MARK TWAIN: A HUMORIST'S CONFESSION
On the Eve of His 70th Birth Anniversary He Admits He Never Did a Day's Work in His Life.
Whatever He Has Done, He Says, He Has Done Because It Was Play -- Sage Advice to Fellow Humorists and Others -- A Word in Defense of the English -- As to Summer Homes
Mark Twain will be 70 years old on Thanksgiving Day, and he has never done a day's work in his life. He told me so himself, sitting in one of the cheerful, spacious rooms of the old-fashioned stately New York house which he will probably call his city home as long as he lives. I probably started upon hearing this unlooked-for statement from the lips of the good, gray humorist, for he repeated emphatically:
"No, Sir, not a day's work in all my life. What I have done I have done, because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it.
"Who was it who said, "Blessed is the man who has found his work"? Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind. Mark you, he says his work - not somebody else's work. The work that is really a man's own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man's work and cannot lose it. When we talk about the great workers of the world we really mean the great players of the world. The fellows who groan and sweat under the weary load of toil that they bear never can hope to do anything great. How can they when their souls are in a ferment of revolt against the employment of their hands and brains? The product of slavery, intellectual or physical, can never be great.
To me who saw him standing there, straight and virile, in the clear, uncompromising light of the early Winter afternoon, it seemed that there must be years of good, hard, joyous play left yet in the Prince of American Humorists. Nor can be bring ourselves to dub him the Dean of American Humorists, either, because that has about it a certain suggestion of decrepit age, and nothing is less suggestive of the Mark Twain of today than decrepitude
Straight and spare as a New England pine, his great mane of thick white hair falling shaggily back from his brow, his thin, mobile upper lip covered with a heavy drooping mustache that is yet only shading toward grayness, his eyes always clear, now reflective and now flashing with the fire of the thoughts that leap like lightning behind them, though the words fall from the lips in that deliberate drawl which tens of thousands will never be able to forget so long as memory has ears, his face unlined and his cheeks touched with a ruddy glow, and only about he corners of his eyes the little tell-tale crow's feet that seventy years have scratched there - nobody who saw him thus could ever possibly think of Mark Twain as old. No, there is nothing of the "last leaf" effect abut Samuel L. Clemens.
"I'm glad you came to see me today, as I'm up and about, which I shouldn't have been if I had been doing anything of consequence. You're surprised at that, are you?"
I admitted that I didn't understand.
"Well," he went on slowly, "I've found that whenever I've got some work to do- "
"You mean play, of course," I ventured.
"Of course, of course; but we're all slaves to the use of conventional terms and I'll stick to them to avoid confusing you. Whenever I've got some work to do I go to bed. I got into that habit some time ago when I had an attack of bronchitis. Suppose your bronchitis lasts six weeks. The first two you can't do much but attend to the barking and so on, but the last four I found I could work if I stayed in bed and when you can work you don't mind staying in bed.
"I liked it so well that I kept it up after I got well. There are a lot of advantages about it. If you're sitting at a desk you get excited about what you are doing, and the first thing you know the steam heat or the furnace has raised the temperature until you've almost got a fever, or the fire in the grate goes out and you get a chill, or if somebody comes in to attend to the fire he interrupts you and gets you off the trail of that idea you are pursuing.
"So I go to bed. I can keep an equable temperature there without trying and go on about my work without being bothered. Work in bed is a pretty good gospel - at least for a man who's come, like me, to the time of life when his blood is easily frosted."
This was queer talk from those virile lips. The only frost you can perceive about Mark Twain is in his hair, and that is a crisp, invigorating frost, like that of a sparkling November morning.
"Well, Mr. Clemens," I said, "what you say about work and play may be true, but a good many people would think that the immense amount of labor you went through to pay the debts of the publishing house of C. L. Webster & Co. after that firm went to smash was entitled to be called by the name of hard work."
"Not at all," retorted Mr. Clemens, very seriously. "All I had to do was write a certain number of books and deliver a few hundred lectures. As for traveling about the country from one place to another for years - the nuisances of getting about and bad hotels and so on - those things are merely the incidents that every one expects to meet in life. The people who had to publish my books, the agents who had to arrange my lecture tours, the lawyers who had to draw up the contracts and other legal documents - they were the men who did the real work. My part was merely play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it. I was never intended for work - never could do it - can't do it now - don't see any use in it."
It occurred to me to ask Mr. Clemens to tell the secret of the vital hold he has had for years upon the most intelligent people of the English-speaking world - a grip upon the public mind such as no mere humorist has ever held or ever could hold.
"Well," he answered, "I know it is a difficult thing for a man who has acquired a reputation as a funny man to have a serious thought and put it into words and be listened to respect fully, but I thoroughly believe that any man who's got anything worth while to say will be heard if he only says it often enough. Of course, what I have to say may not be worth saying. I can't tell about that, but if I honestly believe I have an idea worth the attention of thinking people it's my business to say it with all the sincerity I can muster. They'll listen to it if it really is worth while and I say it often enough. If it isn't worth while it doesn't matter whether I'm heard or not.
"Suppose a man makes a name as a humorist-he may make it at a stroke, as Bret Harte did, when he wrote those verses about the "Heathen Chinee." That may not be the expression of the real genius of the man at all. He may have a genuine message for the world. Then let him say it and say it again and then repeat it and let him soak it in sincerity. People will warn him at first that he's getting a bit out of his line, but they'll listen to him at last, if he's really got a message - just as they finally listened to Bret Harte.
"Dickens had his troubles when he tried to stop jesting. The "Sketches by Boz" introduced him as a funny man, but when Boz began to take him seriously people began to shake their heads and say: "That fellow Boz isn't as funny as he was, is he?" But Boz and his creator kept right on being in earnest, and they listened after a time, just as they always will listen to anybody worth hearing.
"I tell you, life is a serious thing, and, try as a man may, he can't make a joke of it. People forget that no man is all humor, just as they fail to remember that every man is a humorist. We hear that marvelous voice of Sembrich - a wonderful thing - a thing never to be forgotten - but nobody makes the mistake of thinking of Sembrich as merely a great, unmixed body of song. We know that she can think and feel and suffer like the rest of us. Why should we forget that the humorist has his solemn moments? Why should we expect nothing but humor of the humorist?
"My advice to the humorist who has been a slave to his reputation is never to be discouraged. I know it is painful to make an earnest statement of a heartfelt conviction and then observe the puzzled expression of the fatuous soul who is conscientiously searching his brain to see how he can possibly have failed to get the point of the joke. But say it again and maybe he'll understand you. No man need be a humorist all his life. As the patent medicine man says, there is hope for all."
"You are far from being a bad man: go and reform," thought I reminiscently of "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg."
"The quality of humor," Mr. Clemens went on hurriedly - for him - "is the commonest thing in the world. I mean the perceptive quality of humor. In this sense every man in the world is a humorist. The creative quality of humor - the ability to throw a humorous cast over a set of circumstances that before had seemed colorless is, of course, a different thing. But every man in the world is a perceptive humorist. Everybody lives in a glass house. Why should anybody shy bricks at a poor humorist or advise him to stick to his trade when he tries to say a sensible thing?"
"Even the English?" I suggested.
"The English don't deserve their reputation," insisted Mr. Clemens. "They are as humorous a nation as any in the world. Only humor, to be comprehensible to anybody, must be built upon a foundation with which he is familiar. If he can't see the foundation the superstructure is to him merely a freak - like the Flatiron building without any visible means of support - something that ought to be arrested.
"You couldn't, for example, understand an English joke, yet they have their jokes - plenty of them. There's a passage in Parkman that tells of the home life of the Indian - describes him sitting at home in his wigwam with his squaw and papooses - not the stoical, toy Indian with whom we are familiar, who wouldn't make a jest for his life or notice one that anybody else made, but the real Indian that few white men ever saw - simply rocking with mirth at some tribal witticism that probably wouldn't have commended itself in the least to Parkman.
"And, so you see, the quality of humor is not a personal or a national monopoly. It's as free as salvation, and, I am afraid, far more widely distributed. But it has its value, I think. The hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence, some kindly veil to draw over them, from time to time, to blur the craggy outlines, and make the thorns less sharp and the cruelties less malignant."
Mr. Clemens doesn't mind being seventy years old, but he isn't especially gay about it.
"When our anniversaries roll up too high a total," he said, "we don't feel in a particularly celebratory mood. We often celebrate the wrong anniversaries and lament the ones we ought to celebrate."
This particular anniversary finds him domiciled within sight of the Washington Arch in one of those dignified old mansions of lower Fifth Avenue that have set their kindly, patrician old faces sternly against the marauding march of skyscrapers and business loft and hotel. Everybody knows that Hartford was for many years his home, though in the Summer intervals various mountain or seaside cottages got in some of their dread work, while so recently as a Summer or two ago an Italian villa added strange new items to the sum total of his domiciliary experiences.
His latest solution to the Summer question is Dublin, New Hampshire. There he was last Summer, and there he hopes to be again. His own account of how he reached so satisfactory a solution is entertaining, and may be instructive.
"Yes," he said, "I have tried a number of summer homes, here and in Europe together.
"Each of these homes had charms of its own; charms and delights of its own, and some of them - even in Europe - had comforts. Several of them had conveniences, too. They all had a "view."
"It is my conviction that there should always be some water in a view - a lake or a river, but not the ocean, if you are down on its level. I think that when you are down on its level it seldom inflames you with an ecstasy which you could not get out of a sand flat. It is like being on board ship over again; indeed it is worse than that, for there's three months of it. On board ship one tires of the aspects in a couple of days and quits looking. The same vast circle of heaving humps is spread around you all the time, with you in the center of it and never gaining an inch on the horizon, as far as you can see one; for variety, a flight of flying fish, a flock of porpoises throwing summersaults afternoons, a remote whale spouting Sundays, occasional phosphorescent effects nights, every other day a streak of black smoke trailing along under the horizon; on the single red-letter day, the illustrious iceberg. I have seen that iceberg thirty four times in thirty-seven voyages; it is always that same shape, it is always the same size, it always throws up the same old flash when the sun strikes it; you may set it on any New York doorstep of a June morning and light it up with a mirror flash and I will engage to recognize it. It is artificial, and is provided and anchored out by the steamer companies. I used to like the sea, but I was young then, and could easily get excited over any kind of monotony, and keep it up till the monotonies ran out.
"Last January, when we were beginning to inquire about a home for this summer, I remembered that Abbott Thayers had said, three years before, that the New Hampshire highlands was a good place. He was right - it is a good place. Any place that is good for an artist in paint is good for an artist in morals and ink. Brush is here, too; so is Col. T. W. Higginson; so is Raphael Pumpelly; so is Mr. Secretary Hitchcock; so is Henderson; so is Learned so is Sumner; so is Franklin MacVeagh; so is Joseph L. Smith; so is Henry Copley Greene, when I am not occupying his house, which I am doing this season. Paint, literature, science, statesmanship, history, professorship, law, morals - these are all represented here, yet crime is substantially unknown.
"The summer homes of these refugees are sprinkled, a mile apart, among the forest-clad hills, with access to each other by firm and smooth country roads which are so embowered in dense foliage that it is always twilight in there and comfortable. The forests are spider-webbed with these good roads, they go everywhere; but for the help of the guideboards the stranger would not arrive anywhere.
"The village - Dublin - is bunched together in its own place, but a good telephone service makes its markets handy to all those outliars. If you spell it right it's witty. The village executes orders on the Boston plan-promptness and courtesy.
"The summer homes are high perched, as a rule, and have contenting outlooks. The house we occupy has one. Monadnock, a soaring double hump, rises into the sky at its left elbow - that is to say, it is close at hand. From the base of the long slant of the mountain, the valley spreads away to the circling frame of hills, and beyond the frame the billowy sweep of remote great ranges rise to view and flow, fold upon fold, wave upon wave, soft and blue and unworldly, to the horizon fifty miles away. In these October days Monadnock and the valley and its framing hills make an inspiring picture to look at, for they are sumptuously splashed and mottled and betorched from sky line to sky line with the richest dyes the autumn can furnish; and when they lie flaming in the full drench of the mid-afternoon sun, the sight affects the spectator physically, it stirs his blood like military music.
"These summer houses are commodious, well built, and well furnished - facts which sufficiently indicate that the owners built them to live in themselves. They have furnaces and wood fireplaces, and the rest of the comforts and conveniences of a city home, and can be comfortably occupied all the year round.
"We cannot have this house next season, but I have secured Mrs. Upton's house, which is over in the law and science quarter, two or three miles from here, and about the same distance from the art, literary, and scholastic groups. The science and law quarter has needed improving this good while.
"The nearest railway station is distant something like an hour's drive; it is three hours from there to Boston, over a branch line. You can go to New York in six hours per branch line if you change every time you think of it, but it is better to go to Boston and stop over and take the trunk line next day; then you do not get lost.
"It is claimed that the atmosphere of the New Hampshire highlands is exceptionally bracing and stimulating, and a fine aid to hard and continuous work. It is a just claim, I think. I came in May, and wrought thirty-five successive days without a break. It is possible that I could not have done it elsewhere. I do not know; I have not had any disposition to try it before. I think I got the disposition out of the atmosphere this time. I feel quite sure, in fact, that that is where it came from.
"I am ashamed to confess what an intolerable pile of manuscript I ground out in the thirty-five days; therefore I will keep the number of words to myself. I wrote the first half of a long tale - "The Adventures of a Microbe" - and put it away for a finish next summer, and started another long tale - "The Mysterious Stranger"; I wrote the first half of it and put it with the other for a finish next summer. I stopped then. I was not tired, but I had no books on hand that needed finishing this year except one that was seven years old. After a little I took that one up and finished it. Not for publication, but to have it ready for revision next summer.
"Since I stopped work I have had a two months' holiday. The summer has been my working time for thirty-five years, to have a holiday in it (in America) is new to me. I have not broken it, except to write "Eve's Diary" and "A Horse's Tale" - short things occupying the mill twelve days.
"This year our summer was six months long and ended with November and the flight home to New York, but next year we hope and expect to stretch it another month and end it the first of December."
[interview by] A. E. Thomas
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