MARK TWAIN, CHIEF OF SINNERS
By WILLIAM LYON PHELPS
THE ORDEAL OF MARK TWAIN. By Van Wyck Brooks, New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Ten years have passed since the death of Mark Twain. During these ten years his fame has grown steadily brighter, his personality more salient and imposing, his masterpieces more mountainous. Time's silent but effective methods of cancellation - which bury a reputation without leaving a monument - seem powerless here. As all the sand in Egypt cannot cover the pyramids, so the ever-falling drift of days cannot obliterate genius.
Many books have been written about Mark Twain; but with the exception of Paine's biography - perhaps the best biography ever written by an American - this work by Mr. Van Wyck Brooks is the most important and the most essential. Mr. Brooks is one of our ablest critics, for he combines catholicity of taste with an almost austere sincerity. His book, like all books filled with ideas, is a challenge; it contains so much truth that it provokes and disturbs the reader, as all critical writing should do. Emerson said: "God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please - you can never have both."
I say that this book contains much truth. I do not think it contains all the truth, or that it is wholly true. But it is packed with ideas. Ideas have always interested mankind more than facts, because every idea is a challenge, a summons to thought. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points - that is a fact; but no man will die for it. We fight and die only for things that cannot be proved. There is something finished about a fact; it has lost the principle of development; it is dead. Ideas are alive.
The main idea in this book is that Mark Twain's career was a tragedy - a tragedy for himself and a tragedy for mankind. Every man who does not live up to his highest possibilities is living in a state of sin. Mark Twain was, therefore, one of the chief of sinners, because his possibilities were so great and he fell so short.
Every one knows that Mark Twain was a pessimist; during his later years he shouted out his pessimism to the four winds of heaven. I have no quarrel with a philosophical pessimist; every honest man must report external life and his own consciousness as he sees and feels it. Jonathan Swift was a sincere pessimist; he kept his birthday as a day of fasting and mourning. Schopenhauer was a true pessimist, writing his greatest book before he was 30 years old. Thomas Hardy has always been a pessimist, both in youth and old age. These three men are all masters in literature, not because of their pessimist, but because of their literary art. It is a common error to suppose that pessimist in itself is a sign of profound thought, and optimism the mark of a shallow mind; just as many people when listening to music think they can look intelligent merely by looking sad. Emerson and Browning were both profound thinkers, and they were both incorrigible optimists.
In a moment I shall give Mr. Brook's reason why Mark Twain was a pessimist; I do not think it is the true explanation. I believe that Mark Twain's pessimism was partly a pose, and therefore to that extent unworthy of him. It was a creed by which he talked and wrote, not by which he lived. He railed at happiness, he railed at virtue, he railed at self-sacrifice; but he lived a wonderfully happy life; he was so virtuous that he could not swallow the Gorky episode, and he made immense sacrifices for an almost quixotic standard of honor and probity. No man was kinder or more generous in public or in private affairs. There is something unworthy about his contempt for the great, unspeakable gift of life. When I remember his rise from obscurity to fame, the long years of dazzling popularity which he loved, the serene happiness of his family life, the idolatry of hosts of friends, and his statement that it was far better not to be born - I can only think of many individuals I know living in poverty and obscurity, without fame, riches or popularity, shaken by appalling disasters, yet standing erect with cheerful, smiling courage. There is nothing heroic about Mark Twain's pessimism.
On the fourteenth page Mr. Brooks states his hypothesis:
No, there was a reason for Mark Twain's pessimist, a reason for that chagrin, that fear of solitude, that tortured conscience, those fantastic self-accusations, that indubitable self-contempt. It is an established fact, if I am not mistaken, that these morbid feelings of sin, which have no evident cause, are the result of having transgressed some inalienable life-demand peculiar to one's nature. It is as old as Milton that there are talents which are "death to hide," and I suggest that Mark Twain's "talent" was just so hidden. That bitterness of his was the effect of a certain miscarriage in his creative life, a balked personality, an arrested development of which he was himself almost wholly unaware, but which for him destroyed the meaning of life. The spirit of the artist in him, like the genie at last released from the bottle, overspread in a gloomy vapor the mind it had never quite been able to possess.
If I understand Mr. Brooks correctly, there were two villains in Mark Twain's tragedy - his mother and his wife. His mother was more eager to have him good than to have him great; his wife wanted him to be a gentleman. Between them they tamed the lion and made him perform parlor tricks. This hypothesis is worked out by Mr. Brooks with such ingenuity and such force that I can only advise every one to read the whole book with serious attention to every page. Yet although there is much truth in this explanation, I do not believe it to be the whole truth nor the real reason for Mark Twain's pessimism.
Every man of genius who lives in organized society and has a wife and children must necessarily make some sacrifices. He cannot be free; he is checked by a thousand hindrances. But do these repressions necessarily bring pessimist or even unhappiness? Do we not often find pessimism in the absolute free life of an artist? Turgenev was as free as man can possibly be in this world; he was, it is true, subject to me caprices of Mme. Viardot, so far as keeping social engagements went; but she never interfered with his creative life, and he realized his highest possibilities as an artist. What did he say? He said, "I would give all my fame if there were some woman who cared whether I came home late to dinner or not." Ibsen was married; but his wife has as much repressing effect on his artistic advance as a feather in the path of a locomotive. What did Ibsen say at the end of his marvelously successful career? He said, "It takes more courage to live than die." And in that last terrible drama, "When We Dead Awaken" he tells us that the man who sacrifices love for art commits the one unpardonable sin.
I do not believe that Mark Twain would have been happier if he had completely shaken off his mother's influence or if he had trampled on his wife's sensibilities. If he really were dissatisfied with his achievements - however unconscious that discontent may have been - this was not, I think, owing to the restrictions placed on him by his conventional; it was owing to the natural self-reproach in every honest man, and particularly in those in whom the sense of humor is dominant. Humor and self-criticism go together; a sense of humor is an antidote for conceit. Mr. Brooks hints that Victor Hugo would never have consented to follow the advice of friends as Mark Twain did; but Victor Hugo had no sense of humor, and the complacency with which he looked back upon his career arose from a conceit that was even more colossal than his genius. Late in life some of his friend were talking with him, and, of course, about him. One said, "Streets ought to be named after him." Another remarked, "Streets? Paris ought to change its name and be called Victor Hugo." Another added scornfully, "Paris? Paris, after such a great man? No, indeed! France ought to change its name, and the whole country be called Victor Hugo." The great writer then lifted his head, and with Jovian dignity spoke in tones of quiet, solemn conviction: "That will come in time."
Mr. Brooks cannot sufficiently condemn the influence of Mrs. Clemens and the influence of Elmira; but it is worth remembering that "Huckleberry Finn," which, I am glad to say, Mr. Brooks believes to be his masterpiece, was written during the crowded years of his married life, and much of it was written in Elmira. I have visited the lonely, octagonal room in Elmira where Mark Twain wrote. It is an isolated little building on a hilltop, commanding an enormous view of rolling country. Here no one was allowed to disturb him. As a rule he ate no luncheon; he went to this solitude after breakfast, and often remained there until evening. His wife kept visitors from him, looked after the household, and left him free. In Hartford, his writing room was the upper story of the barn; there, again, he worked in undisturbed seclusion.
She may have combed many things out of his manuscripts; she may have liked "The Prince and the Pauper" better than "Huckleberry Finn." She had no genius; but the inspiration of love may have been as valuable to him as the inspiration of an artistic sense equal to his own. I do not believe that he was a fellow almost damned in a fair wife. Mr. Brooks, though he does not use this particular comparison, would have us imagine that his plight was almost equal to that of Andrea del Sarto, who looked from the bondage of domestic tyranny with longing at the great three - Rafael, Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who never let a woman come between them and their work. I can hardly subscribe to this. The fact that Mark Twain showed such sympathy with Huck's rebellion against the artificialities and restrains of polite society, is nothing more than what all men, and women, too often feel: an instinctive resistance to convention, that draws people at times away from the comforts of civilization into the free life of the woods. This feeling is in every human animal.
Tolstoy is frequently quoted by Mr. Brooks with approval as a man who refused to surrender to society, and remained a rebel to the last. But Tolstoy despised his best books, and looked upon "Anna Karenina" with loathing and contempt. If Mark Twain originally believed "Joan of Arc" to be a greater book than "Huckleberry Finn" he found out later that it was not, and the judgments of authors about their own works are often strange. Thomas Hardy firmly believes that his poems are much greater than "The Return of the Native" and "Tess of the D'Urbervilles." But I do not care what he thinks as long as we have his masterpieces of fiction.
Mr. Brooks has written a powerful, thoughtful and ingenious work, but he has endeavored to fit Mark Twain's life and career to a theory, and though he brings many facts and many strong arguments to its support he fails because no man's life can be made to fit a theory. That Mark Twain wrote many books unworthy of his genius is perfectly true, so did Shakespeare. But not only do I think that Mr. Brooks has hit upon the wrong theory for the tragedy of Mark Twain's life, I do not think it was a tragedy. The fact that he loved the cultivated society of new England is no more against him than Shakespeare's love of the aristocrats, and his desire to become a gentleman can be thought a crime against his art. I do not believe that his mother or his wife or Mr. Howells inflicted any serious or permanent injury upon him, and whatever they may have done to repress him was perhaps equaled by the inspiration they all three undoubtedly gave him - the inspiration of love and friendship. A good case can be made against them for individual words and phrases they persuaded him tout out of his writings, but these are matter for smiles than grief. They do not estop his genius. If he had been a great thinker like Goethe, he would not have held to so shallow a pessimism. But he was never a great thinker. He was a great novelist, a great humorist, a great artist. Goethe said of Byron, "The moment he thinks, he is a child," but he had a consuming admiration for Byron's genius. So when I read "What Is Man?" and "Is Shakespeare Dead?" I feel that an ignorant child is talking; but when I read "Huckleberry Finn' and "Life on the Mississippi" I stand in awe before the mysterious power of genius.
I agree with Mr. Brooks that Mark Twain did not realize all his highest possibilities. But I do not share his approval of Henry James's statement that Mark Twain's appeal is an appeal to rudimentary minds, nor of Arnold Bennett's calling him a "divine amateur," and his remark that while "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" are episodically magnificent, as complete works of art they are of quite inferior quality." With all due respect to Arnold Benett, his criticism of Mark Twain is an impertinence.
This book was written before the appearance of the Letters of Henry James, but one thinks of those wonderful letters while reading Mr. Brooks. There was a man who did live up to his highest possibilities as an artist; who sought only an environment favorable to art; who lived away from his country, away from his family, and who was never married; whose passion was to do his best. But is it not at least possible that in a more normal life the genius of Henry James, splendid as we know it to be, might have been mellowed and enriched, more warm with humanity? It is vain to speculate on what might have been -let us be grateful for genius wherever we find it. I believe that "Huckleberry Finn," "Tom Sawyer," "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," "Life on the Mississippi," "Pudd'nhead Wilson," yes, and "Innocents Abroad," are all great achievements.
Whether one agrees with Mr. Brooks's thesis or not - and I do not, one must admire and one ought to profit by the noble and splendid purpose animating it. It is a call to every writer and to every man and woman not to sin against their own talents.
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