Mark Twain

WE ARE always told that there is something specially sinister
in the death of a great jester. I am not so sure about the point myself, seeing that so many thousand human beings, diplomatists, financiers, kings, bankers, and founders of philosophies, are engaged in functions far more ultimately fruitless and frivolous than really making the smallest schoolboy laugh. If the death of a clown makes pantomimes for a moment tragic, it is also true that the death of a statesman makes statesmanship for a moment highly comic; the irony cuts both ways. But in the case of Mark Twain there is a particular cause which at once emphasises and complicates this contrast between the comic and the serious. The point I mean is this: that while Mark Twain's literary merits were very much of the uproarious and topsy-turvy kind, his personal merits were very much of the stoical or even puritanical kind. While irresponsibility was the energy in his writings, an almost excessive responsibility was the energy in his character. The artistic European might feel that he was, perhaps, too comic when he was comic; but such a European would also feel that he was too serious when he was serious.

The wit of Mark Twain was avowedly and utterly of the extravagant order. It had that quality of mad logic carried further and further into the void, a quality in which many strange civilizations are at one. It is a system of extremes, and all extremes meet in it; thus houses piled one on top of the other is the ideal of a flat in New York and of a pagoda in Pekin. Mark Twain was a master of this mad lucidity. He was a wit rather than a humorist; but I do not mean by this (as so many modern people will certainly fancy) that he was something less than a humorist. Possibly, I think, he was something more than a humorist. Humour, a subtle relish for the small incongruities of society, is a thing that exists in many somewhat low society types, in many snobs and in some sneaks. Like the sense of music, it is exquisite and ethereal; but, like the sense of music, it can exist (somehow or other) in utter blackguards or even in utter blockheads; just as one often meets a fool who can really play the fiddle, so one often meets a fool who can really play the fool. But wit is a more manly exercise than fiddling or fooling; wit requires an intellectual athleticism, because it is akin to logic. A wit must have something of the same running, working, and staying power as a mathematician or a metaphysician. Moreover, wit is a fighting thing and a working thing. A man may enjoy humour all by himself; he may see a joke when no one else sees it; he may see the point and avoid it. But wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it. All honest people saw the point of Mark Twain's wit. Not a few dishonest people felt it.

But though it was wit it was wild wit, as wild as the pagoda in China or the other pagodas in New York. It was progressive, and the joke went forward by arithmetical progression. In all those excruciating tales of his, which in our youth made us ill with laughing, the idea always consisted in carrying some small fact or notion to more and more frantic lengths of deduction. If a man's hat was as high as a house Mark Twain would think of some way of calling it twenty times higher than a house. If his hat was smashed as flat as a pancake, Mark Twain would invent some startling and happy metaphor to prove that it was smashed twenty times flatter than a pancake. His splendid explosive little stories, such as that which describes how he edited an agricultural paper, or that which explains how he tried to decipher a letter from Horace Greeley, have one tremendous essential of great art. I mean that the excitement mounts up perpetually; the stories grow more and more comic, as a tragedy should grow more and more tragic. The rack, tragic or comic, stretches a man until something breaks inside him. In tragedy it is his heart, or, perhaps, his stiff neck. In farce I do not quite know what it is ─ perhaps his funny-bone is dislocated; perhaps his skull is slightly cracked.

Anyhow, the humour or wit of Mark Twain was of this ascending and exaggerative order. As such it was truly mountainous, and almost apocalyptic. No writer of modern English, perhaps, has had such a genius for making the cow jump over the moon; that is, for lifting the heaviest and most solemn absurdity high up into the most starry adventures. He was never at a loss for a simile or a parable, and they were never, strictly speaking, nonsense. They were rather a kind of incredible sense. They were not suddenly inconsequent, like Lewis Carroll; rather they were unbearably consequent, and seemed capable of producing new consequences for ever. Even that fantastic irreverence and fantastic ignorance which sometimes marked his dealings with elements he insufficiently understood, were never abrupt departures, but only elaborate deductions from his idea. It was quite logical that when told that a saint's heart had burst his ribs he should ask what the saint had had for dinner. It was quite logical that his delightful musician, when asked to play music appropriate to the Prodigal Son, should play, "We all get blind drunk when Johnny comes marching home." These are things of real wit, like that of Voltaire; though they are not uttered with the old French restraint, but with a new American extravagance. Voltaire is to them as the Rhone is to Niagara; not inferior in quality, but merely in quantity, for Niagara is not only one of the violences, but almost one of the vulgarities of Nature. The laughter of Mark Twain was like Niagara.

Such was Mark Twain; such was not Samuel Clemens. His lonely figure stands up in strange solitude and severity against the confusion and extravagance of the background of his works. The virtues which we have all now to regret in their return to God were specially virtues rather of the restrained than of the riotous or sympathetic order. We know, indeed, that he rose from the ranks, in the sense that he was poor and pugnacious in a rich and pugnacious society; that he came of Southern folk, served with the heroic Southern armies, but that the greater part of his life was such a scramble of incalculable successes and unavoidable failures as Stevenson has well described in the one convincing picture of a good American, Jim Pinkerton, in The Wrecker. The words Stevenson used of Pinkerton might quite truly be used of Clemens. "He was stuffed full of manly virtues. Thrift and courage glowed in him." When his hair was white and his soul heavy with years an accident led him into liabilities which the law would have discharged by the ordinary arrangements of bankruptcy. The old man refused to accept the ordinary arrangements which the law allowed him. He set to work strenuously, writing and lecturing as if he were at the beginning of his life rather than at the end of it. He repaid his unrecognised and unlegal debt, and a little later he died. Thus the primary paradox is emphasised almost in the article of death; the man whom ten million people had adored as a tom-fool was too serious even for the expectation of his own creditors.

The credit of such glowing thrift and courage (to quote an admirable phrase again) must be ascribed to something or somebody; I will no longer disguise the dreadful fact that I ascribe it exactly where Mark Twain would have ascribed it. I ascribe it to the Republican virtue of America. Of course, if Mark Twain had said that in so many words, everybody in England would have thought he was making one of his best jokes; whereas, in truth, he would have been indulging in one of his worst pieces of seriousness. Somebody in an advanced Socialist paper that I saw the other day said that Mark Twain was a cynic. I suppose there never was a person so far removed from cynicism as Mark Twain. A cynic must at least mean a man who is flippant about serious things; about things that he thinks serious. Mark Twain was always serious to the verge of madness. He was not serious about St. Francis; he did not think St. Francis serious. He honestly supposed the marvels of St. Francis to be some ecclesiastical trick of Popes and Cardinals. He did not happen to know that the Franciscan movement was something much more certainly popular than the revolution that rent America from England. He derided King Arthur's Court as something barbaric. He did not happen to know that the only reason why that dim and highly dubious Court has made a half-entry into history is that it stood, if it ever stood at all, for the remnant of high civilization against the base advance of barbarism. He did not happen to know that, in his time, St. Francis stood for the ballot-box. He did not happen to know that, in his time, King Arthur stood for the telephone. He could never quite get rid of the American idea that good sense and good government had begun quite a little while ago; and that the heavier a monumental stone was to lift the more lightly it might be thrown away. But all these limitations of his only re-emphasise the ultimate fact: he never laughed at a thing unless he thought it laughable. He was an American; that is, an unfathomably solemn man. Now all this is due to a definite thing, an historical thing, called Republican virtue. It was worth while to issue the Declaration of Independence if only that Mark Twain might declare his independence also.

In this the great humorist not only represents his country, but a big mistake about his country. The apparent clamour and complexity of America is very superficial; America is not really advanced or aggressively civilized. New York, Philadelphia, Chicago are jokes; just such tall jokes as Mark Twain would have made. American commerce is all one tall story; American commerce is a vast American lie. But the American lie is a very serious, separate, and authoritative institution, which could only exist among a singularly truthful people. Behind these extravagances, whether in words or wealth, whether in books or bricks, there remains a grave simplicity which is truly American. The genuine value of the Yankee is not his forwardness. Rather it is his backwardness that is the real beauty of the Yankee. There is in the depths of him the rural stillness of an intellectual backwater: he is a great rustic. The log-hut, and not the sky-scraper, is the American home. Therefore, despite the revolting vices of wealth and all the vulgarities of unhistorical individualism, there does remain in the Americans a certain average of virile virtues, equality, hard work, patriotism, and a plain ideality. Corrupt fatigue is uncommon; unclean despair is almost unknown. You could not have made Mark Twain even understand either of these things. He was radiant with a rectitude none the less noble for being slightly naive; he carried everywhere those powerful platitudes that are like clubs of stone. With these he hammered Calvinism in his youth and Christian Science in his old age. But he was not an "advanced" thinker, not a mind in revolt; rather he was a conservative and rustic grandfather older than all such follies. But this strength in him and his country truly came from a great spirit which England resisted and has forgotten; the spirit which, when all is said, made it no nonsense to compare Washington to Cincinnatus; the austere love of liberty and of the ploughshare and the sword.

~G.K. Chesterton: collected in A Handful of Authors



"PHILOSOPHY is merely thought that has been thought out. It is often a great bore. But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. The latter is what we commonly call culture and enlightenment today."

~G.K. Chesterton: The Revival of Philosophy—Why?

See the complete essay here.