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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CXLII. "Life on the Mississippi"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The Mississippi book was completed at last and placed in Osgood's hands
for publication. Clemens was immensely fond of Osgood. Osgood would
come down to Hartford and spend days discussing plans and playing
billiards, which to Mark Twain's mind was the proper way to conduct
business. Besides, there was Webster, who by this time, or a very little
later, had the word "publisher" printed in his letter-heads, and was
truly that, so far as the new book was concerned. Osgood had become
little more than its manufacturer, shipping-agent, and accountant. It
should be added that he made the book well, though somewhat expensively.
He was unaccustomed to getting out big subscription volumes. His taste
ran to the artistic, expensive product.
"That book cost me fifty thousand dollars to make," Clemens once
declared. "Bliss could have built a whole library, for that sum. But
Osgood was a lovely fellow."
Life on the Mississippi was issued about the middle of May. It was a
handsome book of its kind and a successful book, but not immediately a
profitable one, because of the manner of its issue. It was experimental,
and experiments are likely to be costly, even when successful in the
Among other things, it pronounced the final doom of kaolatype. The
artists who drew the pictures for it declined to draw them if they were
to be reproduced by that process, or indeed unless some one of the lately
discovered photographic processes was used. Furthermore, the latter were
much cheaper, and it was to the advantage of Clemens himself to repudiate
kaolatype, even for his own work.
Webster was ordered to wind up the last ends of the engraving business
with as little sacrifice as possible, and attend entirely to more
profitable affairs--viz., the distribution of books.
As literature, the Mississippi book will rank with Mark Twain's best--so
far, at least, as the first twenty chapters of it are concerned. Earlier
in this history these have been sufficiently commented upon. They
constitute a literary memorial seemingly as enduring as the river itself.
Concerning the remaining chapters of the book, they are also literature,
but of a different class. The difference is about the same as that
between 'A Tramp Abroad' and the 'Innocents'. It is the difference
between the labors of love and duty; between art and industry, literature
But the last is hardly fair. It is journalism, but it is literary
journalism, and there are unquestionably areas that are purely literary,
and not journalistic at all. There would always be those in any book of
travel he might write. The story of the river revisited is an
interesting theme; and if the revisiting had been done, let us say eight
or ten years earlier, before he had become a theoretical pessimist, and
before the river itself had become a background for pessimism, the tale
might have had more of the literary glamour and illusion, even if less
that is otherwise valuable.
'Life on the Mississippi' has been always popular in Germany. The
Emperor William of Germany once assured Mark Twain that it was his
favorite American book, and on the same evening the portier of the
author's lodging in Berlin echoed the Emperor's opinion.
Paul Lindau, a distinguished German author and critic, in an interview at
the time the Mississippi book appeared, spoke of the general delight of
his countrymen in its author. When he was asked, "But have not the
Germans been offended by Mark Twain's strictures on their customs and
language in his Tramp Abroad" he replied, "We know what we are and how
we look, and the fanciful picture presented to our eyes gives us only
food for laughter, not cause for resentment. The jokes he made on our
long words, our inverted sentences, and the position of the verb have
really led to a reform in style which will end in making our language as
compact and crisp as the French or English. I regard Mark Twain as the
foremost humorist of the age."
Howells, traveling through Europe, found Lindau's final sentiment echoed
elsewhere, and he found something more: in Europe Mark Twain was already
highly regarded as a serious writer. Thomas Hardy said to Howells one
night at dinner:
"Why don't people understand that Mark Twain is not merely a great
humorist? He is a very remarkable fellow in a very different way."
The Rev. Dr. Parker, returning from England just then, declared that,
wherever he went among literary people, the talk was about Mark Twain;
also that on two occasions, when he had ventured diffidently to say that
he knew that author personally, he was at once so evidently regarded as
lying for effect that he felt guilty, and looked it, and did not venture
to say it any more; thus, in a manner, practising untruth to save his
reputation for veracity.
That the Mississippi book throughout did much to solidify this foreign
opinion of Mark Twain's literary importance cannot be doubted, and it is
one of his books that will live longest in the memory of men.