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by Barbara Schmidt


Booth Tarkington
Booth Tarkington (b. 1869 - d. 1946)

Booth Tarkington, American author and winner of two Pulitzer prizes, met Mark Twain in 1902. It was a time when Tarkington was riding his own tide of popularity as a writer and state politician and Mark Twain was well established as the voice of American literature. Twenty years later, in 1922 Tarkington contributed an "Appreciation" for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition of Mark Twain's works. The Wells edition was distinctive in that it contained contributions from the most famous writers of the decade reflecting on Mark Twain's influence in American literature.

While the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition contributions are known to scholars, a lesser known contribution by Tarkington is his introduction for the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published by the Limited Editions Club (New York) in 1933. Only 1,500 copies of the book were issued. In 1939 Cyril Clemens reprinted only a portion of Tarkington's essay as the introduction for his book My Cousin Mark Twain. Cyril Clemens dated the essay November 10, 1938. However, the earlier appearance of the essay in the 1933 edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn indicates that Tarkington granted approval for only the partial reprinting in 1938. Tarkington's full essay which follows indicates his disdain for critics who had psychoanalyzed Mark Twain's work under the microscope of the then new Freudian theory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Limited Editions Club (1933)

by Booth Tarkington

THERE has been prevalent among the more light-minded and childlike of journalistic critics a preposterous habit of referring to American nineteenth century writers as "Victorians"; subconscious Anglomania could not easily be sillier. Judging by the survival of fame, the most eminent Victorian writing artists now appear to have been Thackeray, Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, Trollope, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, George Meredith, Hardy, Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, Kingsley, Charles Reade, Samuel Butler, Blackmore, Swinburne, Lewis Carroll, Stevenson, Gissing, Du Maurier, Barrie and Kipling. By the same standard, the eminent American story-tellers and poets, contemporaries of the British Victorians, were Washington Irving, Poe, Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, Lowell, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bryant, Aldrich, Louisa Alcott, Bret Harte, Lew Wallace, Whitman, Joel Chandler Harris, James Whitcomb Riley, Howells, Henry James and Mark Twain. These at least seem to be still part of our household speech; though probably a few of them are that only because study of them lingers in the schools, and, it may be, there usurps time that could more happily be given to an absorption of a little of the charm of Stockton and George W. Cable and Thomas Nelson Page and Bunner and Mary Wilkins and others who brightened the youth of readers now elderly.

To call any of these Americans a "Victorian" would be (if I may use a technical phrasing) an expression of a superficial mind busied with sloppy thinking. Lord Tennyson might for special reasons have been loosely spoken of in the United States, at one time, as an "Arthurian" poet; but he would have been impatient under the appellation, I feel confident, if we had bestowed it upon him not because we liked Idylls of the King but because some of his most widely appreciated work had been composed and published during the contemporary administration in this country of President Chester A. Arthur. I venture the foregoing as a prelude to help in clarifying the fact that there were no American Victorians, and to hint at the horror and loathing felt by the intelligent for any writer or speaker who alludes to Mark Twain as a "Victorian author"; for this unbelievable thing is done, by the too readily verbose and the pretentious, more frequently than might be suspected.

Other nonsensicalities, too, have been babbled about him, in spite of Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine's superb biography. There came by the post, even as I wrote the paragraph preceding this one, the catalogue of an English dealer in books out of print, and, opening it absently, I found beneath my eye this advertisement of a book written, I should say, at about the time when the Freudian jargon became fashionable in the compositions of susceptible young essayists:

"It is well-known that Mark Twain, the most popular humorous writer of recent times both in Europe and America, was actually the victim of a terrible pessimism, which his friends have in vain endeavored to dismiss as a pose. In this book the author demonstrates the causes of the contradiction between Mark Twain's apparent and real attitudes to life, and relates it to the environment in which he had to live and work."

I recall that I was one of the few people (at least I hope for their own sakes that they were only a few) who read in this profoundly humorless work; and, by saying that I "read in" it, I mean I cannot imagine anybody's having read all of it. Rabbits run all over Mount Washington; it is no new thing for flies to make excursions at will upon the pyramid of Cheops, and one of the most engaging things about the new psychology is its philanthropically affording Simple Simon the means to deliver public and authoritative complete instruction upon the life, character, thoughts and emotions of the prophet Moses. However, the young gentleman (I think he must have been young) who be-Freuded the difference between Mark Twain's apparent and real "attitudes to life" is older now and probably regretful.

Usually the works of art that we preserve, after the passing of the generation that has produced them, owe their survival either to our continued appreciation of their artistic significance or to our belief in their historic value as sources of light upon the manners and morals of their own time. Huckleberry Finn is one of those works that we preserve for both of these reasons, and for other reasons, too, our laughter being one of them. But upon its first appearance this was a book immediately recognizable as bearing the "birthmark of immortality"; good readers perceived at once that it was an American "classic." Time has not shaken it, nor will shake it.

An exalted realist, criticizing Treasure Island, said that pirates were rare; he had never met anybody who had even seen one. I think I recall that Stevenson's reply was to the effect that he himself had been one in his boyhood and that all the boys he had ever known were pirates frequently. Tom Sawyer supports the great Scotsman's defense; but Mark Twain was so generous to the boys in Tom Sawyer that he let them do more than merely play at being pirates. He gave them the adventures that all boys, in their longing dreams, make believe they have. He made extravagant, dramatic things happen to them; they were pitted against murderers, won their lady-loves, and discovered hidden gold. He made them so real that their very reality is the stimulus of the adult reader's laughter; but he embedded this reality in the romance of a plot as true to the conventional rules of mid-nineteenth century romantic novel-writing as it was to the day-dreams of the boy Mark Twain himself had been.

Mark Twain, writing Tom Sawyer, transposed himself backward through time into the boy he was in Hannibal, felt and knew again all that the boy had felt, said again what the boy had said, and then, with a masterly craft, evoked the portrait of that boy on paper. Moreover, this portrait is none the less true for the unreal background of plot against which it is seen, and I think the reason for this truthfulness is that the fantasia of romantic events seemed real to Mark Twain as he wrote, and that he had no doubt of its reality since it was built out of stuff fashioned in the mind of the boy. That is to say, although Mark Twain spoke of Tom Sawyer as a composite, the portrait is mainly of Mark Twain as a boy; it is essentially autobiographical, though by no means literally the record of Mark Twain's own youthful adventures and circumstances.

But into the story there is early the advent of a personage who was warmly sympathetic to Mark Twain yet exterior to him and in no sense autobiographical. This first appearance of one who has been for more than half a century an inmate, so to speak, of every American household where there is any reading was accomplished with astonishing simplicity. There should have been meteors and portents; but HUCKLEBERRY FINN strolled into the consciousness of his fellow-countrymen modestly and wholly unaware of his own greatness. In spite of that, what ushered him in is a noble bit of writing.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad-and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance. Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing; the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up.

Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.

I do not believe that when Mark Twain wrote this passage he suspected that it was the preliminary sketch out of which would be evolved a masterpiece; I think he had the pleasure of finding in Huckleberry one of those people who walk into a story and entertain the author and beglamor him and seduce him into writing more and more about them. In Tom Sawyer he kept Huckleberry within bounds and subordinate to Tom; yet it is obvious that the author was more and more deeply fascinated by Huckleberry, and that the fascination increased and increased until it became irresistible and so made itself into an irresistible book, greater than its progenitor.

I think it was Stevenson who selected as the two great dramatic moments in all English fiction the dropping of the burden of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress and the discovery of Friday's footprint by Robinson Crusoe, and that this selection was supported by the opinion that mental images of these two moments were more universally implanted in the memories of readers than were any others. Stevenson may have been right about this, and yet it is probable that in the memories of American readers, at least, three other imaginary pictures would compete in universality: Eliza crossing the ice, Ben Hur winning the chariot race, and Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. But by the same test -- that of being present interestingly in the minds of readers of all kinds -- it seems to me that Huckleberry Finn is the great national figure of his period and that no other "character" of all the fiction of that period lives now so vividly, or with anything like such triumph of humor and warm reality, as he does now in this later and greatly changed generation.

Arnold Bennett said that he would give all of Thackeray and all of George Eliot for the one book by Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi. This was a little hard on the two great Victorians, and particularly hard on Thackeray; but nevertheless should be welcome as tribute from one of those British cousins of ours who are not often expansively appreciative except of nearer relatives. Kipling yearned to possess Mark Twain's pipe as a memento, and who wouldn't? In Vienna, on the street, people turned their heads and said, "Look! It is the Herr Mark Twain!" Anywhere in the world a truck-driver might call to him, "Hello, Mark Twain!" Victor Hugo said to Boyesen, one day at a cafe, when Boyesen had felicitated the great man upon his recovery from an illness, "Ah, it is time that I should cease to fill the world!" Yet it is doubtful that a truck-driver in Australia or the United States, or even in London, would have called out to a pedestrian upon the sidewalk, "Hello, Victor Hugo!"

No one in any sidewalk crowd will ever again see that unmistakable figure, that white-maned head, that handsome, almost startlingly American face, those deep-set bluest blue eyes, and pluck at a companion's sleeve and say, "Look! It is Mark Twain!" But still, as we go deeper into the twentieth century, and move toward the twenty-first and beyond, what multitudes shall see a sunshiny village dusty street of long ago and the brown flood of the greatest of all rivers and the figure of a ragged boy, familiar spirit of the village and of the river, and shall cry to him, "Hello, Huckleberry Finn! Hail, and live forever!"


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