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My Mark Twain
Mark Twain's Sketches, Old and New
by Howells, William Dean

(From the Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1875)

It is easy to say that these new and old sketches by Mr. Clemens are of varying merit; but which, honest reader, would you leave out of the book? There is none but saves itself either by its humor or by the sound sense which it is based on, so that, if one came to reject the flimsiest trifle, one would find it on consideration rather too good to throw away. In reading the book you go through a critical process imaginably very like the author's in editing it; about certain things there can be no question from the first, and you end by accepting all, while you feel that any one else may have his proper doubts about some of the sketches.

The characteristic traits of our friend -- he is the friend of mankind -- are all here; here is the fine, forecasting humor, starting so far back from its effect that one, knowing some joke must be coming, feels that nothing less than a prophetic instinct can sustain the humorist in its development; here is the burlesque, that seems such plain and simple fun at first, doubling and turning upon itself till you wonder why Mr. Clemens has ever been left out of the list of our subtile humorists; here is that peculiar extravagance of statement which we share with all sufficiently elbow-roomed, unneighbored people, but which our English cousins are so good as to consider the distinguishing mark of American humor; here is the incorruptible right-mindedness that always warms the heart to this wit; here is the "dryness," the "breadth" -- all the things that so weary us in the praises of him and that so take us with delight in the reading of him. But there is another quality in this book which we fancy we shall hereafter associate more and more with our familiar impressions of him, and that is a growing seriousness of meaning in the apparently unmoralized drolling, which must result from the humorist's second thought of political and social absurdities. It came to Dickens, but the character of his genius was too intensely theatrical to let him make anything but rather poor melodrama of it; to Thackeray, whom our humorists at their best are all like, it came too, and would not suffer him to leave anything, however grotesque, merely laughed at. We shall be disappointed if in Mr. Clemens's case it finds only some desultory expression, like "Lionizing Murderers" and "A New Crime," though there could not be more effective irony than these sketches so far as they go. The first is a very characteristic bit of the humorist's art; and the reader is not so much troubled to find where the laugh comes in as to find where it goes out -- for ten to one he is in a sober mind when he is done. The other is more direct satire, but is quite as subtle in its way of presenting those cases in which murderers have been found opportunely insane and acquitted, and gravely sandwiching among them instances in which obviously mad people have been hanged by the same admirable system.

Nothing more final has been thought of on the subject of a great public, statutory wrong than Mark Twain's petition to Congress asking that all property shall be held during the period of forty-two years, or for just so long as an author is permitted to claim copyright in his book. The whole sense and justice applicable to the matter are enforced in this ironical prayer, and there is no argument that could stand against it. If property in houses or lands -- which a man may get by dishonest trickery, or usury, or hard rapacity -- were in danger of ceasing after forty-two years, the whole virtuous community would rouse itself to perpetuate the author's right to the product of his brain, and no griping bidder at tax-sales but would demand the protection of literature by indefinite copyright. The difficulty is to condition the safety of real estate in this way; but Mark Twain's petition is a move in the right direction.

We should be sorry to give our readers the impression that they are unconsciously to imbibe political and social wisdom from every page of Mr. Clemens's new book, when we merely wished to point out one of his tendencies. Though there is nearly always sense in his nonsense, yet he is master of the art of pure drolling. The grotesque cannot go further than in that medieval romance of his where he is obliged to abandon his hero or heroine at the most critical moment simply because he can see no way to get him or her out of the difficulty; and there is a delicious novelty in that ghost-story where the unhappy spectre of the Cardiff Giant is mortified to find that he has been haunting a plaster cast of himself in New York, while his stone original was lying in Albany. "The Experiences of the McWilliamses with the Membranous Croup" is a bit of genre romance which must read like an abuse of confidence to every husband and father. These are among the new sketches, though none of them have staled by custom, and the old sketches are to be called so merely for contradistinction's sake. "How I Once Edited an Agricultural Paper," "About Barbers," "Cannibalism in the Cars," "The Undertaker's Chat," "The Scriptural Panoramist," "To Raise Poultry," "A Visit to Niagara" are all familiar favorites, which, when we have read them, we wish merely to have the high privilege of immediately reading over again. We must not leave the famous "Jumping Frog" out of their honorable and pleasant company; it is here in a new effect, first as the "Jumping Frog" in Mark Twain's original English, then in the French of the Revue des Deux Mondes, and then in his literal version of the French, which he gives that the reader may see how his frog has been made to appear "to the distorted French eye."

But by far the most perfect piece of work in the book is "A True Story," which resulted, we remember, in some confusion of the average critical mind when it was first published in these pages a little more than one year ago. It is simply the story an old black cook tells of how her children were all sold away from her, and how after twenty years she found her youngest boy again. The shyness of an enlightened and independent press respecting this history was something extremely amusing to see, and one could fancy it a spectacle of delightful interest to the author if it had not had such disheartening features. Mostly the story was described in the notices of the magazine as a humorous sketch by Mark Twain; sometimes it was mentioned as a paper apparently out of the author's usual line; again it was handled non-committally as one of Mark Twain's extravagances. Evidently the critical mind feared a lurking joke. Not above two or three notices out of hundreds recognized "A True Story" for what it was -- namely, a study of character as true as life itself, strong, tender, and most movingly pathetic in its perfect fidelity to the tragic fact. We beg the reader to turn to it again in this book. We can assure him that he has a great surprise and a strong emotion in store for him. The rugged truth of the sketch leaves all other stories of slave life infinitely far behind, and reveals a gift in the author for the simple, dramatic report of reality which we have seen equaled in no other American writer.


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