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My Mark Twain
Mark Twain's Letters
by Howells, William Dean

(From Harper's Monthly, March 1918)

Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine has ended his very faithful and intelligent labors on the biography of a man nearer and dearer to his generation than any other author, in two volumes of Mark Twain's Letters. Unless more material should unexpectedly offer itself, these letters will tell us the last we shall be told of one who can never be told enough of, and who tells himself in them more explicitly and directly than in all his other work. Every author tells himself in his work if his work is inventive, and no writer can imagine traits or characteristics or qualities which do not already exist in human nature as it is actually or potentially known to him from himself. With Mark Twain this is verified first and last in his books, whether they are the crude effect of newspaper reporting, or the play of controlless fancy, or ostensibly the record of travel. The book which first made him universally known, Innocents Abroad, is almost entirely autobiography, although it is a story of travel in the strangest guise that travel ever took on under unprecedented conditions. Still closer to personal experience is Roughing It, which is the Wild West variously speaking from the Wildest Westerner ever inspired by the things happening either to him or to others. The Gilded Age, or Mark Twain's half of it, embodies a part of his immortal part in Mulberry Sellers, and in A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, one of the most poetic inventions in all fiction, the Boss is the reflex of Mark Twain's bold and lovable soul. Tom Sawyer is the boy who was Mark Twain, and Huck Finn is the boy whom no one but such a boy as Tom Sawyer could have realized. In The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc it is the Arthurian Yankee and Missourian boy who heroically befriend the immortal maid, and the same spirit in Following the Equator reduces the facts of travel to their proper level below the emotions of the traveler. In his slightest and crudest sketch we feel the cordial hand-clasp of the author and hear his kind, brave American voice, speaking from himself and of himself, to his American, his human, counterpart in the reader. The letters addressed to his friends are scarcely less intimately addressed to the general reader. Each of them holds as much of himself as he could put into it, pressed down and running over, no matter how little or large the measure of it. They are each written from some vital occasion and never from an impulse invited or pretended. If ever he starts involuntarily from some unreal motive he is presently in full earnest, throbbing and hammering away like one of the high-pressure steamboats of his own Mississippi. Any of the famous epistles of the past, like Pope's or Walpole's, or Lady Mary Montagu's, or Byron's, or Carlyle's, show fictitious and factitious in their pose of intentional literature beside these letters of Mark Twain, which are the more of universal import because of their intensely individual appeal.

The reader of this magazine already knows the quality of the letters gathered here, but not their variety and scope. None of them could be spared from a study of the nature and character of the man, and no one who wishes to know him truly will find himself shut from the intimacy of a soul which had no reserves, no pretenses, no manner of falsehood, not even false shame. He is sometimes ashamed, and then he is ashamed with reason, or with the belief that he has reason. The reader who is of the same make, the good average American make, will be, first of all, glad of the letters which Mark Twain wrote to his mother in his boyhood when he left home and until he had grown a gray-haired man. At times the letters joke her, at times cheer her, but always tenderly caress her with his boyish affection. It is known to those who know Mr. Paine's biography how simple, often to rudeness, the early circumstances of Mark Twain's life were, but if anything were needed to testify to the inner beauty of his life, these letters of the young boy and the old boy to his mother will convince the witness least acquainted with the average American life.

To this end the letters of this wonderful collection are tense with what Mark Twain felt and thought at the time he wrote them, and in their complex they constitute the history of that philosophy of the world which became honestly his in its denial of a conscious Creator, and its affirmation of the failure of whatever force wrought the creation of man. By birth and by marriage he was of the Calvinistic faith which bowed the neck of most Americans in the early eighteen-seventies and then began to break of its own impossibility and to substitute the prevailing scientific agnosticism. His personal unreligion went far back in his early life. The faith he had been taught in his childhood passed with his childhood, but it held against his reason and remained in his affection long after it had ceased in his conviction, and until his church-going became a meaningless form. Then when he turned from the form the heroic woman who had no life apart from his could only say, "Well, if he must be lost, I do not wish to be saved," and their Christianity ceased to be a creed and remained a life. Probably the change was not so profound when it became open as even she had imagined; the sorrows which time accumulated upon them were those which life brings. They were of the common lot, and no special tragedy. The least part of their trouble was that loss of fortune which he so heroically bore and she so heroically inspired him to bear, but the death of his children would seem to have struck him with a sort of dismay, as if no one else had known the like, and it finds naive utterance in the letters. The gaiety goes out of them, not lastingly, but again and again after it has come back. The gloom deepens around him to the end; he fights it away, he downs it again and again, but the doubt that has always haunted him hardens into denial and effects itself at last in such an allegory as The Mysterious Stranger, who bedevils a world without reason and without pity.

Of course the thing will not do, and there are times when the cry of pain becomes a burst of laughter turning upon the unreason of the reasoning; but any one who leaves out the tragedy of the great humorist's suffering leaves the part of Hamlet out of life's play of Hamlet. No humorist knew better than he that there is a time to laugh and a time to weep, and that absence from felicity cannot be lifelong. Almost to the very last he steadfastly denied himself the hope of life hereafter, though before the very last, but then only at the entreaty of those dearest who stood nearest him, he is said to have permitted this hope, with a murmur, a look.

It does not greatly matter. The fact does not impeach the veracity of what had gone before in the books or in the letters which went before the books. None of the letters, idly begun, failed of final significance, and the perception of the lasting verity of the actualities touched upon sometimes took on the character of forecast. Such a strain breaks out in a letter written eighteen years ago to the friend who had hated equally with him the war of England upon the Boer Republics. "Privately speaking, this is a sordid and criminal war, and in every way shameful and excuseless. Every day I write (in my head) bitter magazine articles about it, but I have to stop at that, for England must not fail. It would remain an inundation of Russian and German political degradation, which would envelop the globe and steep it in a sort of Middle-Age night and slavery, which would last until Christ comes again. Even if wrong, and she is wrong, England must be upheld. He is an enemy of the human race who shall speak against her now." Is there any one presently treating or talking of the actual situation who could more clearly and strongly divine our duty toward our Motherland, often our Step-Motherland, or more strongly urge it? If this is wisdom concerning that little wicked war of England's against Liberty eighteen years ago, how profoundly wise it is concerning her war for Liberty now -- her war, our war, humanity's war! Has the truth about Germany been said more clearly, potently, finally?[1]

[1. The unnamed friend was Howells himself. The letter was written Jan. 25-26, 1900.]

Mark Twain was often humorously, perversely, wrong in literary matters. He was not always well advised or well informed in his criticisms of authors, but concerning men, concerning their duty toward one another, he never went awry. He was of a magnanimity which differences him from most of our writing and printing tribe, as much as his basic earnest differences him from the clowning and buffooning generation whom we have been content to keep in shameful license for our fooling, as the kings of old kept their antics and jesters; but if it remained for Mark Twain, after his earlier books, to convince us that his lightest laugh often muted the saddest sigh which breaks from a sense of the insoluble mystery of things -- here in these many hundreds of letters is the proof of it. They really repeat in different sort the story of his life, which their editor has already told so well, and they form in autobiographical terms another biography of him. Mr. Paine from time to time directs the eye and leads the mind to the meaning of the letters, but never officiously or intrusively, and he has suggested enough of each correspondent's personality to give a clue to the writer's relation to him, but not more than enough. Scores of the letters, even beyond a hundred, are addressed to one person, but the quality of all the others makes up for the want of quantity in them. They mostly utter what was in the heart and mind of the writer, but do not suffer it to be forgotten that, while first of all a man, Mark Twain was lastingly a literary man. He did greatly and truly love his art, and his letters testify how greatly and truly he desired to excel in it, how modestly and humbly and even biddably he endeavored for excellence in it. When the occasion of some letter seems far from literature you are taught that literature was never absent from his mind. It may be some great or little fact that moves him, but he does not fail to make the reader feel that the literary value of it was always dear to his soul. The like is so with all our scribbling tribe, but literature is not the only end, or even the chief end with the great ones, while with the mean ones it is the supreme if not the sole end. Perhaps the finest piece of literature among these letters is that one which tells of how the negro tenant farmer saves the lives of his landlord's wife and children from the runaway team at the risk of his own life. It is splendid; it glows and thrills with the beauty of dramatic reality; as literature it could not be better, but the sense of literary intention is far from it; nothing could be further than any notion of style or art. The thing reports itself, photographs itself through the mind of the witness on the mind of the reader of the story.

The letters abound in masterpieces, large or little, and they will remain monuments of the sincerity and simplicity of the writer's soul. The occasion is often slight, but it is never unreal. He rushes gladly to praise his friend or joyfully to hail him alive. He riots in the blame of some one who has wronged him or misunderstood him, and then is quickly and eagerly sorry for it. He says terrible things, as if only for the sake of taking them back. In the course of his often revengeful impulses, he formed the habit, as he tells us, of pouring out the fury of his resentment in a letter bubbling as with the tide from a fiery furnace, and then of putting the letter by and never sending it. He found that this served all the purpose of a glutted vengeance, and he enjoyed the pleasure of the joke on himself; but he never failed to send any letter which he wrote in his love of a friend, and no friend of his could do anything worthy of remembrance without getting such a letter. His habit of affectionate outburst leaves the hundreds and hundreds of letters in these volumes the witness of a heart as essentially kind as his nature was noble, while all the moments of hate and revenge have perished from the record.

The reader who happens to come simultaneously or consecutively, as we have come, upon these letters of Mark Twain's and the Letters of John Holmes will have, we hope, our pleasure in finding them, however unlike outwardly, essentially of the same make. They could not be more different than they are in tradition and derivation, or more unmistakably, more intimately American. The younger brother of Oliver Wendell Holmes spent his whole life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with several reluctant, homesick absences in Europe, and his letters are addressed to half a score of intimate townsmen, primarily and chiefly Lowell, and to a few women friends young and old. His theme is always Cambridge, as it had formed itself in his experience and affection around the heart or the mind of the great university in whose shadow he was born, and not far away died. He claimed for himself the name Oppidanist as expressive of his quality of local patriot, and his thoughts departed as little from the place as his affections. He delighted in the utter provinciality of his Cambridge, which consisted with the broader universality of the mind and heart; and he never wearied of tenderly mocking these peculiarities of its early days before it ceased to be a village and became a rather overgrown town, with every appliance of a sufficiently uncharacteristic suburb. A college "commencement," as he remembers it from his boyhood, is the play of his tender irony, and a gentle self-satire wins the reader's heart through the writer's memories of obsolete Fourths of July, and long-faded manners and customs. There is gossip as of the same household, so close are the ties that bind the writer to the friends whom he constantly entreats to tell or hear some new or old thing of Cambridge. It is always worth while, no matter how slight, and his delicate whimsicality sweetens it with a most Lamb-like, Charles Lamb-like lovableness. It is a humorist of the finest strain who gives himself in these letters, and the very spirit of New England quaintness penetrates the whole, whether it utters itself in the letters beginning French, or Latin, or German, and gladly lapsing to the native parlance, or continuing straight English throughout. The talk can never be a thing too small even when of a cat that crosses the street before the simple little house where the writer lived out the days left him from the years spent in his birthplace, and where Miss Longfellow's sympathetic introduction so winningly studies him. It is all utterly Cantabridgian, and the letters, wherever postmarked, arrive from Cambridge, where the writer really abode no matter where he went. But there is no foray of the imagination anywhere delightfuller than his travesty of himself in the supposed letters of Goliath Tittle, where he tells his nephews of the strange voyages and shipwrecks of the Yankee mariner on cannibal islands and in seas forlorn. The character created for this purpose, though quantitatively such a slight sketch, is qualitatively of substance as firm and fine as any in New England literature, and such as would have won the vehement applause of Mark Twain, who liked all genuine things. It is too late to declare how much or little the author of these letters would have liked the letters of our supreme humorist, but we cannot doubt of his adequate pleasure in them, or, if we cannot, we will not, for fear of injustice to his memory.


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