it adds something to our impression of the irrepressible gaiety of its author.


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