HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
My Mark Twain
Mark Twain: A Biography
by Howells, William Dean

(From Harper's Monthly, Jan. 1913)

The question of how long he will last as a humorist, or how long he will dominate all other humorists in the affection of his fellow-men, is something that must have concerned Mark Twain in his life on earth. If he still lives in some other state, the question does not concern him so much, except as he would be loath to see good work forgotten; but, as he once lived here, it must have concerned him intensely because he loved beyond almost any other man to make the world sit up and look and listen. The question of his lasting primacy is something that now remains for us survivors of him to answer, each according to his thinking; and it renews itself in our case with unexpected force from the reading of Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine's story of his personal and literary life.

Of course, if we are moderately honest and candid, we must all try to shirk the question, for it would be a kind of arrogant hypocrisy to pretend that we had any of us a firm conviction on the point. For our own part, the Easy Chair's part, we prefer only to say that if the world ever ceased to love and to value his humor it would do so to its peculiar loss, for, as we have always held, the humor of no other is so mixed with good-will to humanity, and especially to that part of humanity which most needs kindness. Beyond this we should not care to go in prophecy, and in trying to guess Mark Twain's future from the past of other humorists we should not care to be comparative. There are only three or four whom he may be likened with, and, not to begin with the ancients, we may speak in the same breath of Cervantes, of Moliere, of Swift, of Dickens, among the moderns. None of these may be compared with him in humanity except Dickens alone, whose humanity slopped into sentimentality, and scarcely counts more than the others'.

But Dickens even surpassed Mark Twain in characterizing and coloring the speech of his time. We who read Dickens in his heyday not only read him we talked him, and slavishly reverberated his phrase when we wished to be funny. No one does that today, and no one ever did that with Mark Twain. Such a far inferior humorist as Artemus Ward stamped the utterance of his contemporaries measurably as much as Dickens and much more than Mark Twain, but this did not establish him in the popular consciousness of posterity; it was of no more lasting effect than the grotesqueries of Petroleum V. Nasby, or than the felicities of baseball parlance which Mr. George Ade has so satisfyingly reported. The remembrance of Mark Twain does not depend upon the presence of a like property in his humor, and its absence has little to do with the question which we have been inviting the reader to evade with us.

After all, we are more concerned with a man's past than with his future; and we can more usefully delight in what Cervantes and Moliere and Swift and Dickens did and suffered than in vain conjecture of what men will say of them hereafter. Possibly because he is more germane to the American argument than any European or than any other American, we can have more pleasure in the story of Mark Twain than in theirs, but we think we can have a peculiar pleasure in it because it is among the most interesting stories ever lived and one of the most interesting ever told. Mr. Paine's manner of telling it is charming above all for its naive sincerity and manly simplicity. It has its moments of being masterly, and as a whole the book is a masterpiece of portraiture, if by that we mean a work which involuntarily and voluntarily bodies forth the subject with a lifelikeness beyond question. You may say it is not literature, in spite of being sometimes over-literary; but it is better than literature: it is life. Mr. Paine had to tell the story of a man whose experience ranged from the nadir to the zenith of the American sky; from rude poverty to a prosperity that startled the man himself; from the backwoods to a metropolis which the backwoods could never have dreamed of; and he has told it very tenderly, very admiringly, very self-respectfully, and never flatteringly. It could be said that at times he has told it too intimately, and we believe that something like this has been said; but we should be at a loss to choose which detail of intimacy we would have had withheld. We do not believe that there is one which Mark Twain himself would have had withheld; rather he would have had more confided, for though he doubted many things, he never doubted that humanity could be trusted with the entire truth about man. Any one who knew him must believe that he would have liked his story told very much as Mr. Paine has told it, and that he would be lastingly satisfied with having chosen for his biographer a man whose fitness he divined rather than argued.

It would not, indeed, have been easy to spoil the material at Mr. Paine's command, but he has made of it a great biography; though it would be idle to compare it with other great biographies, and it would especially be a pity to talk of him and of Boswell together. The Life of Johnson was the work of a long series of years, the sum of the closest and most constant study recorded in notes of events and traits, and the scrupulous report of conversations invited and led up to with an eye single to the use finally made of them. There is something of this in Mr. Paine's work, but not enough for the comparison, and he has not Boswell's supreme genius for interviewing. Mostly, the story is got together from the words, spoken as well as printed, of Mark Twain himself and from his letters and his friends' letters. His books are instinctively treated as the prime events of the author's life; but as his life was rich far beyond the lives of other literary men in events which his books did not represent, Mr. Paine sets these strongly before the reader, whose own fault it will be if he does not learn to know Clemens as fully from them as his biographer knows him.

It would not be easy for Mark Twain's surviving friends to find the drama of his closing years misrepresented in any important scene or motive. He was, like every one else, a complex nature but a very simple soul, and something responsive to him in his biographer is what has most justified Clemens in his choice of him for the work. The greatest of our humorists, perhaps the greatest humorist who ever lived, is here wonderfully imagined by a writer who is certainly not a great humorist. From first to last it seems to us that Mr. Paine has read Mark Twain aright. He has understood him as a boy in the primitive Southwestern circumstance of his romantic childhood; he has brought a clairvoyant sympathy to the events of the wild youth adventuring in every path inviting or forbidding him; he has truly seen him as he found himself at the beginning of his long climb to an eminence unequaled in the records of literary popularity; and he has followed him filially, affectionately, through the sorrows that darkened round him in his last years. Another biographer more gifted, or less gifted, than this very single-hearted historian might have been tempted to interpret a personality so always adventurous, so always romantic, so always heroic, according to his own limitations; but Mr. Paine has not done this folly. Whether knowingly or not, he has put himself aside, and devotedly adhered to what we should like to call his job. But he has not done this slavishly; he has ventured to have his own quiet opinion of Mark Twain's preposterous advocacy of the Baconian myth, and if he calls his fierce refusal of all the accepted theologies a philosophy, it is apparently without his entire acceptance of the refusal as final and convincing.

Mark Twain, indeed, arrived at the first stage of the scientific denial of the religious hope of mankind; he did not reach that last stage where Science whimsically declares that she denies nothing. He was at times furiously intolerant of others' belief in a divine Fatherhood and a life after death; he believed that he saw and heard all nature and human nature denying it; but when once he had wreaked himself in his bigotry of unbelief, he was ready to listen to such poor reasons as believers could give for the faith that was in them. In his primary mood he might have relaxed them to the secular arm for a death by fire, but in his secondary mood he would have spared them quite unconditionally, and grieved ever after for any harm he meant them. We think the chapters of Mr. Paine's book dealing with this phase are of very marked interest, both as records and as interpretations. He has known how to take it seriously, but not too seriously, to respect it as the cast of a man who thought deeply and felt intensely concerning the contradictions of the mortal scene, yet through his individual conditioning might any moment burst into self-mockery. This witness of his daily thinking, while reverently dissenting from the conclusions which he could not escape, is able the more closely to portray that strange being in whose most tempestuous excess there was the potentiality of the tenderest, the humblest, the sweetest patience.

Every part of his eventful life, every phase of his unique character is fascinating, and as a contribution to the Human document which the book embodies is of high importance; but the most important chapters of the book, the most affecting, the most significant, are those which relate to Clemens's life from the death of his eldest daughter and the break of his wonderful prosperity to that ultimate moment in his earthly home when he ceased from the earth with a dignity apparently always at his command. It was as if he had chosen his way of dying, and it is justly to the praise of his historian that he shows an unfailing sense of the greatness which was not unfailing. It was part of Mark Twain's noble humanity that it was perfect only at moments. It was a thing of climaxes, as his literature was, with the faults and crudities marking it almost to the last, but often with a final effect, an ultimate complexion which could not be overpraised in the word sublime. He was essentially an actor -- that is, a child -- that is, a poet -- with no taint of mere histrionism, but always suffering the emotions he expressed. He suffered them rather than expressed them in his later years, when his literature grew less and less and his life more and more. This formed the supreme opportunity of his biographer, and it was not wasted upon him. His record of the long close, with its fitful arrests and its fierce bursts of rebellion against tragic fate is portrayed with constant restraint as well as courageous veracity to an effect of beauty which the critical reader must recognize at the cost of any and every reservation. The death of his eldest daughter left this aging child pitifully bewildered; the loss of his wife and the close of one of the loveliest love-stories that was ever lived realized for him the solitude which such a stroke makes the world for the survivor; and then the sudden passing of his youngest daughter, whom he alone knew in the singular force of her mind, were the events which left him only the hope of dying.

Yet these closing years were irradiated by a splendor of mature success almost unmatched in the history of literature. It seemed as if the world were newly roused to a sense of his preeminence. Wealth flowed in upon him, and adversity was a dream of evil days utterly past; honors crowded upon him; his country and his city thronged him; the path which his old feet trod with yet something of their young vigor was strewn with roses; the last desire of his fame-loving soul was satisfied when the greatest university in the world did his claim to her supreme recognition justice. It was for his biographer to show the gloom of these later years broken and illumined by these glories, and, when their light could not pierce it, to show him, a gray shadow amid the shadows, but walking their dark undauntedly, and sending from it his laugh oftener than his moan. It is his biographer's praise that he has done this so as to make us feel the qualities of the fact; as in the earlier records he makes us feel the enchantment, the joy, the rapture of the man's experience. If we have not yet answered our primary question, how long Mark Twain will last as a humorist, we must content ourselves with the belief that while the stories of men's lives delight, this book will keep him from being forgotten as a man.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works