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Mark Twain


Was Mark Twain a schizophrenic? Van Wyck Brooks established his own critical reputation with a book proving that he was. T.S. Eliot, who has provided two generations of professors with their slim stock of ideas, said he was. It has often been remarked that he was a laveur, at least as far as clothes were concerned. Dressing only in white suits laundered every day, he must have been awful guilty of something awful. From the point of view of a small office in a provincial English Department, with rows of Henry James and Soren Kierkegaard on the shelves and hapless coeds slipping exercises in Creative Writing under the door — from this elevated point of view, Mark Twain certainly looks very queer.

I think this is all balderdash. Too few critics of his own kind have written about Mark Twain. What he suffers from in the midst of this twentieth and American century is a lack of peers. He needs somebody like Walter Bagehot or even H.L. Mencken or James Gibbons Huneker. He was a man of the world. He was a man of the nineteenth-century American world where Presidents chewed tobacco and billionaires couldn’t spell and vast audiences flocked to hear Bob Ingersoll (whom Twain in this book calls “the silver-tongued infidel”) and the labor movement was dominated by another silver-tongued cornball named Terence Powderly, who could do nothing but orate, and “Thanatopsis” was considered the most philosophical utterance in the English language, and a small gang of merciless and ignorant brigands put through America’s Five-Year Plans, and finally “overtook and surpassed” Europe. He was a man of that world that Henry James fled in uncomprehending horror. We have only to look abroad to understand exactly the kind of world it was. It was a world of driving expansion and brutal hard work that brooked no interference or dissent. A world of “primitive accumulation.”

It was the official culture which was schizophrenic, not Mark Twain. The whole meaning of Mark Twain is that he “saw life steadily and saw it whole.” T.S. Eliot thought his billiard-room jokes childish. They are pretty bad, but are they as bad a joke as Eliot’s essay on Crashaw? Mark Twain’s low humor was a technique of adjustment to the broadest possible areas of society. It made him a public figure, it gave him the confidence of Presidents of the United States and of the principal corporations of the United States. And it gave him entrance to the American Home, back in the days before Mom had emasculated that institution. All sorts of people, practically everybody, thought he was very, very funny. T.S. Eliot’s essay on Crashaw is a snickering little joke on a very small clique of people who were viable themselves only within a scarcely less minute clique — the few High Church members of the now long dead Bloomsbury circle. Furthermore, it owes its character as humor entirely to its incongruous treatment of the standard undergraduate course in Jacobean and Caroline literature — in other words it is College Humor in spats and bowler. In his autobiography Mark Twain tells the story of his absurd brother Orion, who used to cool his brain by kneeling in the full bathtub and immersing his head for two minutes at a time. Once the chambermaid opened the unlocked door and ran screaming “Mr. Orion is drownded!” and his wife said “How did you know it was Mr. Orion?” Who is childish, Mr. Eliot or Mark Twain?

Like Jack London, Mark Twain says he went into writing because it was the easiest work he could find, so easy that at the end of his life he could say he hadn’t worked a lick in fifty years — it had all been play. This is the remark of a man thoroughly at home in literature. Anything less like Henry James’s ridiculous prefaces would be hard to imagine. Writers like Mallarmé and James and Flaubert, who are always squawking about how artistic they are and how much it hurts, really accept the judgment of bourgeois society that they are loafers. They are ashamed of being writers and endlessly try to justify themselves. The amateur psychoanalysts of Mark Twain are the guilty ones, straddling their double standards. They can’t understand this man who was hail fellow well met with cowboys and duchesses, who told the Kaiser that his cook baked potatoes just like a pocket miner he’d known during the Gold Rush. Since they are terrified even at a cocktail party given by another Literary Personage and have no social presence whatsoever and go into rages when their very freshmen can’t see the relevance of the Summa Theologica to Deerslayer, they think Mark Twain must be a fraud and crazy to boot.

Mark Twain was just a very wise nineteenth-century man. He knew his way around socially in the age of the Robber Barons. He knew how to keep his head above water in the Period of Primitive Accumulation. Corny humor, broad anecdotes, after-dinner oratory, primitive vaudeville roles — the Missouri hayseed abroad, a Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court — these may be protective coloration, but they are not selling out. If it weren’t Mark Twain but somebody several centuries previous — or Charlie Chaplin — the highbrows would call it the adaptation of folk forms to serious literature. Because those guffawing, tobacco-spitting travel books that made Mark Twain’s reputation in the first place and that gave Van Wyck Brooks fainting spells are fundamentally right. Always Mark Twain points out the human meaning of St. Peter’s or the pyramids or the Pantheon. What was the social price paid for the Sistine Chapel when it was painted? What is the social price being paid today? It is true that he sweetened the pills, but the word for this is “mastering the terms of the folk culture.” Who objects to it in Charlie Chaplin or Li’l Abner, or, for that matter, Count Basie? That he had to do this is shown by Charles Neider’s preface to this very book. At the most, Mark Twain was a mild agnostic, usually he seems to have been an amused Deist. Yet, at this late date his own daughter has refused to allow his comments on religion to be published.

What is there to say about this book? It is a more coherent collection of Mark Twain’s random reminiscences than the Paine or De Voto volumes, but it omits some of the political and social criticism that De Voto printed and that is certainly important to an understanding of Mark Twain. It is, of course, a book of Mark Twain in his bedroom slippers. Everybody who has read much of Mark Twain is familiar with this aspect of him because he went around that way most of the time. He was never ashamed to be seen in the maximum state of personal dishevelment. Only people who find it impossible to deal with other human beings unless they have on their social masks find this embarrassing. It is very corny, very male, very smoking car and billiard room. But it is all very normal too. Mark Twain remembered his childhood, and loved his wife and daughters and mourned their deaths just as your own relatives back home in Elkhart, Indiana, did those things in 1906. He didn’t do any of those things the way the folks do that you meet drinking Pernods in the Deux Magots. Those people in the Deux Magots find him very square — “straight” is the term in the milieu. They think he didn’t really mean it, that something was going on behind the scenes. He meant it. This is not Mark Twain’s public mask. It is him. He didn’t have a public mask. Like all adults, his contradictions and contraries were simply part of him, like his right and left hand.

If Baudelaire was the greatest poet of the capitalist epoch — and he was a mild schizophrenic, a sexual freak and a syphilitic — Mark Twain wrote its saga, its prose Iliad and Odyssey. And he wrote it because he knew how to survive to write it. He survived because he was an eminently normal man. No wonder it is the favorite prose fiction of the Russians. It is the archetypal epic of precisely the historical period they are now in themselves. Unfortunately, so far, nobody has known how to survive to write that epic in Russian.

This review of The Autobiography of Mark Twain (ed. Charles Neider; Harper, 1959) was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1961. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Rexroth essay on Huckleberry Finn]

[Rexroth essay on American humor]

[Other Rexroth Essays]




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