Like every man who attains much note in the world of letters, Mr. Clemens was of a nature far from simple, was a compound of quite disparate qualities. But the compound with the passage of time became a blend and the fiery intoxicant of the early years manifested itself only as an invigorating stimulant with a flavor almost bland.
Of the great mass of his writing, the portion that is most widely known, that won its way to the most widely different readers and gave him two fortunes in succession and a fame that is practically universal, and may be measurably enduring, the spirit was the spirit of mischief. He wrote, as in the shifting associations of his wandering youth, he talked, plotted, and acted with one pretty constant aim to "make fun" of the men and things about him that lent themselves to that sportive pursuit. In general it was harmless enough, and as he grew older it became kindlier, but to the last there was always a keen, avid, sometimes slightly unfeeling love of ridiculing whatever and whomever he could make ridiculous. There was in it the temperament of the practical joker, and as his reminiscent conversation was apt to be full of stories of practical jokes, so his beginnings in literature were crowded with them. The "Innocents Abroad" was a catalogue raisonnee of them, teeming and reeking with ridicule as Munchausen's Travels with the marvelous or the Odyssey with cunning.
The ridicule was, however, the work of an undoubted genius, of a mind of extraordinary vigor and a fancy as original as it was fertile. It would have paled long ago had not this been true. No common intellect could have sustained for half the time or through half the great output even the attention, much less the admiring enjoyment of readers which he commanded whenever he chose to write. We recall hardly a parallel in literary history for a continuous vogue so lasting for work of like character. In that regard, mutatis mutandis, one is tempted to a comparison with Rabelais. But the writings of our American satirist and humorist (Twain was distinctly both) had no thread of continuity running through them, were not parts of an elaborate whole, and were written for an unlearned and uncritical mass of cursory and habitually indifferent readers. Their sustained fascination was the more remarkable.
Of course, it is easy to say that this fascination was due to the author's faculty for putting things in a surprising fashion, for what one of his critics calls a "skillful use of the incongruous." But that faculty, in the degree that Mark Twain had it, was in itself a gift of genius. And it was unquestionably inborn. Doubtless it was developed by his long use of it, but it was not and could not have been acquired, any more than Turner's sense of color or Daumier's synthetic drawing. Much of the work that has won such extraordinary fame may be classed as grotesque, but the contrast that made it so was perpetually varying, fresh, impressive, and imposing. It is idle to try to analyze a gift so rare, but it is permitted to suggest that much of its charm was due to the half wayward, rarely formulated, but very real moral earnestness that found expression beneath, and almost in spite of, the ceaseless mockery.
This side of Mr. Clemens's nature he made few attempts distinctly to embody in his writings, and these were not very well understood. They were "caviare to the general," and did not directly appeal to the vast audience he had collected. But it was a side of his nature not to be ignored and in its essence worthy of sincere and delicate respect. There is a touch of the pathetic in its consideration, it is so little in obvious harmony with the body of his writings. But it existed, and with it went a gift, also little recognized and irregularly, perhaps whimsically manifested, that of poetic imagination and aspiration. It is by no means inconceivable, had he sprung from cultured stock, been trained in letters, and pursued his career amid literary associations, incentives, criticism, and encouragement, that he might have been an imaginative writer, romanticist, dramatist, even poet, or extraordinary attainment. His degree of Doctor of Letters from the ancient University of Oxford was not, in his actual state of achievement, misdirected, but it may be held to be a recognition of unusual gifts in practice imperfectly developed and partly atrophied. Time, with its winnowing, may yet bestow on our great humorist a recognition not freely accorded in life.
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