Mark Twain
Archibald Henderson

Part 3 out of 3

condemned by acquaintances or in the local papers. And as for the
preachers, they taught that God approved slavery, and cited Biblical
passages in support of that view. If the slaves themselves were averse
to it, at least they kept discreetly silent on the subject. He seldom
saw a slave misused--on the farm, never. But when he was brought face
to face with Sandy, the little slave forcibly separated from his family,
it made a deep impression upon his consciousness. It was this
deplorable evil of the system, this unnatural and inhuman forcible
separation of the members of the same family, the one from the other,
that convinced him of the injustice of slavery; though this vision, as
has been pointed out by Mr. Howells, did not come to him "till after his
liberation from neighbourhood in the vaster far West." Yet it found its
way into his books--into Huckleberry Finn, with its recital of Jim's
pathetic longing to buy back his wife and children; and in Pudd'nhead
Wilson with its moving picture of the poor slave's agony when she
suddenly realizes in the way the water is flowing around the snag that
she is being "sold down the river." In Uncle Tom's Cabin, as Professor
Phelps has pointed out, "the red--hot indignation of the author largely
nullified her evident desire to tell the truth. . . . Mrs. Stowe's
astonishing work is not really the history of slavery; it is the history
of abolition sentiment. . . . Mark Twain shows us the beautiful side
of slavery--for it had a wonderfully beautiful, patriarchal side--and he
also shows us the horror of it." Mark Twain has declared that the only
way to write a great novel is to learn the scenes and people with which
the story is concerned, through years of "unconscious absorption" of the
facts of the life to be portrayed. When his stories were written,
slavery was a thing of the past--he was competent to judge of the
situation impartially, through direct personal contact throughout his
boyhood with the realities of slavery. His object was not the object of
the reformer, warped with prejudice and fired by animosity. He saw
clearly; for his aim was not polemic, but artistic. Hence it is, I
believe, that Mark Twain stands out as, in essence and in fundamentals,
a remarkable sociologist. Certain passages in his books on the subject
of slavery, as the historian Lecky has declared, are the truest things
that have ever been expressed on the subject which vexed a continent and
plunged a nation in bloody, fratricidal strife.

Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi always call up to my mind
the most vivid pictures--pictures that are eternally unforgettable. The
memorable scene in which Colonel Sherburne quells the mob and his
scathing remarks upon lynching; the reality and the pathos of the feuds
of those Kentucky families, the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords,
shooting each other down at sight in vindication of honour and pride of
race; the lordly life of the pilot on the Mississippi, his violent and
unchallenged sway over his subordinates, his mastery of the river; the
variegated colours of that lawless, picturesque, semi-barbarous life of
the river--all these sweep by us in a series of panoramic pictures as
Huck's raft swings lazily down the tawny river, and Horace Bixby guides
his boat through the dangers of the channel. Mark Twain is primarily a
great artist, only unconsciously a true sociologist. But his power as a
sociologist is no less real that it is unconscious, indeed infinitely
more real and human and verisimilar that it is not polemical. There is
a "sort of contemporaneous posterity" which has registered its verdict
that Mark Twain was the greatest humorist of the present era. But there
is yet to come that greater posterity of the future which will, I dare
say, class Mark Twain as America's greatest, most human sociologist in
letters. He is the historian, the historian in art, of a varied and
unique phase of civilization on the American continent that has passed
forever. And it is inconceivable that any future investigator into the
sociological phases of that civilization can fail to find priceless and
unparalleled documents in the wild yet genial, rudimentary yet sane,
boisterous yet universally human writings of Mark Twain.

Mark Twain's genius of social comprehension and sociologic
interpretation went even deeper than this. His mastery lay not alone in
penetrative reflection of a bit of sectional life and a vanished phase
of our civilization, not alone in astute criticism of an "institution"
blotted from the American escutcheon and a collective racial passion
that periodically breaks forth from time to time in mad "carnivals of
crime." The defining quality of the true sociologist, that quality
which gives his profession its power and validity as an effective
instrumentality in the advancement of civilization, is the faculty of
penetrating national and racial disguises, and going directly to the
heart of the human problem. Mark Twain possessed this faculty in
supreme degree. As a literary critic he was banal and futile; but as
a social and racial critic he was remarkable and profound. His essay
'Concerning the Jews' is a masterpiece of impartial interpretation; his
comprehension of French and German racial traits, as revealed in his
works, is keen and pervasively pertinent; and his magnificent analysis
of the situation in South Africa, in the concluding chapters of
'Following the Equator', rings clear with the accents of truth and
mounts almost to the dignity of public prophecy. Deeper far, more
comprehensive, and voiced with splendid courage, are Mark Twain's
interpretations of American democracy and his mirroring of the national
ideals. His "defence" of General Funston is a scorching and devastating
blast, red with the fires of patriotism. Whatever be one's convictions,
one cannot but respect the profound sincerity of Mark Twain's
berserker-like rage over the attitude of Europe in China, the barbarities
of Russian autocracy, and the horrors of America's methods in the
Philippines, copied after Weyler's _reconcentrado_ policy in Cuba. His
study of Christian Science, despite its hyperbole, its gross
exaggerations and unfulfilled prophecies, is the expression of glorified
common-sense, a sociological study of religious fanaticism comprehensive
in psychological analysis of national and racial traits.

In his own works, Mark Twain brought to realization the dim and inchoate
fancies of Whitman; in his own person he realized that "divine average"
of common life which is the dream of American democracy. 'The Prince
and the Pauper' is a beautiful child's tale, vivid in narrative and rich
in human interest. It is something deeper far than this; for the very
crucial motive of the story, the successful substitution of the commoner
for the king, transforms it into a symbolic legend of democracy and the
equality of man. Mark Twain vehemently approved the French revolution,
and frankly expressed his regret over Napoleon's failure to invade
England and thus destroy the last vestiges of the semi-feudal
paraphernalia of the British monarchy. Despite its note of Yankee
blatancy, 'A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur' is a remarkable brief
for democracy and the brotherhood of man. So eminent a publicist as Mr.
William T. Stead pronounced it, at the time of its first appearance, one
of the most significant books of our time; and classed it (with Henry
George's 'Progress and Poverty' and Edward Bellamy's 'Looking Backward')
as the third great book from America to give tremendous impetus to the
social democratic movement of the age. Mark Twain abandoned all hope of
a future life; found more of sorrow than of joy in life's balances; and
even, in his latter years, lost faith in humanity itself. But amid the
wreck of faiths and creeds, he achieved the strange paradox of American
optimism: he never lost faith in democracy, and fought valiantly to the
end in behalf of equality and the welfare of the average man.

Several years ago, when we were crossing the Atlantic on the same ship,
Mr. Clemens told me that while he was living in Hartford in the early
eighties, I think, he wrote a paper to be read at the fortnightly club
to which he belonged. This club was composed chiefly of men whose
deepest interests were concerned with the theological and the
religiously orthodox. One of his friends, to whom he read this paper
in advance, solemnly warned him not to read it before the club. For he
felt confident that a philosophical essay, expressing candid doubt as to
the existence of free will, and declaring without hesitation that every
man was under the immitigable compulsion of his temperament, his
training, and his environment, would appear unspeakably shocking,
heretical and blasphemous to the orthodox members of that club. "I did
not read that paper," Mr. Clemens said to me, "but I put it away,
resolved to let it stand the corrosive test of time. Every now and
then, when it occurred to me, I used to take that paper out and read it,
to compare its views with my own later views. From time to time I added
something to it. But I never found, during that quarter of a century,
that my views had altered in the slightest degree. I had a few copies
published not long ago; but there is not the slightest evidence in the
book to indicate its authorship." A few days later he gave me a copy,
and when I read that book, I found these words, among others, in the
prefatory note:

"Every thought in them (these papers) has been thought (and accepted as
unassailable truth) by millions upon millions of men--and concealed,
kept private. Why did they not speak out? Because they dreaded (and
could not bear) the disapproval of the people around them. Why have I
not published? The same reason has restrained me, I think. I can find
no other."

'What is Man?' propounds at length, through the medium of a dialogue
between a Young Man and an Old Man, the doctrine that "Beliefs are
acquirements; temperaments are born. Beliefs are subject to change;
nothing whatever can change temperament." He enunciates the theory,
which seems to me both brilliant and original, that there can be no such
person as a permanent seeker after truth.

"When he found the truth he sought no farther; but from that day forth,
with his soldering iron in one hand and his bludgeon in the other, he
tinkered its leaks and reasoned with objectors." "All training," he
avers, "is one form or another of outside influences, and association is
the largest part of it. A man is never anything but what his outside
influences have made him. They train him downward or they train him
upward--but they train him; they are at work upon him all the time."
Once asked by Rudyard Kipling whether he was ever going to write another
story about Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain replied that he had a notion of
writing the sequel to Tom Sawyer in two parts, in one bringing him to
high honour, and in the other bringing him to the gallows. When Kipling
protested vigorously against any theory of the sort, because Tom Sawyer
was real, Mark Twain replied with the fatalistic doctrine of 'What is
Man?': "Oh, he is real. He's all the boy that I have known or
recollect; but that would be a good way of ending the book--because,
when you come to think of it, neither religion, training, nor education
avails anything against the force of circumstances that drive a man.
Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer's life, and
gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He
would, logically and according to the joggle, turn out a rip or an
angel." It was what he called Kismet.

It is one of the tragedies of his life, so sad in many ways, that in the
days when the blows of fate fell heaviest upon his head, he had lost all
faith in the Christian ideals, all belief in immortality or a personal
God. And yet he avowed that, no matter what form of religion or
theology, atheism or agnosticism, the individual or the nation embraced,
the human race remained "indestructibly content, happy, thankful,
proud." He never had a tinge of pessimism in his make-up, his beliefs
never tended to warp his nature, he accepted his fatalism gladly because
he saw in it supreme truth. His ultimate philosophy of life, which he
sums up in 'What is Man?', is healthy and right-minded. It is best
embodied in the lofty injunction: "Diligently train your ideals upward
and still upward towards a summit where you will find your chiefest
pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer
benefits upon your neighbour and the community." Lassalle once said:
"History forgives mistakes and failures, but not want of conviction."
In Mark Twain, posterity will never be called upon to forgive any want
of conviction.


Back to Full Books