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The Ordeal of Mark Twain

211 pages
Library of Alexandria
To those who are interested in American life and letters there has been no question of greater significance, during the last few years, than the pessimism of Mark Twain. During the last few years, I say, for his own friends and contemporaries were rather inclined to make light of his oft-expressed belief that man is the meanest of the animals and life a tragic mistake. For some time before his death Mark Twain had appeared before the public in the rôle less of a laughing philosopher than of a somewhat gloomy prophet of modern civilization. But he was old and he had suffered many misfortunes and the progress of society is not a matter for any one to be very jubilant about: to be gloomy about the world is a sort of prerogative of those who have lived long and thought much. The public that had grown old with him could hardly, therefore, accept at its face value a point of view that seemed to be contradicted by so many of the facts of Mark Twain's life and character. Mr. Howells, who knew him intimately for forty years, spoke only with an affectionate derision of his "pose" regarding "the damned human race," and we know the opinion of his loyal biographer, Mr. Paine, that he was "not a pessimist in his heart, but only by premeditation." These views were apparently borne out by his own testimony. "My temperament," he wrote, shortly after the death of his daughter Jean, "has never allowed my spirits to remain depressed long at a time." That he remained active and buoyant to the end was, in fact, for his associates, sufficient evidence that his philosophical despair was only an anomaly, which had no organic part in the structure of his life. Was it not natural that they should feel thus about him, those contemporaries of his, so few of whom had seen his later writings and all the tell-tale private memoranda which Mr. Paine has lately given to the world? What a charmed life was Mark Twain's, after all! To be able to hold an immense nation in the hollow of one's hand, to be able to pour out into millions of sympathetic ears, with calm confidence, as into the ears of a faithful friend, all the private griefs and intimate humors of a lifetime, to be called "the King" by those one loves, to be so much more than a king in reality that every attack of gout one has is "good for a column" in the newspapers and every phrase one utters girdles the world in twenty minutes, to be addressed as "the Messiah of a genuine gladness and joy to the millions of three continents"—what more could Tom Sawyer, at least, have wished than that? And Mark Twain's fame was not merely one of sentiment. If the public heart was moved by everything that concerned him,—an illness in his household, a new campaign against political corruption, a change of residence, and he was deluged with letters extolling him, whatever he did or said, if he won the world's pity when he got into debt and the world's praise when he got out of it, he was no sort of nine days' wonder; his country had made him its "general spokesman," he was quite within his rights in appointing himself, as he said, "ambassador-at-large of the United States of America." Since the day, half a century back, when all official Washington, from the Cabinet down, had laughed over "The Innocents Abroad" and offered him his choice of a dozen public offices to the day when the newspapers were freely proposing that he ought to have the thanks of the nation and even suggested his name for the Presidency, when, in his person, the Speaker of the House, for the first time in American history, gave up his private chamber to a lobbyist, and private cars were placed at his disposal whenever he took a journey, and his baggage went round the world with consular dispensations, and his opinion was asked on every subject by everybody, he had been, indeed, a sort of incarnation of the character and quality of modern America.