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My Mark Twain
Review of an Italian's Views of Mark Twain *
by Howells, William Dean

(From the North American Review, Nov. 1901)

Signor Bellezza talks, and we all talk, of English humor, American humor, German humor, Spanish humor, French humor, Italian humor, as if they were essentially unlike, when essentially they are alike. I will not try to say how, for that way danger lies: the danger of trying to say what humor essentially is. I notice Signor Bellezza himself shuns that as much as possible, and contents himself with giving instances without theories. We know a joke when we see it, as we know a poem when we see it; but what a joke is we can no more safely undertake to say than what a poem is. There the thing is: like it or leave it, but do not expect any one to explain to you the grounds of your liking or leaving it. That is what Signor Bellezza mainly seems to say, and he is quite in the right. If he sometimes tries to distinguish between the different kinds of humor, by nationalities, it is perhaps because he has been tempted beyond his strength. For my own part, in the kind of humor which I know best -- the American, namely -- I have found examples of it in regions so remote that I have been forced to choose between faith in the solidarity of humor everywhere, and fear that the aliens are now and then able by means of some telepathic plagiary, to pilfer us of our good things before we say them.

I was always amused by the saying of a Western farmer in a very wet season that "It rained and rained, and after awhile it got so it set up nights and rained." But in Switzerland I heard of an old peasant who remarked of a very cold season, "The winter has come to spend the summer with us," and then I felt that all republican peoples were really one, or else that American humor and Swiss humor were of the same native picturesqueness.

In that chapter on grisly humor, which is one of the best in the book, and is the longest, we Americans enter freely, and chiefly, as we should, in the person of Mark Twain, who is cited four times to Thackeray's once, though he is distanced by Dickens. It is interesting to note how universal this humor is, and it seems to be really the most humorous humor, in imparting that shock of contrasts, which seems to be the essence of humor, or its prime motive. Shakespeare, Fielding, Guerrazzi, Godfrey Keller, Bret Harte, Heine, Quevedo, Addison, Larra, Kipling, Steele, Flaubert, Alfieri, Byron, Daudet, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Hoffmann, and Charles Mathews are by no means all the others who figure in this famous chapter, in support of my theory that humor is human and not national. When it comes to grinning back at skeletons, mocking at murder, and smiling at suicide it appears that Americans, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen are pretty much alike. The honors are not quite so easy in the matter of gallows-humor; the North carries these off, as has already been allowed. In regard to cannibalism, Signor Bellezza thinks it the forte of Mark Twain, as a humorous inspiration. "And here," he says, "I do not mean fugitive touches, but whole stories based, if I may so express myself, upon anthropophagy," and in sufficient proof he limits himself to a synopsis of that terrible tale of Cannibalism in the Cars, which has made us all shudder. He seems not to know of that yet awfuler adventure with the box of rifles in the express-car, which in the way of grisly humor may challenge all literature for its like. In bizarre humor he puts us well toward the head, instancing from Mark Twain a passage out of Adam's Diary, registering Adam's speculations as to the real nature of his first born and his place in zoology, and Lucretia Smith's Soldier, whom Lucretia nurses back to life and finds the wrong man when he is well enough to have the bandages taken from his face....

I am tempted to throw together what Signor Bellezza has to say of most significance concerning all the aspects of the business in hand. He confesses: "If I had to make a treatise in due form, or, rather, a regular discourse, I should find myself baffled at the start, because all treatises commence, as is just, with a bold definition, and humor cannot be defined.... It is a specialty of the Northern peoples, somewhat like the beer that we meridional folk find somewhat harsh to the palate, and would not like for our daily drink. It is neither acuteness, nor grace, nor verve; it has generally a serious aspect when all around are laughing, as Addison says,... and according to the greatest living humorist, Mark Twain, 'the humorist when he tells a story seems not to have the remotest suspicion that there is anything funny in it.'... Precisely here is the essential difference that distinguishes the humorous from the comic, of which it is yet a form; it springs rather from a contrast, and the contrast is... that of sorrow and joy, a pathetic situation and a comic circumstance; as has been felicitously said, 'it is an oscillation between laughter and tears.'... The humorist forbears the jeremiad, the lamentation, even when his soul is running over with anguish. He would not shed rivers of tears over the fate of man here below, doomed to yearn for the true, and to know it only with sore labor and in little part; but he will content himself in agreeing with Larra, that 'all the truths in this world could be written on a cigarette paper.' The social injustices that provoke the invectives of the pessimist and the sociologist he will formulate in the fashion of that famous sentence of Guerrazzi, 'Force is the great mother Eve of all the rights.'... But here let us understand ourselves clearly. If humor consisted solely in recognizing and formulating the relations that connect joy and sorrow, their confusion and their perennial alternation one after the other in human destiny, I should be ready to say that the humorists were as numerous as the authors -- in fact, as men themselves.... The humorist is he who does not keep on singing this truth in all the various tunes, but is intimately seized and pervaded by it, and informs his thoughts and his works from it."

This is very well as far as it goes, but here nothing can go to the bottom; for if it could, humor is so deeply founded in human nature that any definition which reached it would be in danger of coming out on the other side, and proving a luminous concept of pathos. Our author makes a better try in saying of the humorist, "He does not know how to remain long, or will not, in a situation affecting, dramatic or otherwise serious; but he interrupts it brusquely with some unexpected observation that scatters, or, so to speak, disorients the ideas and sensations of the reader, and gives them a new direction." Again he says, beginning a fresh chapter, as he is apt to do with a fresh attempt at analysis: "Humor is truly among the literary kinds that which can be contained in the smallest terms. Nothing is too little; it finds its occasion in everything, even that which is slightest, thinnest, most impalpable, and for this reason it is difficult to analyze it. It lurks, let me say, in a parenthesis, in a comparison; the more modest the form it takes, the more vividly it frees itself and the more piquant it proves."

More than in any other literature, the humorous conception of the universe prevails in the English, and that is the supreme proof of humor. It is suggested in the passage which he quotes from Lucian, concerning that certain doubt of what shall be after death, which lurks in our laughter here, and mutes it on our trembling lips. It is this certain doubt which gives its prevailing cast to English literature more in the mother isle than in our continental condition of it; and it is literature which is the expression of a people's soul. To us belongs the humor that laughs and makes laugh; I believe Mark Twain himself somewhere claims that our humor is the only humor that is funny, and without pushing this claim we can allow that it is funnier than the English. It may even be as wise, and yet at the end of the ends it is not so satisfying; so that one agrees with Signor Bellezza's final judgment when he declares Mark Twain to be the greatest living humorist.... He is not only the greatest living humorist, but incomparably the greatest, and without a rival since Cervantes and Shakespeare, unless it be that eternal Jew, Heinrich Heine, who of all the humorists is the least like him. Heine's humor is at every moment autobiographical, and for far the greater part Mr. Clemens's humor is so; Shakespeare's alone is impersonal, but this may be on account of the dramatic form, and more apparent than real. Heine and Mark Twain are both archromantic, just as they are both autobiographical, though to what different ends! One is subjectively romantic and personal, the other objectively romantic and personal. Mark Twain expresses in this difference the very essence and inalienable intent of American humor, which is apparently the least conscious and really the least literary of all the forms and phases of humor, while Heine's is the most conscious and the most literary. Is this measurably true of the other German humorists? I am not sure, and I cannot pretend to have the documents for the verification of the point. Of Heine I can more or less honestly speak, but as for the other German humorists, life is short, and art in them at least seems very long. The most wonderful thing in Heine is how he transmutes literature into life, and distills into it the blood and tears of literary anguish. Am I saying that he is a poseur? Perhaps I am saying that, but while he lay there in his mattress-grave in Paris, he mocked and mocked, not less than in his books, or at least when he had an audience; and no doubt the second nature which comes to men from bathing their souls in literature had made itself his first nature. He expressed the supreme humoristic conception of the universe in the cry from that grave:

"O schöne Welt, du bist abscheulich!"

and one's heart aches in pity and one's nerves thrill in awe of the poseur. After all, pain is not a pose, nor death, and there he knew both. In all his books he was at least true to his genius, for, in some light or other, everything that he wrote was humorous....

I doubt whether our humor did not begin with Chaucer instead of Shakespeare, and it is not at this end of the long line that I should find our essayist of an uncertain hold. It is in his notices of modern English humor that I find his hand lax, and now and then not of a wide grasp. He prefaces each of his chapters with an English motto, taking the first from Mark Twain's reply to M. Bourget, "Well, humor is the great thing," but by far the greatest number of his instances and allusions are from and to the humor of Dickens. Now, this humor was very well in its way, but it hardly can make us laugh any more, and it was always rather of the nature of the laughter of horses, the play of horses. It was fantastic and wilful and forced, and expressed itself in characters which bore much the same resemblance to the human species as the effigies which keep the crows from the corn-fields, and in crude communities express the popular indignation with persons of opposite political convictions. He had not a humorous conception of life, which is the great thing rather than humor itself, if Mark Twain, who has it, will allow me to dispute him. Dickens was a great histrionic talent, and produced powerful if simple effects in that sort. But he was not of the fine English humorists who began with Chaucer, or with Shakespeare, as you please, and came down with Swift, and Addison, and Steele, and Sterne, and Goldsmith, and perhaps Scott, and Thackeray, to a humorist who may almost stand with Shakespeare himself. I mean Mr. Thomas Hardy, who in his vision of humanity, in his entirely ironical and humorous conception of life, is possibly the greatest of all the present English, and I am not forgetting the Scotchman, Mr. William Gilbert.

I am remembering that the master of the whimsical cannot be the equal of a humorist in whom the sense of the droll is never parted from the sense of the dreadful, any more than it is in Heine, in whom the pathetic prevails, or Mark Twain, in whom the comic prevails.

* Paolo Bellezza. Humour. Strenna a Beneficio del Pio Instituto dei Rachitici. 1900.


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