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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 2: 1886 - 1900|
CCII. Literary Work in Vienna
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|One must wonder, with all the social demands upon him, how Clemens could
find time to write as much as he did during those Vienna days. He piled
up a great heap of manuscript of every sort. He wrote Twichell:
There may be idle people in the world, but I am not one of them.
And to Howells:
I couldn't get along without work now. I bury myself in it up to
the ears. Long hours--8 & 9 on a stretch sometimes. It isn't all
for print, by any means, for much of it fails to suit me; 50,000
words of it in the past year. It was because of the deadness which
invaded me when Susy died.
He projected articles, stories, critiques, essays, novels, autobiography,
even plays; he covered the whole literary round. Among these activities
are some that represent Mark Twain's choicest work. "Concerning the
Jews," which followed the publication of his "Stirring Times in Austria"
(grew out of it, in fact), still remains the best presentation of the
Jewish character and racial situation. Mark Twain was always an ardent
admirer of the Jewish race, and its oppression naturally invited his
sympathy. Once he wrote to Twichell:
The difference between the brain of the average Christian and that of the
average Jew--certainly in Europe--is about the difference between a
tadpole's brain & an archbishop's. It is a marvelous race; by long odds
the most marvelous race the world has produced, I suppose.
Yet he did not fail to see its faults and to set them down in his summary
of Hebrew character. It was a reply to a letter written to him by a
lawyer, and he replied as a lawyer might, compactly, logically,
categorically, conclusively. The result pleased him. To Mr. Rogers he
The Jew article is my "gem of the ocean." I have taken a world of
pleasure in writing it & doctoring it & fussing at it. Neither Jew nor
Christian will approve of it, but people who are neither Jews nor
Christian will, for they are in a condition to know the truth when they
Clemens was not given to race distinctions. In his article he says:
I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I
have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices.
Indeed I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is
that a man is a human being, that is enough for me; he can't be any
We gather from something that follows that the one race which he bars is
the French, and this, just then, mainly because of the Dreyfus
He also states in this article:
I have no special regard for Satan, but I can at least claim that I have
no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way on
account of his not having a fair show.
Clemens indeed always had a friendly feeling toward Satan (at least, as
he conceived him), and just at this time addressed a number of letters to
him concerning affairs in general--cordial, sympathetic, informing
letters enough, though apparently not suited for publication. A good
deal of the work done at this period did not find its way into print. An
interview with Satan; a dream-story concerning a platonic sweetheart, and
some further comment on Austrian politics, are among the condemned
Mark Twain's interest in Satan would seem later to have extended to his
relatives, for there are at least three bulky manuscripts in which he has
attempted to set down some episodes in the life of one "Young Satan," a
nephew, who appears to have visited among the planets and promoted some
astonishing adventures in Austria several centuries ago. The idea of a
mysterious, young, and beautiful stranger who would visit the earth and
perform mighty wonders, was always one which Mark Twain loved to play
with, and a nephew of Satan's seemed to him properly qualified to carry
out his intention. His idea was that this celestial visitant was not
wicked, but only indifferent to good and evil and suffering, having no
personal knowledge of any of these things. Clemens tried the experiment
in various ways, and portions of the manuscript are absorbingly
interesting, lofty in conception, and rarely worked out--other portions
being merely grotesque, in which the illusion of reality vanishes.
Among the published work of the Vienna period is an article about a
morality play, the "Master of Palmyra,"--[About play-acting, Forum,
October, 1898.]--by Adolf Wilbrandt, an impressive play presenting
Death, the all-powerful, as the principal part.
The Cosmopolitan Magazine for August published "At the Appetite-Cure," in
which Mark Twain, in the guise of humor, set forth a very sound and
sensible idea concerning dietetics, and in October the same magazine
published his first article on "Christian Science and the Book of Mrs.
Eddy." As we have seen, Clemens had been always deeply interested in
mental healing, and in closing this humorous skit he made due
acknowledgments to the unseen forces which, properly employed, through
the imagination work physical benefits:
"Within the last quarter of a century," he says, "in America, several
sects of curers have appeared under various names and have done notable
things in the way of healing ailments without the use of medicines."
Clemens was willing to admit that Mrs. Eddy and her book had benefited
humanity, but he could not resist the fun-making which certain of her
formulas and her phrasing invited. The delightful humor of the
Cosmopolitan article awoke a general laugh, in which even devout
Christian Scientists were inclined to join.--[It was so popular that
John Brisben Walker voluntarily added a check for two hundred dollars to
the eight hundred dollars already paid.]--Nothing that he ever did
exhibits more happily that peculiar literary gift upon which his fame
But there is another story of this period that will live when most of
those others mentioned are but little remembered. It is the story of
"The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg." This is a tale that in its own way
takes its place with the half-dozen great English short stories of the
world-with such stories as "The Fall of the House of Usher," by Poe;
"The Luck of Roaring Camp," by Harte; "The Man Who Would be King," by
Kipling; and "The Man Without a Country," by Hale. As a study of the
human soul, its flimsy pretensions and its pitiful frailties, it outranks
all the rest. In it Mark Twain's pessimistic philosophy concerning the
"human animal" found a free and moral vent. Whatever his contempt for a
thing, he was always amused at it; and in this tale we can imagine him a
gigantic Pantagruel dangling a ridiculous manikin, throwing himself back
and roaring out his great bursting guffaws at its pitiful antics. The
temptation and the downfall of a whole town was a colossal idea, a
sardonic idea, and it is colossally and sardonically worked out.
Human weakness and rotten moral force were never stripped so bare or so
mercilessly jeered at in the marketplace. For once Mark Twain could hug
himself with glee in derision of self-righteousness, knowing that the
world would laugh with him, and that none would be so bold as to gainsay
his mockery. Probably no one but Mark Twain ever conceived the idea of
demoralizing a whole community--of making its "nineteen leading citizens"
ridiculous by leading them into a cheap, glittering temptation, and
having them yield and openly perjure themselves at the very moment when
their boasted incorruptibility was to amaze the world. And it is all
wonderfully done. The mechanism of the story is perfect, the drama of it
is complete. The exposure of the nineteen citizens in the very sanctity
of the church itself, and by the man they have discredited, completing
the carefully prepared revenge of the injured stranger, is supreme in its
artistic triumph. "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" is one of the
mightiest sermons against self-righteousness ever preached. Its
philosophy, that every man is strong until his price is named; the
futility of the prayer not to be led into temptation, when it is only by
resisting temptation that men grow strong--these things blaze out in a
way that makes us fairly blink with the truth of them.
It is Mark Twain's greatest short story. It is fine that it should be
that, as well as much more than that; for he was no longer essentially a
story-teller. He had become more than ever a moralist and a sage.
Having seen all of the world, and richly enjoyed and deeply suffered at
its hands, he sat now as in a seat of judgment, regarding the passing
show and recording his philosophies.