The Kremlin Claims Mark Twain
An expert evaluates a great writer hailed by Russia as a 'people's critical realist.'
By JOSEPH WOOD KRUTCH
Mark Twain is one of the most popular writers in the Soviet Union, where a twelve-volume edition of his works was begun in 1958 with a first printing of 300,000 copies. Great writers can be a bridge of understanding between peoples, and a bridge Mark Twain has undoubtedly been. But at the moment the Soviet Union is trying to make him a bone of contention instead.
Unwittingly, Charles Neider tossed the bone when he published, last year, the "Autobiography of Mark Twain" in which he brought together excerpts from Twain's writings, some of which the author had instructed his executors not to make public until after the passage of a certain number of years.
The Moscow Literaturnaya Gazette has printed a vehement attack on this book, in which the compiler was accused of developing an "official American line" by excluding Twain's "brilliant, angry" pronouncements critical of American expansionism and capitalism. "Official America," the Soviet critic said, is "trying to forget" Mark Twain because he was a "critical realist." The attack was a reflection of the official view, set forth in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, that Twain is to be admired as the founder of critical realism in American literature," and as a "genuine people's writer."
There is no doubt that "social criticism," among many other elements, is real and important in Twain's work. But the assumption that there is an American "official line" which the editor of the "Autobiography" has followed is merely an illustration of how a Soviet critic almost inevitably misunderstands the way in which public opinion is formed and expressed in the United States. Of course, there just is no "official line" on Twain.
Its impossibility is demonstrated by the fact there is not and never has been even a consensus here among competent and informed critics. A generation ago Van Wyck Brooks accused Twain of a certain timidity which prevented him from becoming an effective social and moral critic - something like what the Russians now say he was. The late Bernard DeVoto replied angrily that Brooks had completely missed the point of an achievement which made Twain the epic poet of American expansion. And so it has gone ever since.
To some he is, first of all, a great humorist; to others, a passionate critic of human weakness; to still others, sometimes a tragic pessimist, sometimes a creator of the most significant American "myth." Within the past few months he has been accused in a well-known literary weekly of mean-spirited "conformity" to the vulgar opportunism of his day and in the same publication defended as an individualist who bravely refused to conform. The gulf between Mr. Neider and Soviet critics is hardly greater than that which has yawned between respected American interpreters.
A second element of the Soviet view of Twain is the tacit assumption that, had he lived to see the glorious new day in Russia, he might have turned his bitterness into faith in the utopia of a People's Democracy. This, of course, is absurd. His bitterness was directed not at the American system as such but at human nature, at the world and even at what he saw as an essentially meaningless universe.
From his earliest maturity on, the one moral aspect of Twain's work is a hatred of cruelty, for of all, and next to cruelty, of any sort of hypocrisy. He was a man (not to common a kind, perhaps) whom any injustice he became vividly aware of put [him] into a rage which vented itself in such blistering pieces as the posthumously published "Letter From the Recording Angel," inspired by the cruel miserliness of his wife's uncle, or another violent squib in which he compares unfavorably Theodore Roosevelt, the killer of wild animals, with a certain Western murderer who thought it only common prudence to murder all the witnesses also.
Yet he grew up in what he called "The Gilded (not the Golden) Age" of American business and by his very success was somewhat drawn into it. One result was that new mixture of political with purely moral indignation of which the Soviet critics make so much.
Many of his most explicit and violent excoriations of American business, politics and policies occur in letters and autobiographical fragments written rather late in life. But as early as 1873, when he was just entering upon his most productive period, he published in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner the vehement satire "The Gilded Age" which has as its theme the unholy cooperation of predatory enterprise, national government and the church. In it, the mastermind draws up a budget: "A majority of the House committee, say $10,000 apiece *** for the Senate *** the same each" and "a little extra to one or two chairmen." Another entrepreneur, anxious to put through a corrupt appropriations bill, advises on publicity:
"Your religious paper is by far the best vehicle for a thing of this kind ***. If it's got a few Scripture quotation in it, and some temperance platitudes, and a bit of gush here and there about Sunday-schools *** it works the nation like a charm ***."
Sixteen years later "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" contained such remarks as "Better the Almighty Dollar than a tub of rancid guts labeled King," which is evidence enough that Twain was far from being a romantic conservative. During a financial panic he wrote to his brother: "What a man wants with religion in these breadless times surpasses my comprehension." He also referred to "Those two unspeakable shames, buttermouthed hypocrites, John Wanamaker & his Sunday School Times," and again: "Satan twaddling sentimental silliness to a Sunday-school could be no burlesque upon John D. Rockefeller in his Cleveland Sunday-School.
In 1869, when a Bishop delivered an invocation at the unveiling of a statue to Commodore Vanderbilt and praised him for laying up treasures in heaven at the same time he was laying them up on earth, Twain wrote an open letter addressed to Vanderbilt which contains such phrases as "how exquisitely man a man has to be in order to achieve what you have achieved," and "I don't remember ever reading anything about [you] which you oughtn't be ashamed of."
His attitude toward "imperialism" was plain: "We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours."
Of the proposal to take Hawaii, he wrote: "We must annex these people. We can afflict them with our wise and beneficent government. We can introduce the novelty of thieves, all the way up from street-car pickpockets to municipal robbers and Government defaulters and show them how amusing it is to arrest them and try them and then turn them loose - some for cash and some for 'political influence'. *** We can give them railway corporations who will buy their Legislatures like old clothes, and run over their best citizens. *** We can given them lecturers! I will go myself."
The view that Twain would have been sympathetic toward communism may even seem to be supported by is comment when refusing an invitation to congratulate those who negotiated the peace between Russia and Japan in 1905: "Russia was on the high road to emancipation from an insane and intolerable slavery; I was hoping there would be no peace until Russian liberty was safe" - and, "I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute."
These sentiments would legitimately be gratifying to Soviet critics were it not for one fact: they are their own best evidence that Twain would have considered the current Communist variety oppression as indefensible as the capitalistic variety of his time, or any other variety of any other time. For example, if the Soviet critics are right in maintaining that Twain disapproved of United States "imperialism" in taking the Philippines, that scarcely proves that he would have applauded the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia.
"The American dogma, rightly translated makes this assertion; that every man is of right born free, that is, without master or owner; and also that every man is of right born his neighbor's political equal - that is, possessed of every legal right and privilege which his neighbor may attain," said Mark Twain. A man so eloquent in upholding freedom could scarcely condone a system that put the ends of the state above individual liberty.
Even a Soviet critic has admitted that, for all Twain's faulty-finding, he remained in favor of democracy:
"During the almost half century of his literary activity, Twain traveled a great road of ideological development, the logical completion of which was the writer's active participation in the struggle against imperialism. ***Creating his books in the notable decade when the United States finished its transition from 'free' capitalism to monopolistic capitalism, Twain saw and condemned the moral degradation of the bosses of bourgeois society, the rottenness of the political morals in the country, the hypocrisy and deceit of the wealthy."
Then the critic honestly added: "Twain shared the bourgeois ideals and illusions of the average American. However, his later creations reflected the destruction of these ideals and illusions. Both his world outlook and his creation in the case of this democratic writer were full of deep contradictions. Even in those years when Twain reflected the strongest disillusion with bourgeois democracy he at times again turned to it with hope.
This complaint about "deep contradictions" springs from a third element in the Soviet view of Twain. It is an effort to make him "nothing but" a critic of society, and to reduce his social criticism to the deal level of Soviet-style propaganda.
Like the young Van Wyck Brooks, the Soviet critic is unwilling to see that Mark Twain was a humorist, however "serious" his humor was, and that humor, as distinguished from mere one-dimensional satire, is always an expression of seeing-both-sides and of a certain emotional ambiguity which is bound to appear a "contradiction" or "confusion" to the doctrinaire sure that he knows what "the facts" - and even "the truth" - are.
All of Mark Twain's most memorable side remarks as well as all his richest and most mature books are the product of this humorist's ambiguity. Many of his most quoted sayings take the form of a statement that begins in the tone of idealism and then provokes the shock of laughter by turning into what looks like cynicism:
"Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it." "Always do right. This will please some and astonish the rest." "When angry, count four; when very angry, swear." "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."
If Beaumarchais laughed in order that he should not be compelled to weep, Mark Twain laughed lest he should explode in contempt and anger. Such sayings as those just quoted do not demonstrate that he was a cynic any more than they demonstrate that he was an idealist. They demonstrate that he was a true humorist - which means that he had that awareness of the essential confusion of human nature which is one kind of wisdom.
One of the cruelties and injustices that hurt him most deeply was the cruelty and injustice to which the Negro race had been subjected. But he could be "funny" about that, too - as for instance in this fragment of dialogue in "Huckleberry Finn" concerning a river accident:
"We blowed out a cylinder-head."
"Good gracious! Anybody hurt?"
"No'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."
Those incapable of understanding humor will no doubt find this shocking. But artistically, at least, "Huckleberry Finn" is worth a thousand of the "Uncle Tom's Cabins" which a Soviet critic would admire because they were not at all "confused." And it is not certain that "Huckleberry Finn" is not also better propaganda.
Or consider something like the following - is it any the less telling because it makes us laugh? "It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
In his political and social attitudes there was a similar ambiguity. "The Innocents Abroad" is poised between a plain American's scorn of Europe and a nagging suspicion that there were things about European culture he did not understand. "Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds."
A great humorist inevitably has something in common with all other great humorists. But a great writer of any kind is also unique. And the most obvious of Mark Twain's uniquenesses is a vocabulary, a rhythm and a syntax that are unmistakably American, yet rise to a level of excellence far above that ordinarily achieved. These characteristics are recognizable even in a single phrase like Huck Finn's description of a funeral sermon - "all full of tears and flapdoodle."
But it perhaps Bernard DeVoto who best indicted this aspect of Mark Twain's uniqueness when he pointed out that like certain other American writers - notably Franklin and Thoreau - he was capable of expressions no European could conceivably have formulated.
If only an American would have chosen to say what Franklin had to say in "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately"; or what Thoreau had to say in "It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow unless he sweats easier than I do"; so, too, only an American (and one particular American) was capable of Mark Twain's phrase "The calm confidence of a Christian with four aces." All three are funny and all three have a certain air of flipness. But Twain's is the funniest and the flippest of all.
Competent American observers of contemporary Soviet life report that vast numbers of Russian school children read "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" simply as the delightful tales they have always seemed to English speaking children, and also that man adults probably continue to appreciate Mark Twain on the same level. If so, it is, as in the United States, not merely because he was a humorist, a social critic and an original stylist. It is most of all because he was capable of an imaginative poetic sweep, not primarily either satiric or humorous, which makes him - particularly in "Huckleberry Finn" and "Life on the Mississippi" - what has been called "a great fabulist."
"Huckleberry Finn," for example, creates a fable instead of following the easier method of autobiography, and the great river journey of Huck and Jim makes a kind of poem as unforgettable as the wanderings of Ulysses or the March of the Ten Thousand.
Even "Huckleberry Finn," though it is the most nearly achieved of Mark Twain's books, is by no means formally perfect as a novel. The plot line sometimes wavers; there are improbabilities in the action; some of the incidents seem to have been improvised as the author went along.
Decidedly Twain does not belong with the Faluberts and the Henry Jameses who fussed and labored to remove every slight flaw. He belongs instead with Balzac and Dickens, the great restless creators who never strove for one kind of perfection because perhaps they had something better to do. They had energy and originality and gusto. Our first impulse is to say of them what Dryden said of Shakespeare: "Here is God's plenty."
By comparison with that copiousness and energy and originality, "faults' cease to count. To say that some of the plotting of "Huckleberry Finn" is imperfect or that some of the episodes are unconvincing is as irrelevant as it would be to complain, as one critic did, that Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" was "improbable."
Of his own books Mark Twain once said that they could not be classics "because everybody likes them." Nothing he ever said is more characteristic. It reveals the typical funny man's contempt for the stuffy aspects of conventional culture.
There are many supposed classics that Mark Twain himself did not like and some them -for instance, the novels of Jane Austen - really are classics. But the point here is that the best of his own works, "Huckleberry Finn" especially, are classics of the very greatest kind just because everybody does read them and does like them; because to appreciate their greatness you do not have to have any special sort of preparation, you do not have to be able to see them in relation to anything else.
Their greatness is apparent to anyone capable of reading. They justify for once the use of that tired old phrase "universally human." Any man, just by virtue of the fact that he is a man, will know what they are about.
"Huckleberry Finn" begins with the hero's reference to the earlier "Tom Sawyer" in which Huck had first appeared. "That book was made by Mister Mark Twain and he told the truth, mainly," says Huck. "There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."
That last is Mark Twain's best epitaph. "There was things that he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." At least it would be more accurate than the "deep contradictions" of which the Soviet critic speaks.
JOSEPH WOOD KRUTCH is a former professor of English and dramatic literature at Columbia and the author of numerous books.
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