Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLXXII

The “Yankee” In England

The London publishers of the Yankee were keenly anxious to revise the text for their English readers. Clemens wrote that he had already revised the Yankee twice, that Stedman had critically read it, and that Mrs. Clemens had made him strike out many passages and soften others. He added that he had read chapters of it in public several times where Englishmen were present and had profited by their suggestions. Then he said:

Now, mind you, I have taken all this pains because I wanted to say a Yankee mechanic’s say against monarchy and its several natural props, and yet make a book which you would be willing to print exactly as it comes to you, without altering a word.

We are spoken of (by Englishmen) as a thin-skinned people. It is you who are thin-skinned. An Englishman may write with the most brutal frankness about any man or institution among us and we republish him without dreaming of altering a line or a word. But England cannot stand that kind of a book written about herself. It is England that is thin-skinned. It causeth me to smile when I read the modifications of my language which have been made in my English editions to fit them for the sensitive English palate.

Now, as I say, I have taken laborious pains to so trim this book of offense that you’ll not lack the nerve to print it just as it stands. I am going to get the proofs to you just as early as I can. I want you to read it carefully. If you can publish it without altering a single word, go ahead. Otherwise, please hand it to J. R. Osgood in time for him to have it published at my expense.

This is important, for the reason that the book was not written for America; it was written for England. So many Englishmen have done their sincerest best to teach us something for our betterment that it seems to me high time that some of us should substantially recognize the good intent by trying to pry up the English nation to a little higher level of manhood in turn.

So the Yankee was published in England just as he had written it, 124 and the criticisms were as plentiful as they were frank. It was referred to as a “lamentable failure” and as an “audacious sacrilege” and in terms still less polite. Not all of the English critics were violent. The Daily Telegraph gave it something more than a column of careful review, which did not fail to point out the book’s sins with a good deal of justice and dignity; but the majority of English papers joined in a sort of objurgatory chorus which, for a time at least, spared neither the author nor his work. Strictures on the Yankee extended to his earlier books. After all, Mark Twain’s work was not for the cultivated class.

124 [The preface was shortened and modified for both the American and English editions. The reader will find it as originally written under Appendix S.]

These things must have begun to gravel Clemens a good deal at last, for he wrote to Andrew Lang at considerable length, setting forth his case in general terms — that is to say, his position as an author — inviting Lang to stand as his advocate before the English public. In part he said:

The critic assumes every time that if a book doesn’t meet the cultivated-class standard it isn’t valuable . . . The critic has actually imposed upon the world the superstition that a painting by Raphael is more valuable to the civilizations of the earth than is a chromo; and the august opera more than the hurdy-gurdy and the villagers’ singing society; and the Latin classics than Kipling’s far-reaching bugle-note; and Jonathan Edwards than the Salvation Army . . . . If a critic should start a religion it would not have any object but to convert angels, and they wouldn’t need it. It is not that little minority who are already saved that are best worth lifting up, I should think, but the mighty mass of the uncultivated who are underneath! That mass will never see the old masters — that sight is for the few; but the chromo-maker can lift them all one step upward toward appreciation of art; they cannot have the opera, but the hurdy-gurdy and the singing-class lift them a little way toward that far height; they will never know Homer, but the passing rhymester of their day leaves them higher than he found them; they may never even hear of the Latin classics, but they will strike step with Kipling’s drum-beat and they will march; for all Jonathan Edwards’s help they would die in their slums, but the Salvation Army will beguile some of them to a purer air and a cleaner life .

. . . I have never tried, in even one single little instance, to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game — the masses. I have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but I have done my best to entertain them, for they can get instruction elsewhere . . . . My audience is dumb; it has no voice in print, and so I cannot know whether I have won its approval or only got its censure.

He closed by asking that Lang urge the critics to adopt a rule recognizing the masses, and to formulate a standard whereby work done for them might be judged. “No voice can reach further than yours in a case of this kind,” he said, “or carry greater weight of authority.” There was no humor in this letter, and the writer of it was clearly in earnest.

Lang’s response was an article published in the Illustrated London News on the art of Mark Twain. He began by gently ridiculing hyperculture — the new culture — and ended with a eulogy on Huck Finn. It seems worth while, however, to let Andrew Lang speak for himself.

I have been educated till I nearly dropped; I have lived with the earliest apostles of culture, in the days when Chippendale was first a name to conjure with, and Japanese art came in like a raging lion, and Ronsard was the favorite poet, and Mr. William Morris was a poet, too, and blue and green were the only wear, and the name of Paradise was Camelot. To be sure, I cannot say that I took all this quite seriously, but “we, too, have played” at it, and know all about it. Generally speaking, I have kept up with culture. I can talk (if desired) about Sainte-Beuve, and Merimee, and Felicien Rops; I could rhyme “Ballades” when they were “in,” and knew what a “pantoom” was . . . . And yet I have not culture. My works are but tinkling brass because I have not culture. For culture has got into new regions where I cannot enter, and, what is perhaps worse, I find myself delighting in a great many things which are under the ban of culture.

He confesses that this is a dreadful position; one that makes a man feel like one of those Liberal politicians who are always “sitting on the fence,” and who follow their party, if follow it they do, with the reluctant acquiescence of the prophet’s donkey. He further confesses that he has tried Hartmann and prefers Plato, that he is shaky about Blake, though stalwart concerning Rudyard Kipling.

This is not the worst of it. Culture has hardly a new idol but I long to hurl things at it. Culture can scarcely burn anything, but I am impelled to sacrifice to that same. I am coming to suspect that the majority of culture’s modern disciples are a mere crowd of very slimly educated people who have no natural taste or impulses; who do not really know the best things in literature; who have a feverish desire to admire the newest thing, to follow the latest artistic fashion; who prate about “style,” without the faintest acquaintance with the ancient examples of style in Greek, French, or English; who talk about the classics and — criticize the classical critics and poets, without being able to read a line of them in the original. Nothing of the natural man is left in these people; their intellectual equipment is made up of ignorant vanity and eager desire for novelty, and a yearning to be in the fashion. Take, for example — and we have been a long time in coming to him — Mark Twain. [Here follow some observations concerning the Yankee, which Lang confesses that he has not read, and has abstained from reading because ——]. Here Mark Twain is not, and cannot be, at the proper point of view. He has not the knowledge which would enable him to be a sound critic of the ideals of the Middle Ages. An Arthurian Knight in New York or in Washington would find as much to blame, and justly, as a Yankee at Camelot.

Of Mark Twain’s work in general he speaks with another conclusion:

Mark Twain is a benefactor beyond most modern writers, and the cultured who do not laugh are merely to be pitied. But his art is not only that of the maker of the scarce article — mirth. I have no hesitation in saying that Mark Twain is one among the greatest contemporary makers of fiction . . . . I can never forget or be ungrateful for the exquisite pleasure with which I read Huckleberry Finn for the first time years ago. I read it again last night, deserting Kenilworth for Huck. I never laid it down till I had finished it. I perused several passages more than once, and rose from it with a higher opinion of its merits than ever.

What is it that we want in a novel? We want a vivid and original picture of life; we want character naturally displayed in action; and if we get the excitement of adventure into the bargain, and that adventure possible and plausible, I so far differ from the newest school of criticism as to think that we have additional cause for gratitude. If, moreover, there is an unstrained sense of humor in the narrator we have a masterpiece, and Huckleberry Finn is, nothing less.

He reviews Huck sympathetically in detail, and closes:

There are defects of taste, or passages that to us seem deficient in taste, but the book remains a nearly flawless gem of romance and of humor. The world appreciates it, no doubt, but “cultured critics” are probably unaware of its singular value. The great American novel has escaped the eyes of those who watch to see this new planet swim into their ken. And will Mark Twain never write such another? One is enough for him to live by, and for our gratitude, but not enough for our desire.

In the brief column and a half which it occupies, this comment of Andrew Lang’s constitutes as thoughtful and fair an estimate of Mark Twain’s work as was ever written.

W. T. Stead, of the Review of Reviews, was about the only prominent English editor to approve of the Yankee and to exploit its merits. Stead brought down obloquy upon himself by so doing, and his separation from his business partner would seem to have been at least remotely connected with this heresy.

The Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was dramatized in America by Howard Taylor, one of the Enterprise compositors, whom Clemens had known in the old Comstock days. Taylor had become a playwright of considerable success, with a number of well-known actors and actresses starring in his plays. The Yankee, however, did not find a manager, or at least it seems not to have reached the point of production.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00