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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 2: 1886 - 1900|
CLXXII. The "Yankee" in England
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|The London publishers of the Yankee were keenly anxious to revise the
text for their English readers. Clemens wrote that he had already
revised the Yankee twice, that Stedman had critically read it, and that
Mrs. Clemens had made him strike out many passages and soften others. He
added that he had read chapters of it in public several times where
Englishmen were present and had profited by their suggestions. Then he
Now, mind you, I have taken all this pains because I wanted to say a
Yankee mechanic's say against monarchy and its several natural
props, and yet make a book which you would be willing to print
exactly as it comes to you, without altering a word.
We are spoken of (by Englishmen) as a thin-skinned people. It is
you who are thin-skinned. An Englishman may write with the most
brutal frankness about any man or institution among us and we
republish him without dreaming of altering a line or a word. But
England cannot stand that kind of a book written about herself. It
is England that is thin-skinned. It causeth me to smile when I read
the modifications of my language which have been made in my English
editions to fit them for the sensitive English palate.
Now, as I say, I have taken laborious pains to so trim this book of
offense that you'll not lack the nerve to print it just as it
stands. I am going to get the proofs to you just as early as I can.
I want you to read it carefully. If you can publish it without
altering a single word, go ahead. Otherwise, please hand it to
J. R. Osgood in time for him to have it published at my expense.
This is important, for the reason that the book was not written for
America; it was written for England. So many Englishmen have done
their sincerest best to teach us something for our betterment that
it seems to me high time that some of us should substantially
recognize the good intent by trying to pry up the English nation to
a little higher level of manhood in turn.
So the Yankee was published in England just as he had written it,--[The
preface was shortened and modified for both the American and English
editions. The reader will find it as originally written under Appendix
S, at the end of last volume.]--and the criticisms were as plentiful as
they were frank. It was referred to as a "lamentable failure" and as an
"audacious sacrilege" and in terms still less polite. Not all of the
English critics were violent. The Daily Telegraph gave it something more
than a column of careful review, which did not fail to point out the
book's sins with a good deal of justice and dignity; but the majority of
English papers joined in a sort of objurgatory chorus which, for a time
at least, spared neither the author nor his work. Strictures on the
Yankee extended to his earlier books. After all, Mark Twain's work was
not for the cultivated class.
These things must have begun to gravel Clemens a good deal at last, for
he wrote to Andrew Lang at considerable length, setting forth his case in
general terms--that is to say, his position as an author--inviting Lang
to stand as his advocate before the English public. In part he said:
The critic assumes every time that if a book doesn't meet the
cultivated-class standard it isn't valuable . . . The critic has
actually imposed upon the world the superstition that a painting by
Raphael is more valuable to the civilizations of the earth than is a
chromo; and the august opera more than the hurdy-gurdy and the
villagers' singing society; and the Latin classics than Kipling's
far-reaching bugle-note; and Jonathan Edwards than the Salvation
Army . . . . If a critic should start a religion it would not
have any object but to convert angels, and they wouldn't need it.
It is not that little minority who are already saved that are best
worth lifting up, I should think, but the mighty mass of the
uncultivated who are underneath! That mass will never see the old
masters--that sight is for the few; but the chromo-maker can lift
them all one step upward toward appreciation of art; they cannot
have the opera, but the hurdy-gurdy and the singing-class lift them
a little way toward that far height; they will never know Homer, but
the passing rhymester of their day leaves them higher than he found
them; they may never even hear of the Latin classics, but they will
strike step with Kipling's drum-beat and they will march; for all
Jonathan Edwards's help they would die in their slums, but the
Salvation Army will beguile some of them to a purer air and a
cleaner life .
. . . I have never tried, in even one single little instance, to
help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it
either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in
that direction, but always hunted for bigger game--the masses. I
have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but I have done my
best to entertain them, for they can get instruction elsewhere . .
. . My audience is dumb; it has no voice in print, and so I cannot
know whether I have won its approval or only got its censure.
He closed by asking that Lang urge the critics to adopt a rule
recognizing the masses, and to formulate a standard whereby work done for
them might be judged. "No voice can reach further than yours in a case
of this kind," he said, "or carry greater weight of authority." There
was no humor in this letter, and the writer of it was clearly in earnest.
Lang's response was an article published in the Illustrated London News
on the art of Mark Twain. He began by gently ridiculing hyperculture--
the new culture--and ended with a eulogy on Huck Finn. It seems worth
while, however, to let Andrew Lang speak for himself.
I have been educated till I nearly dropped; I have lived with the
earliest apostles of culture, in the days when Chippendale was first
a name to conjure with, and Japanese art came in like a raging lion,
and Ronsard was the favorite poet, and Mr. William Morris was a
poet, too, and blue and green were the only wear, and the name of
Paradise was Camelot. To be sure, I cannot say that I took all this
quite seriously, but "we, too, have played" at it, and know all
about it. Generally speaking, I have kept up with culture. I can
talk (if desired) about Sainte-Beuve, and Merimee, and Felicien
Rops; I could rhyme "Ballades" when they were "in," and knew what a
"pantoom" was . . . . And yet I have not culture. My works are
but tinkling brass because I have not culture. For culture has got
into new regions where I cannot enter, and, what is perhaps worse,
I find myself delighting in a great many things which are under the
ban of culture.
He confesses that this is a dreadful position; one that makes a man feel
like one of those Liberal politicians who are always "sitting on the
fence," and who follow their party, if follow it they do, with the
reluctant acquiescence of the prophet's donkey. He further confesses
that he has tried Hartmann and prefers Plato, that he is shaky about
Blake, though stalwart concerning Rudyard Kipling.
This is not the worst of it. Culture has hardly a new idol but I
long to hurl things at it. Culture can scarcely burn anything, but
I am impelled to sacrifice to that same. I am coming to suspect
that the majority of culture's modern disciples are a mere crowd of
very slimly educated people who have no natural taste or impulses;
who do not really know the best things in literature; who have a
feverish desire to admire the newest thing, to follow the latest
artistic fashion; who prate about "style," without the faintest
acquaintance with the ancient examples of style in Greek, French, or
English; who talk about the classics and--criticize the classical
critics and poets, without being able to read a line of them in the
original. Nothing of the natural man is left in these people; their
intellectual equipment is made up of ignorant vanity and eager
desire for novelty, and a yearning to be in the fashion. Take, for
example--and we have been a long time in coming to him--Mark Twain.
[Here follow some observations concerning the Yankee, which Lang
confesses that he has not read, and has abstained from reading
because----]. Here Mark Twain is not, and cannot be, at the proper
point of view. He has not the knowledge which would enable him to
be a sound critic of the ideals of the Middle Ages. An Arthurian
Knight in New York or in Washington would find as much to blame, and
justly, as a Yankee at Camelot.
Of Mark Twain's work in general he speaks with another conclusion:
Mark Twain is a benefactor beyond most modern writers, and the
cultured who do not laugh are merely to be pitied. But his art is
not only that of the maker of the scarce article--mirth. I have no
hesitation in saying that Mark Twain is one among the greatest
contemporary makers of fiction . . . . I can never forget or be
ungrateful for the exquisite pleasure with which I read Huckleberry
Finn for the first time years ago. I read it again last night,
deserting Kenilworth for Huck. I never laid it down till I had
finished it. I perused several passages more than once, and rose
from it with a higher opinion of its merits than ever.
What is it that we want in a novel? We want a vivid and original
picture of life; we want character naturally displayed in action;
and if we get the excitement of adventure into the bargain, and that
adventure possible and plausible, I so far differ from the newest
school of criticism as to think that we have additional cause for
gratitude. If, moreover, there is an unstrained sense of humor in
the narrator we have a masterpiece, and Huckleberry Finn is, nothing
He reviews Huck sympathetically in detail, and closes:
There are defects of taste, or passages that to us seem deficient in
taste, but the book remains a nearly flawless gem of romance and of
humor. The world appreciates it, no doubt, but "cultured critics"
are probably unaware of its singular value. The great American
novel has escaped the eyes of those who watch to see this new planet
swim into their ken. And will Mark Twain never write such another?
One is enough for him to live by, and for our gratitude, but not
enough for our desire.
In the brief column and a half which it occupies, this comment of Andrew
Lang's constitutes as thoughtful and fair an estimate of Mark Twain's
work as was ever written.
W. T. Stead, of the Review of Reviews, was about the only prominent
English editor to approve of the Yankee and to exploit its merits. Stead
brought down obloquy upon himself by so doing, and his separation from
his business partner would seem to have been at least remotely connected
with this heresy.
The Yankee in King Arthur's Court was dramatized in America by Howard
Taylor, one of the Enterprise compositors, whom Clemens had known in the
old Comstock days. Taylor had become a playwright of considerable
success, with a number of well-known actors and actresses starring in his
plays. The Yankee, however, did not find a manager, or at least it seems
not to have reached the point of production.