CHAPTER VI. WESTERN LITERATURE
THE NEWNESS OF THE WEST.-It is difficult for the young of to-day to realize that Wisconsin and Iowa were not states when Hawthorne published his Twice Told Tales (1837), that Lowell's The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848) was finished ten years before Minnesota became a state, that Longfellow's Hiawatha (1855) appeared six years before the admission of Kansas, and Holmes's The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), nine years before the admission of Nebraska. In 1861 Mark Twain went to the West in a primitive stagecoach. Bret Harte had finished The Luck of Roaring Camp (1868) before San Francisco was reached by a transcontinental railroad.
Even after the early pioneers had done their work, the population of the leading states of the West underwent too rapid a change for quick assimilation. Between 1870 and 1880 the population of Minnesota increased 77 per cent; Kansas, 173 per cent; Nebraska, 267 per cent. This population was mostly agricultural, and it was busy subduing the soil and getting creature comforts.
Mark Twain says of the advance guard of the pioneers who went to the far West to conquer this new country:—
“It was the only population of the kind that the world has ever seen
gathered together, and it is not likely that the world will ever see its
like again. For, observe, it was an assemblage of two hundred thousand
young men—not simpering, dainty, kid-gloved weaklings, but stalwart,
muscular, dauntless young braves, brimful of push and energy, and royally
endowed with every attribute that goes to make up a peerless and
magnificent manhood—the very pick and choice of the world's glorious
ones.” [Footnote: Roughing It.]
In even as recent a period as the twenty years from 1880 to 1900, the population of Minnesota increased 124 per cent; Nebraska, 135 per cent; and Colorado, 177 per cent. This increase indicates something of the strenuous work necessary on the physical side to prepare comfortable permanent homes in the country, town, and city, and to plan and execute the other material adaptations necessary for progressive civilized life and trade. It is manifest that such a period of stress is not favorable to the development of literature. Although the population of California increased 60 per cent and that of the state of Washington 120 per cent between 1900 and 1910, the extreme stress, due to pioneer life and to rapid increase in population, has already abated in the vast majority of places throughout the West, which is rapidly becoming as stable as any other section of the country.
THE DEMOCRATIC SPIRIT.—In settling the West, everybody worked shoulder to shoulder. There were no privileged classes to be excepted from the common toils and privations. All met on common ground, shared each other's troubles, and assisted each other in difficult work. All were outspoken and championed their own opinions without restraint. At few times in the history of the civilized world has the home been a more independent unit. Never have pioneers been more self-reliant, more able to cope with difficulties, more determined to have their rights.
This democratic spirit is reflected in the works of western authors. It made Mark Twain the champion of the weak, the impartial upholder of justice to the Maid of Orleans, to a slave, or to a vivisected dog. It made him join the school of Cervantes and puncture the hypocrisy of pretension in classes or individuals. The Clemens family had believed in the aristocracy of slavery, but the great democratic spirit of the West molded Mark Twain as a growing boy. All the characters of worth in the great stories of his young life are democratic. The son of the drunkard, the slave mother, the crowds on the steamboats, the far western pioneers, belong to the great democracy of man.
Abraham Lincoln owes his fame in oratory to this democratic spirit, to the feeling that prompted him to say, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” Bret Harte's world-famous short stories picture the rough mining camps. Eugene Field is a poet of that age of universal democracy, the age of childhood. The poetry of James Whitcomb Riley is popular because it speaks directly to the common human heart.
Although the West has already begun a period of greater repose, she has been fortunate to retain an Elizabethan enthusiasm and interest in many-sided life. This quality, so apparent in much of the work discussed in this chapter, is full of virile promise for the future.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, 1809-1865
Migrating from his birthplace in Kentucky, first to Indiana and then to Illinois, where he helped to clear the unbroken forest, Abraham Lincoln was one of America's greatest pioneers. Shackled by poverty and lack of education, his indomitable will first broke his own fetters and then those of the slave. History claims him as her own, but some of the plain, sincere, strong English that fell from his lips while he was making history demands attention as literature. Passing by his great debates with Douglas (1858), not because they are unimportant, but because they belong more to the domain of politics and history, we come to his Gettysburg Address (1863), which is one of the three greatest American orations. In England, Oxford University displays on its walls this Address as a model to show students how much can be said simply and effectively in two hundred and sixty-nine words. Edward Everett, a graduate of Harvard, called the most eloquent man of his time, also spoke at Gettysburg, although few are to-day aware of this fact.
The question may well be asked, “How did Lincoln, who had less than one year's schooling, learn the secret of such speech?” The answer will be found in the fixity of purpose and the indomitable will of the pioneer. When he was a boy, he seemed to realize that in order to succeed, he must talk and write plainly. As a lad, he used to practice telling things in such a way that the most ignorant person could understand them. In his youth he had only little scraps of paper or shingles on which to write, and so perforce learned the art of brevity. Only a few books were accessible to him, and he read and reread them until they became a part of him. The volumes that he thus absorbed were the Bible, Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, The Pilgrim's Progress, Franklin's Autobiography, Weems's Life of Washington, and two or three textbooks. Without such good reading, which served to guide his practice in writing and speaking, he could never have been President. Later in life he read Shakespeare, especially Macbeth.
Parts of his Second Inaugural Address (1865) show even better than his Gettysburg Address the influence of the Bible on his thought and style. One reason why there is so much weak and ineffective prose written to-day is because books like the Bible and The Pilgrim's Progress are not read and reread as much as formerly. Of the North and the South, he says in his Second Inaugural:—
“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his
aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to
ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of
other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The
prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the
right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the
work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds....”
Absolute sincerity is the most striking quality in his masterpieces. Simplicity and brevity are next in evidence; to these are sometimes added the pathos and intensity of a Hebrew prophet.
BRET HARTE, 1839-1902
LIFE.—The father of Bret Harte was professor of Greek in the Albany, New York, Female College, where his son, named Francis Bret, was born in 1839. The boy never attended an institution of learning higher than a common school. Fatherless at the age of fifteen, he went with his mother to California in 1854. Here he tried teaching school, mining, going on stages as an express messenger, printing, government service, and editing. Of his experience in California, he writes:—
“Here I was thrown among the strangest social conditions that the
latter-day world has perhaps seen.... Amid rushing waters and wildwood
freedom, an army of strong men, in red shirts and top-boots, were
feverishly in search of the buried gold of earth.... It was a land of
perfect freedom, limited only by the instinct and the habit of law which
prevailed in the mass.... Strong passions brought quick climaxes, all the
better and worse forces of manhood being in unbridled play. To me it was
like a strange, ever-varying panorama, so novel that it was difficult to
Amid such surroundings he was educated for his life work, and his idealization of these experiences is what entitles him to a sure place in American literature.
After spending sixteen years in California, he returned in 1871 to the East, where he wrote and lectured; but these subsequent years are of comparatively small interest to the student of literature. In 1878 he went as consul to Crefeld in Germany. He was soon transferred from there to Glasgow, Scotland, the consulship of which he held until his removal by President Cleveland in 1885. These two sentences from William Black, the English novelist, may explain the presidential action: “Bret Harte was to have been back from Paris last night, but he is a wandering comet. The only place he is sure not to be found is at the Glasgow consulate.” Bret Harte was something of a lion in a congenial English literary set, and he never returned to America. He continued to write until his death at Camberly, Surrey, in 1902. The tourist may find his grave in Frimley churchyard, England.
WORKS.—Bret Harte was a voluminous writer. His authorized publishers have issued twenty-eight volumes of his prose and one volume of his collected poems. While his Plain Language from Truthful James , known as his “Heathen Chinee” poem, was very popular, his short stories in prose are his masterpieces. The best of these were written before 1871, when he left California for the East. Much of his later work was a repetition of what he had done as well or better in his youth.
The Overland Magazine, a San Francisco periodical, which Bret Harte was editing, published in 1868 his own short story, The Luck of Roaring Camp. This is our greatest short story of pioneer life. England recognized its greatness as quickly as did America. The first two sentences challenge our curiosity, and remind us of Poe's dictum concerning the writing of a story (p. 299):—
“There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for
in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire
We at once stand face to face with the characters of that mining camp. “The assemblage numbered about a hundred men. One or two of these were actual fugitives from justice, some were criminal, and all were reckless.” We shall remember “Kentuck” and Oakhurst and “Stumpy,” christening the baby:—
“'I proclaim you Thomas Luck, according to the laws of the United States
and the State of California, so help me God.' It was the first time that
the name of the Deity had been otherwise uttered than profanely in the
There are two sentences describing the situation of Roaring Camp:—
“The camp lay in a triangular valley between two hills and a river. The
only outlet was a steep trail over the summit of a hill that faced the
cabin, now illuminated by the rising moon.”
Poe would have approved of the introduction of this bit of description, for it heightens the pathetic effect and focuses attention upon the mother. Even that “steep trail” is so artistically introduced that she
”... might have seen it from the rude bunk whereon she lay,—seen it
winding like a silver thread until it was lost in the stars above....
Within an hour she had climbed, as it were, that rugged road that led to
the stars, and so passed out of Roaring Camp, its sin and shame,
Bret Harte in a few words relates how these miners reared the child, how they were unconsciously influenced by it, and how one day an expressman rushed into an adjacent village saying:—
“They've a street up there in 'Roaring,' that would lay over any street
in Red Dog. They've got vines and flowers round their houses, and they
wash themselves twice a day.”
He had, as we have seen, something of the remarkable technique of which Poe was a master. The influence of Dickens, especially his sentimentalism, is often apparent in Harte's work. Some have accused him of caricature or exaggeration, but these terms, when applied to his best work, signify little except the use of emphasis and selection, of which Homer and Shakespeare freely availed themselves. The author ofThe Luck of Roaring Camp, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and Tennessee's Partner seemed to know almost instinctively what he must emphasize or neglect in order to give his readers a vivid impression of the California argonauts. He mingles humor and pathos, realism and idealism, in a masterly way. No other author has had the necessary dramatic touch to endow those times with such a powerful romantic appeal to our imagination. No one else has rescued them from the oblivion which usually overtakes all transitory stages of human development.
Bret Harte's pages afford us the rare privilege of again communing with genuine primitive feeling, with eternal human qualities, not deflected or warped by convention. He gives us the literature of democracy. In self-forgetfulness, sympathy, love for his kind, Tennessee's partner in his unkempt dress is the peer of any wearer of the broadcloth.
Bret Harte's best work is as bracing, as tonic, as instinct with the spirit of vigorous youth, as the mountain air which has never before been breathed. Woodberry well says: “He created lasting pictures of human life, some of which have the eternal outline and pose of a Theocritean idyl. The supreme nature of his gift is shown by the fact that he had no rival and left no successor. His work is as unique as that of Poe or Hawthorne.” [Footnote: Woodberry: America in Literature.]
EUGENE FIELD, 1850-1895
THE POET LAUREATE OF CHILDREN.—Eugene Field was born in St. Louis in 1850. Of this western group of authors he was the only member who went to college. He completed the junior year at the University of Missouri, but did not graduate. At the age of twenty-three he began newspaper work there, and he continued this work in various places until his death in Chicago in 1895. For the last twelve years of his life he was connected with the Chicago Daily News.
He wrote many poems and prose tales, but the work by which he will probably live in literature is his poetry for children. For his title of poet-laureate of children, he has had few worthy competitors. His Little Boy Blue will be read as long as there are parents who have lost a child. “What a world of little people was left unrepresented in the realms of poetry until Eugene Field came!” exclaimed a noted teacher. Children listen almost breathlessly to the story of the duel between “the gingham dog and the calico cat,” and to the ballad of “The Rock-a-By Lady from Hushaby Street,” and the dreams which she brings:—
“There is one little dream of a big sugar plum,
And lo! thick and fast the other dreams come
Of popguns that bang, and tin tops that hum,
And a trumpet that bloweth!”
He loved children, and any one else who loves them, whether old or young, will enjoy reading his poems of childhood. Who, for instance, will admit that he does not like the story of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod?
“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
'Where are you going, and what do you wish?'
The old moon asked the three.
'We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!'
“The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe,
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew.”
Who does not wish to complete this story to find out what became of the children? Who does not like Krinken?
“Krinken was a little child,—
It was summer when he smiled.”
Field could write exquisitely beautiful verse. His tender heart had felt the pathos of life, and he knew how to set this pathos to music. He was naturally a humorist, and his humor often caused him to take a right angle turn in the midst of serious thoughts. Parents have for nearly a quarter of a century used the combination of humor and pathos in his poem, The Little Peach, to keep their children from eating green fruit:—
“A little peach in the orchard grew,—
A little peach of emerald hue;
Warmed by the sun and wet by the dew,
* * * * *
“John took a bite and Sue a chew,
And then the trouble began to brew,—
Trouble the doctor couldn't subdue.
“Under the turf where the daisies grew
They planted John and his sister Sue,
And their little souls to the angels flew,—
Time is not likely to rob Eugene Field of the fame of having written The Canterbury Tales of Childhood.
JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY, 1853-1916
The poet of our time who has most widely voiced the everyday feeling of democracy, of the man on the farm, in the workshop, and in his home circle, is James Whitcomb Riley. His popularity with this generation suggests the part which the ballad makers played in developing a love for verse before Shakespeare came.
He was born in the little country town of Greenfield, twenty miles east of Indianapolis. Like Bret Harte and Mark Twain, Riley had only a common school education. He became a sign painter, and traveled widely, first painting advertisements for patent medicines and then for the leading business firms in the various towns he visited. After this, he did work on newspapers and became a traveling lecturer, and reader of his own poems.
Much of his poetry charms us with its presentation of rural life. In The Old Swimmin'-Hole and 'Leven More Poems (1883), it is a delight to accompany him
“When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,”
“The summer winds is sniffin' round the bloomin' locus' trees,
And the clover in the pastur' is a big day fer the bees,”
or again, in Neighborly Poems (1891), as he listens to The First Bluebird singing with
“A breezy, treesy, beesy hum,
Too sweet fer anything!”
We welcome him as the champion of a new democratic flower. In his poem, The Clover, he says:—
“But what is the lily and all of the rest
Of the flowers, to a man with a hart in his brest
That was dipped brimmin' full of the honey and dew
Of the sweet clover-blossoms his babyhood knew?”
Like Eugene Field, Riley loved children. His Rhymes of Childhood (1890) contains such favorites as The Raggedy Man, Our Hired Girl, Little Orphant Annie, with its bewitching warning about the “Gobble-uns,” and the pathetic Little Mahala Ashcraft.
But no matter whether his verses take us to the farm, to the child, to the inner circle of the home, or to a neighborly gathering, their first characteristic is simplicity. Some of his best verse entered the homes of the common people more easily because it was written in the Hoosier dialect. He is a democratic poet, and the common people listen to him. In Afterwhiles (1887), he says:—
“The tanned face, garlanded with mirth,
It hath the kingliest smile on earth—
The swart brow, diamonded with sweat,
Hath never need of coronet.”
In like vein are his lines from Griggsby's Station:—
“Le's go a-visitin' back to Griggsby's Station—
Back where the latch string's a-hangin' from the door,
And ever' neighbor 'round the place is dear as a relation—
Back where we ust to be so happy and so pore!”
In lines like the following from Afterwhiles, there is a rare mingling of pathos and hope and kindly optimism:—
“I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead.—He is just away!
“With a cheery smile and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land,
“And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.”
The charitable optimism of his lines:—
“I would sing of love that lives
On the errors it forgives,”
has touched many human hearts.
Furthermore, he has unusual humor, which is as delightful and as pervasive as the odor of his clover fields. Humor drives home to us the application of the optimistic philosophy in these lines:—
“When a man's jest glad plum through,
God's pleased with him, same as you.”
“When God sorts out the weather and sends rain,
W'y, rain's my choice.”
In poems like Griggsby's Station he shows his power in making a subject pathetic and humorous at the same time.
Albert J. Beveridge says of Riley, “The aristocrat may make verses whose perfect art renders them immortal, like Horace, or state high truths in austere beauty, like Arnold. But only the brother of the common man can tell what the common heart longs for and feels, and only he lives in the understanding and affection of the millions.”
SAMUEL L. CLEMENS, 1835-1910
LIFE IN THE MISSISSIPPI VALLEY.—The author who is known in every village of the United States by the pen name of Mark Twain, which is the river phrase for two fathoms of water, was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. He says of his birthplace: “The village contained a hundred people, and I increased the population by one per cent. It is more than the best man in history ever did for any other town.” When he was two and a half years old, the family moved to Hannibal on the Mississippi, thirty miles away.
The most impressionable years of his boyhood were spent in Hannibal, which he calls “a loafing, down-at-the-heels, slave-holding Mississippi town.” He attended only a common school, a picture of which is given in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Even this schooling ceased at the age of twelve, when his father died. Like Benjamin Franklin and W. D. Howells, the boy then became a printer, and followed this trade in various places for nearly eight years, traveling east as far as the City of New York. He next became a “cub,” or under pilot, on the Mississippi River. After an eighteen months' apprenticeship, he was an excellent pilot, and he received two hundred and fifty dollars a month for his services. He says of these days: “Time drifted smoothly and prosperously on, and I supposed—and hoped—that I was going to follow the river the rest of my days, and die at the wheel when my mission was ended. But by and by the war came, commerce was suspended, my occupation was gone.” For an inimitable account of these days, the first twenty-one chapters of his Life on the Mississippi (1883) should be read.
”... in that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly
acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to
be found in fiction, biography, or history. The fact is daily borne in
upon me, that the average shore employment requires as much as forty
years to equip a man with this sort of education.... When I find a
well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm
personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him
before—met him on the river.” [Footnote: Life on the Mississippi,
No other work in American literature or history can take the place of this book and of his three great stories (pp. 359-361), which bring us face to face with life in the great Mississippi Valley in the middle of the nineteenth century.
LIFE IN THE FAR WEST.—In 1861 he went to Nevada as private secretary to his brother, who had been appointed secretary of that territory. Mark Twain intended to stay there but a short time. He says, “I little thought that I would not see the end of that three-month pleasure excursion for six or seven uncommonly long years.”
The account of his experiences in our far West is given in the volume called Roughing It (1871). This book should be read as a chapter in the early history of that section. The trip from St. Joseph to Nevada by stage, the outlaws, murders, sagebrush, jackass rabbits, coyotes, mining camps,—all the varied life of the time—is thrown distinctly on the screen in the pages of Roughing It. While in the West, he caught the mining fever, but he soon became a newspaper reporter and editor, and in this capacity he discovered the gold mine of his genius as a writer. The experience of these years was only second in importance to his remarkable life in the Mississippi Valley. No other American writer has received such a variety of training in the university of human nature.
LATER LIFE.—In 1867, he supplemented his purely American training with a trip to Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land. The story of his journey is given in The Innocents Abroad (1869), the work which first made him known in every part of the United States. A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897), are records of other foreign travels. While they are largely autobiographical, and show in an unusually entertaining way how he became one of the most cosmopolitan of our authors, these works are less important than those which throb with the heart beats of that American life of which he was a part in his younger days.
In 1884 he became a partner in the publishing house of Charles L. Webster and Co. This firm incurred risks against his advice, and failed. The failure not only swallowed up every cent that he had saved, but left him, past sixty, staggering under a load of debt that would have been a despair to most young men. Like Sir Walter Scott in a similar misfortune, Mark Twain made it a point of honor to assume the whole debt. He lectured, he wrote, he traveled, till finally, unlike Scott, he was able to pay off the last penny of the firm's indebtedness. His life thus set a standard of honor to Americans, which is to them a legacy the peer of any left by any author to his nation.
After his early pioneer days, his American homes were chiefly in New England. For many years he lived in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1908 he went to a new home at Redding, Connecticut. His last years were saddened by the death of his daughter and his wife. His death in 1910 made plain the fact that few American authors had won a more secure place in the affections of all classes.
It does not seem possible that the life of any other American author can ever closely resemble his. He had Elizabethan fullness of experience. Even Sir Walter Raleigh's life was no more varied; for Mark Twain was a printer, pilot, soldier, miner, newspaper reporter, editor, special correspondent, traveler around the world, lecturer, biographer, writer of romances, historian, publisher, and philosopher.
STORIES OF THE MISSISSIPPI VALLEY.—The works by which Mark Twain will probably be longest known are those dealing with the scenes of his youth. He is the historian of an epoch that will never return. His works that reveal the bygone life of the Mississippi Valley are not unlikely to increase in fame as the years pass. He resembles Hawthorne in presenting the early history of a section of our country. New England was old when Hawthorne was a boy, and he imaginatively reconstructed the life of its former days. When Mark Twain was young, the West was new; hence his task in literature was to preserve contemporary life. He has accomplished this mission better than any other writer of the middle West.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is a story of life in a Missouri town on the Mississippi River. Tom Sawyer, the hero, is “a combination,” says the author, “of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew.” Probably Mark Twain himself is the largest part of this combination. The book is the record of a wide-awake boy's impression of the life of that day. The wretched common school, the pranks of the boys, the Sunday school, the preacher and his sermon, the task of whitewashing the fence, the belief in witches and charms, the half-breed Indian, the drunkard, the murder scene, and the camp life of the boys on an island in the Mississippi,—are all described with a vividness and interest due to actual experience. The author distinctly says, “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine.”
Huckleberry Finn (1885) has been called the Odyssey of the Mississippi. This is a story of life on and along the great river, just before the middle of the nineteenth century. Huckleberry Finn, the son of a drunkard, and the friend of Tom Sawyer, is the hero of the book. The reader becomes deeply interested in the fortunes of Jim, a runaway slave, who accompanies Huck on a raft down the river, and who is almost hourly in danger of being caught and returned or again enslaved by some chance white man.
One of the strongest scenes in the story is where Huck debates with himself whether he shall write the owner where to capture Jim, or whether he shall aid the poor creature to secure his freedom. Since Huck was a child of the South, there was no doubt in his mind that punishment in the great hereafter awaited one who deprived another of his property, and Jim was worth eight hundred dollars. Huck did not wish to lose his soul, and so he wrote a letter to the owner. Before sending it, however, he, like Hamlet, argued the case with himself. Should he send the letter or forfeit human respect and his soul? The conclusion that Huck reached is thoroughly characteristic of Mark Twain's attitude toward the weak. The thirty-first chapter of Huckleberry Finn, in which this incident occurs, could not have been written by one who did not thoroughly appreciate the way in which the South regarded those who aided in the escape of a slave. Another unique episode of the story is the remarkable dramatic description of the deadly feud between the families of the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords.
This story is Mark Twain's masterpiece, and it is not improbable that it will continue to be read as long as the Mississippi flows toward the Gulf. Of Mark Twain's achievement in these two tales, Professor William Lyon Phelps of Yale says: “He has done something which many popular novelists have signally failed to accomplish—he has created real characters. His two wonderful boys, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, are wonderful in quite different ways. The creator of Tom exhibited remarkable observation; the creator of Huck showed the divine touch of imagination.... Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are prose epics of American life.”
Mark Twain says that he was reared to believe slavery a divine institution. This fact makes his third story of western life, Pudd'nhead Wilson. interesting for its pictures of the negro and slavery, from a different point of view from that taken by Mrs. Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—During his lifetime, Mark Twain's humor was the chief cause of his well-nigh universal popularity. The public had never before read a book exactly like his Innocents Abroad. Speaking of an Italian town, he says, “It is well the alleys are not wider, because they hold as much smell now as a person can stand, and, of course, if they were wider they would hold more, and then the people would die.” Incongruity, or the association of dissimilar ideas, is the most frequent cause of laughter to his readers. His famous cablegram from England that the report of his death was much exaggerated is of this order, as is also the following sentence from Roughing It: —
“Then he rode over and began to rebuke the stranger with a six-shooter,
and the stranger began to explain with another.”
Such sentences convey something more than a humorous impression. They surpass the usual historical records in revealing in an incisive way the social characteristics of those pioneer days. His humor is often only a means of more forcibly impressing on readers some phase of the philosophy of history. Even careless readers frequently recognize that this statement is true of much of the humor in A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, which is one of his most successful exhibitions of humor based on incongruity.
While his humor is sometimes mechanical, coarse, and forced, we must not forget that it also often reveals the thoughtful philosopher. To confirm this statement, one has only to glance at the humorous philosophy that constitutes Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar.
Mark Twain's future place in literature will probably be due less to humor than to his ability as a philosopher and a historian. Humor will undoubtedly act on his writings as a preservative salt, but salt is valuable only to preserve substantial things. If matter of vital worth is not present in any written work, mere humor will not keep it alive.
One of his most humorous scenes may be found in the chapter where Tom Sawyer succeeds in getting other boys to relieve him of the drudgery of whitewashing a fence. That episode was introduced to enable the author to make more impressive his philosophy of a certain phase of human action:—
“He had discovered a great law of human action without knowing
it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is
only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a
great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now
have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do,
and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
His statement about illusions shows that his philosophy does not always have a humorous setting:—
“The illusions are the only things that are valuable, and God help the
man who reaches the time when he meets only the realities.”
Hatred of hypocrisy is one of his emphatic characteristics. If Tom Sawyer enjoyed himself more in watching a dog play with a pinch-bug in church than in listening to a doctrinal sermon, if he had a better time playing hookey than in attending the execrably dull school, Mark Twain is eager to expose the hypocrisy of those who would misrepresent Tom's real attitude toward church and school. While Mark Twain is determined to present life faithfully as he sees it, he dislikes as much as any Puritan to see evil triumph. In his stories, wrongdoing usually digs its own grave.
His strong sense of justice led him to write Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), to defend the Maid of Orleans. Because he loved to protect the weak, he wrote A Dogs Tale (1904). For the same reason he paid all the expenses of a negro through an eastern college.
Although he was self-taught, he gradually came to use the English language with artistic effect and finish. His style is direct and energetic, and it shows his determination to say a thing as simply and as effectively as possible. One of the rules in Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar is, “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” He followed this rule. Some have complained that the great humorist's mind, like Emerson's, often worked in a disconnected fashion, but this trait has been exaggerated in the case of both. Mark Twain has certainly made a stronger impression than many authors whose “sixthly" follows more inevitably. It is true that his romances do not gather up every loose end, that they do not close with a grand climax which settles everything; but they reflect the spirit of the western life, which also had many loose ends and left much unsettled.
His mingled humor and philosophy, his vivid, interesting, contemporary history, which gives a broad and sympathetic delineation of important phases of western life and development, fill a place that American literature could ill afford to leave vacant.
Lincoln spoke to the common people in simple virile English, which serves as a model for the students of Oxford University. Bret Harte wrote stories filled with the humor and the pathos of the rough mining camps of the far West. Eugene Field's simple songs appeal to all children. The virtues of humble homes, the smiles and tears of everyday life, are presented in James Whitcomb Riley's poems. Mark Twain, philosopher, reformer of the type of Cervantes, and romantic historian, has, largely by means of his humor, made a vivid impression on millions of Americans. Every member of this group had an unusual development of humor. Each one was imbued with the democratic spirit and eager to present the elemental facts of life. For these reasons, the audiences of this group have been numbered by millions.
Roosevelt's The Winning of the West.
Turner's Rise of the New West.
Hart's National Ideals Historically Traced.
Johnston's High School History of the United States (612 pp.).
Clemens's Life on the Mississippi.
Clemens's Roughing It.
Schurz's Abraham Lincoln. (Excellent.)
Morse's Abraham Lincoln.
Chubb's Selections from the Addresses, Inaugurals, and Letters of Abraham Lincoln, edited with an Introduction and Notes. (Macmillan's Pocket Classics.)
Boynton's Bret Harte.
Pemberton's The Life of Bret Harte.
Erskinels Leading American Novelists, pp. 325-379. (Harte.)
Canby's The Short Story in English, Chap. XIV. (Harte.)
Field's The Eugene Field Book, edited by Burt and Cable. (Contains autobiographical matter and Field's best juvenile poems and stories.)
Thompson's Eugene Field, 2 vols.
Field's The Writings in Prose and Verse of Eugene Field, Sabine Edition, 12 vols.
Garland's A Dialogue between James Whitcomb Riley and Hamlin Garland, in Me duress Magazine, February, 1894.
In Honor of James Whitcomb Riley, with a Brief Sketch of his Life , by Hughes, Beveridge, and Others, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1906.
Matthews's Biographical Criticism of Mark Twain, in the Introduction to The Innocents Abroad.
Phelps's Essays on Modern Novelists. (Mark Twain; excellent.)
Henderson's Mark Twain, in Harpers Magazine, May, 1909.
Howells's My Mark Twain.
Lincoln.—The Gettysburg Address, part of the Second Inaugural Address.
Harte.—Tennessee's Partner, and How Santa Claus came to Simpson's Bar. Harte's two greatest stories, The Luck of Roaring Camp and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, should be read in mature years. These stories may all be found in the single volume, entitled The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Stories. (Riverside Aldine Press Series.)
Field.—Little Boy Blue, The Duel, Krinken, Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, The Rock-a-By Lady. These poems may all be found in Burt and Cable's The Eugene Field Book.
Riley.—When the Frost is on the Punkin, The Clover, The First Bluebird, Ike Walton's Prayer, A Life Lesson, Away, Griggsby's Station, Little Mahala Ashcraft, Our Hired Girl, Little Orphant Annie. These poems may be found in the three volumes, entitled Neighborly Poems , Afterwhiles, and Rhymes of Childhood.
Mark Twain.—Life on the Mississippi, Chaps. VIII., IX., XIII. Roughing It, Chap. II. If the first two chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are read, the time will probably be found to finish the books. For specimens of his humor at its best, read Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar, printed at the beginning of the twenty-one chapters of Pudd'nhead Wilson. His humor depending on incongruity is well shown in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court. The Prince and the Pauper is a fascinating story of sixteenth-century England.
QUESTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
Why does Oxford University display on its walls The Gettysburg Address of Lincoln? What books helped mold his style?
What period of our development do Bret Harte's stories illustrate? What are some special characteristics of his short stories? Does he belong to the school of Poe or Hawthorne? Which one of our great short story writers has the most humor,—Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, or Harte? Which one of them do you enjoy the most?
Why is Eugene Field called the poet-laureate of children? Which of his poems indicated for reading do you prefer? What are the most striking qualities of his verse?
Point out the chief characteristics of Riley's verse. What lines please you most for their humor, references to rural life, optimism, kindly spirit, and pathos? Why is he so widely popular?
Which of Mark Twain's works are most valuable to the student of American literature and history? In what sense is he a historian? What phases of western development does he describe? Give instances (a ) of his humor which depends on incongruity, (b) of his philosophical humor, (c) of his hatred of hypocrisy, and (d ) of his solicitude for the weak. Why is he said to belong to the school of Cervantes? What specially impresses you about Mark Twain's style?