Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCII

Literary Work in Vienna

One must wonder, with all the social demands upon him, how Clemens could find time to write as much as he did during those Vienna days. He piled up a great heap of manuscript of every sort. He wrote Twichell:

There may be idle people in the world, but I am not one of them.

And to Howells:

I couldn’t get along without work now. I bury myself in it up to the ears. Long hours — 8 & 9 on a stretch sometimes. It isn’t all for print, by any means, for much of it fails to suit me; 50,000 words of it in the past year. It was because of the deadness which invaded me when Susy died.

He projected articles, stories, critiques, essays, novels, autobiography, even plays; he covered the whole literary round. Among these activities are some that represent Mark Twain’s choicest work. “Concerning the Jews,” which followed the publication of his “Stirring Times in Austria” (grew out of it, in fact), still remains the best presentation of the Jewish character and racial situation. Mark Twain was always an ardent admirer of the Jewish race, and its oppression naturally invited his sympathy. Once he wrote to Twichell:

The difference between the brain of the average Christian and that of the average Jew — certainly in Europe — is about the difference between a tadpole’s brain & an archbishop’s. It is a marvelous race; by long odds the most marvelous race the world has produced, I suppose.

Yet he did not fail to see its faults and to set them down in his summary of Hebrew character. It was a reply to a letter written to him by a lawyer, and he replied as a lawyer might, compactly, logically, categorically, conclusively. The result pleased him. To Mr. Rogers he wrote:

The Jew article is my “gem of the ocean.” I have taken a world of pleasure in writing it & doctoring it & fussing at it. Neither Jew nor Christian will approve of it, but people who are neither Jews nor Christian will, for they are in a condition to know the truth when they see it.

Clemens was not given to race distinctions. In his article he says:

I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being, that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.

We gather from something that follows that the one race which he bars is the French, and this, just then, mainly because of the Dreyfus agitations.

He also states in this article:

I have no special regard for Satan, but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way on account of his not having a fair show.

Clemens indeed always had a friendly feeling toward Satan (at least, as he conceived him), and just at this time addressed a number of letters to him concerning affairs in general — cordial, sympathetic, informing letters enough, though apparently not suited for publication. A good deal of the work done at this period did not find its way into print. An interview with Satan; a dream-story concerning a platonic sweetheart, and some further comment on Austrian politics, are among the condemned manuscripts.

Mark Twain’s interest in Satan would seem later to have extended to his relatives, for there are at least three bulky manuscripts in which he has attempted to set down some episodes in the life of one “Young Satan,” a nephew, who appears to have visited among the planets and promoted some astonishing adventures in Austria several centuries ago. The idea of a mysterious, young, and beautiful stranger who would visit the earth and perform mighty wonders, was always one which Mark Twain loved to play with, and a nephew of Satan’s seemed to him properly qualified to carry out his intention. His idea was that this celestial visitant was not wicked, but only indifferent to good and evil and suffering, having no personal knowledge of any of these things. Clemens tried the experiment in various ways, and portions of the manuscript are absorbingly interesting, lofty in conception, and rarely worked out — other portions being merely grotesque, in which the illusion of reality vanishes.

Among the published work of the Vienna period is an article about a morality play, the “Master of Palmyra,” 146 by Adolf Wilbrandt, an impressive play presenting Death, the all-powerful, as the principal part.

146 [About play-acting, Forum, October, 1898.]

The Cosmopolitan Magazine for August published “At the Appetite-Cure,” in which Mark Twain, in the guise of humor, set forth a very sound and sensible idea concerning dietetics, and in October the same magazine published his first article on “Christian Science and the Book of Mrs. Eddy.” As we have seen, Clemens had been always deeply interested in mental healing, and in closing this humorous skit he made due acknowledgments to the unseen forces which, properly employed, through the imagination work physical benefits:

“Within the last quarter of a century,” he says, “in America, several sects of curers have appeared under various names and have done notable things in the way of healing ailments without the use of medicines.”

Clemens was willing to admit that Mrs. Eddy and her book had benefited humanity, but he could not resist the fun-making which certain of her formulas and her phrasing invited. The delightful humor of the Cosmopolitan article awoke a general laugh, in which even devout Christian Scientists were inclined to join. 147 Nothing that he ever did exhibits more happily that peculiar literary gift upon which his fame rests.

147 [It was so popular that John Brisben Walker voluntarily added a check for two hundred dollars to the eight hundred dollars already paid.]

But there is another story of this period that will live when most of those others mentioned are but little remembered. It is the story of “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg.” This is a tale that in its own way takes its place with the half-dozen great English short stories of the world-with such stories as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Poe; “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” by Harte; “The Man Who Would be King,” by Kipling; and “The Man Without a Country,” by Hale. As a study of the human soul, its flimsy pretensions and its pitiful frailties, it outranks all the rest. In it Mark Twain’s pessimistic philosophy concerning the “human animal” found a free and moral vent. Whatever his contempt for a thing, he was always amused at it; and in this tale we can imagine him a gigantic Pantagruel dangling a ridiculous manikin, throwing himself back and roaring out his great bursting guffaws at its pitiful antics. The temptation and the downfall of a whole town was a colossal idea, a sardonic idea, and it is colossally and sardonically worked out.

Human weakness and rotten moral force were never stripped so bare or so mercilessly jeered at in the marketplace. For once Mark Twain could hug himself with glee in derision of self-righteousness, knowing that the world would laugh with him, and that none would be so bold as to gainsay his mockery. Probably no one but Mark Twain ever conceived the idea of demoralizing a whole community — of making its “nineteen leading citizens” ridiculous by leading them into a cheap, glittering temptation, and having them yield and openly perjure themselves at the very moment when their boasted incorruptibility was to amaze the world. And it is all wonderfully done. The mechanism of the story is perfect, the drama of it is complete. The exposure of the nineteen citizens in the very sanctity of the church itself, and by the man they have discredited, completing the carefully prepared revenge of the injured stranger, is supreme in its artistic triumph. “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” is one of the mightiest sermons against self-righteousness ever preached. Its philosophy, that every man is strong until his price is named; the futility of the prayer not to be led into temptation, when it is only by resisting temptation that men grow strong — these things blaze out in a way that makes us fairly blink with the truth of them.

It is Mark Twain’s greatest short story. It is fine that it should be that, as well as much more than that; for he was no longer essentially a story-teller. He had become more than ever a moralist and a sage. Having seen all of the world, and richly enjoyed and deeply suffered at its hands, he sat now as in a seat of judgment, regarding the passing show and recording his philosophies.

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