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My Mark Twain
The Only True Humorist
by Howells, William Dean

(Address at the Lotos Club's Welcome Home dinner in honor of Mark Twain, November 10, 1900)

If you meet a humorist on his own ground the chances are that you will be thrown down. Unless you are a very great joker, he will probably outjoke you, or, if he doesn't, people will think he does, which is quite as bad. The only way is to take him seriously, and then if you praise him he will be apt to think you are in earnest. That is why I am going to be serious in the very little I have to say about our great and good friend tonight, though we have now arrived at that happy stage of a complimentary dinner when the guest, unless he is a person of extraordinary perspicacity, does not know whether you are praising him or not. He is so thickly buttered by this time that he thinks everything offered him is butter, and in a lordly dish. If you get out your little hammer and drive your little nail into his skull, he smiles blandly when it reaches his gray matter, and comes round, at the end of the dinner, with the head of the nail sticking out, to say, "Thank you, old fellow, that was very nice of you; I hope you won't have it too much on your conscience."

Like every one else here, I am glad to have Mr. Clemens among us again, because, for one thing, I hated to see him having such a good time abroad. We always suspect a fellow-citizen who has a good time abroad; we are afraid that there must be something wrong about him. We feel that he never could have been what we thought him if other people think so too. We are jealous of his fame if it is universal; we should have liked to keep it to ourselves. Many a time, in the course of the last nine years, my heart has been saddened by the acceptance of our friend in France, Germany, Austria, and England as one of the first humorists of all times, and I have done what little I could to set the matter right among those who loved him as I did by whispering around that they were overdoing it. But now that we have got him back I am not so sure that they were overdoing it. At any rate, I wish to lift my voice in welcoming him home, and to be one of the very first publicly to announce that I forgive him.

I realize that he was not to blame because other peoples have appreciated him in their poor, unintelligent way, and told him so in languages which are difficult for any true American to understand. We ought to forgive him in our own interest, if for no other reason, for no one else has been more fully in the joke of us, or known better how to interpret us to ourselves; and at no other period of our national life have we been a greater joke or more needed interpretation. He has probably arrived by a happy instinct to tell us just what we mean, and to declare how about it, when we are ourselves most in the dark. He is, at any rate, a humorist of continental dimensions, and he could not be the great humorist he is without being vastly better -- if there is anything better; if it is really better to be a sagacious reader of contemporary history, a generous and compassionate observer of one's kind, a philosopher without theory, a poet whose broad-winged imagination transcends the bounds of verse. Perhaps it takes all these to make up the sum of a great humorist. At least we find them all summed up in the humorist whom we amusingly suppose ourselves to be honoring tonight, when he is so obviously honoring us. Why, in a manner, he has invented us, and more than any other man has made us the component parts of the great American joke which we all realize ourselves to be when we are serious. More than any other he has discovered us to ourselves, he has determined our modern mental attitude, fixed our point of view, and he could not have done this without being vitally of the material he worked in. He has invented us, but then we invented him, to begin with, and that is where I think we have reason to be proud. Before us no people had a humorist with nothing cruel but everything kindly in his smile, who never laughed with the strong against the weak, or found anything droll in suffering or deformity. When we look back over literature, and see what savage and stupid and pitiless things have passed for humor, and then open his page, we seem not only to have invented the only true humorist, but to have invented humor itself. We do not know by what mystery his talent sprang up from our soil and flowered in our air, but we know that no such talent has been known to any other; and if we set any bounds to our joy in him it must be from that innate American modesty, not always perceptible to the alien eye, which forbids us to keep throwing bouquets at ourselves.


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