The Mississippi book was completed at last and placed in Osgood’s hands for publication. Clemens was immensely fond of Osgood. Osgood would come down to Hartford and spend days discussing plans and playing billiards, which to Mark Twain’s mind was the proper way to conduct business. Besides, there was Webster, who by this time, or a very little later, had the word “publisher” printed in his letter-heads, and was truly that, so far as the new book was concerned. Osgood had become little more than its manufacturer, shipping-agent, and accountant. It should be added that he made the book well, though somewhat expensively. He was unaccustomed to getting out big subscription volumes. His taste ran to the artistic, expensive product.
“That book cost me fifty thousand dollars to make,” Clemens once declared. “Bliss could have built a whole library, for that sum. But Osgood was a lovely fellow.”
Life on the Mississippi was issued about the middle of May. It was a handsome book of its kind and a successful book, but not immediately a profitable one, because of the manner of its issue. It was experimental, and experiments are likely to be costly, even when successful in the final result.
Among other things, it pronounced the final doom of kaolatype. The artists who drew the pictures for it declined to draw them if they were to be reproduced by that process, or indeed unless some one of the lately discovered photographic processes was used. Furthermore, the latter were much cheaper, and it was to the advantage of Clemens himself to repudiate kaolatype, even for his own work.
Webster was ordered to wind up the last ends of the engraving business with as little sacrifice as possible, and attend entirely to more profitable affairs — viz., the distribution of books.
As literature, the Mississippi book will rank with Mark Twain’s best — so far, at least, as the first twenty chapters of it are concerned. Earlier in this history these have been sufficiently commented upon. They constitute a literary memorial seemingly as enduring as the river itself.
Concerning the remaining chapters of the book, they are also literature, but of a different class. The difference is about the same as that between ‘A Tramp Abroad’ and the ‘Innocents’. It is the difference between the labors of love and duty; between art and industry, literature and journalism.
But the last is hardly fair. It is journalism, but it is literary journalism, and there are unquestionably areas that are purely literary, and not journalistic at all. There would always be those in any book of travel he might write. The story of the river revisited is an interesting theme; and if the revisiting had been done, let us say eight or ten years earlier, before he had become a theoretical pessimist, and before the river itself had become a background for pessimism, the tale might have had more of the literary glamour and illusion, even if less that is otherwise valuable.
‘Life on the Mississippi’ has been always popular in Germany. The Emperor William of Germany once assured Mark Twain that it was his favorite American book, and on the same evening the portier of the author’s lodging in Berlin echoed the Emperor’s opinion.
Paul Lindau, a distinguished German author and critic, in an interview at the time the Mississippi book appeared, spoke of the general delight of his countrymen in its author. When he was asked, “But have not the Germans been offended by Mark Twain’s strictures on their customs and language in his Tramp Abroadf” he replied, “We know what we are and how we look, and the fanciful picture presented to our eyes gives us only food for laughter, not cause for resentment. The jokes he made on our long words, our inverted sentences, and the position of the verb have really led to a reform in style which will end in making our language as compact and crisp as the French or English. I regard Mark Twain as the foremost humorist of the age.”
Howells, traveling through Europe, found Lindau’s final sentiment echoed elsewhere, and he found something more: in Europe Mark Twain was already highly regarded as a serious writer. Thomas Hardy said to Howells one night at dinner:
“Why don’t people understand that Mark Twain is not merely a great humorist? He is a very remarkable fellow in a very different way.”
The Rev. Dr. Parker, returning from England just then, declared that, wherever he went among literary people, the talk was about Mark Twain; also that on two occasions, when he had ventured diffidently to say that he knew that author personally, he was at once so evidently regarded as lying for effect that he felt guilty, and looked it, and did not venture to say it any more; thus, in a manner, practising untruth to save his reputation for veracity.
That the Mississippi book throughout did much to solidify this foreign opinion of Mark Twain’s literary importance cannot be doubted, and it is one of his books that will live longest in the memory of men.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00