Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXXXI

Some Further Literary Matters

Meantime The Innocents Abroad had continued to prosper. Its author ranked mainly as a humorist, but of such colossal proportions that his contemporaries had seemed to dwindle; the mighty note of the “Frog of Calaveras” had dwarfed a score of smaller peepers. At the end of a year from its date of publication the book had sold up to 67,000 and was continuing at the rate of several thousand monthly.

“You are running it in staving, tiptop, first-class style,” Clemens wrote to Bliss. “On the average ten people a day come and hunt me up to tell me I am a benefactor! I guess that is a part of the program we didn’t expect, in the first place.”

Apparently the book appealed to readers of every grade. One hundred and fifteen copies were in constant circulation at the Mercantile Library, in New York, while in the most remote cabins of America it was read and quoted. Jack Van Nostrand, making a long horseback tour of Colorado, wrote:

I stopped a week ago in a ranch but a hundred miles from nowhere. The occupant had just two books: the Bible and The Innocents Abroad — the former in good repair.

Across the ocean the book had found no less favor, and was being translated into many and strange tongues. By what seems now some veritable magic its author’s fame had become literally universal. The consul at Hongkong, discussing English literature with a Chinese acquaintance, a mandarin, mentioned The Pilgrim’s Progress.

“Yes, indeed, I have read it!” the mandarin said, eagerly. “We are enjoying it in China, and shall have it soon in our own language. It is by Mark Twain.”

In England the book had an amazing vogue from the beginning, and English readers were endeavoring to outdo the Americans in appreciation. Indeed, as a rule, English readers of culture, critical readers, rose to an understanding of Mark Twain’s literary value with greater promptness than did the same class of readers at home. There were exceptions, of course. There were English critics who did not take Mark Twain seriously, there were American critics who did. Among the latter was a certain William Ward, an editor of a paper down in Macon, Georgia — The Beacon. Ward did not hold a place with the great magazine arbiters of literary rank. He was only an obscure country editor, but he wrote like a prophet. His article — too long to quote in full — concerned American humorists in general, from Washington Irving, through John Phoenix, Philander Doesticks, Sut Lovingwood, Artemus Ward, Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby, down to Mark Twain. With the exception of the first and last named he says of them:

They have all had, or will have, their day. Some of them are resting beneath the sod, and others still live whose work will scarcely survive them. Since Irving no humorist in prose has held the foundation of a permanent fame except it be Mark Twain, and this, as in the case of Irving, is because he is a pure writer. Aside from any subtle mirth that lurks through his composition, the grace and finish of his more didactic and descriptive sentences indicate more than mediocrity.

The writer then refers to Mark Twain’s description of the Sphinx, comparing it with Bulwer’s, which he thinks may have influenced it. He was mistaken in this, for Clemens had not read Bulwer — never could read him at any length.

Of the English opinions, that of The Saturday Review was perhaps most doubtful. It came along late in 1870, and would hardly be worth recalling if it were not for a resulting, or collateral, interest. Clemens saw notice of this review before he saw the review itself. A paragraph in the Boston Advertiser spoke of The Saturday Review as treating the absurdities of the Innocents from a serious standpoint. The paragraph closed:

We can imagine the delight of the humorist in reading this tribute to his power; and indeed it is so amusing in itself that he can hardly do better than reproduce the article in full in his next monthly “Memoranda.”

The old temptation to hoax his readers prompted Mark Twain to “reproduce” in the Galaxy, not the Review article, which he had not yet seen, but an imaginary Review article, an article in which the imaginary reviewer would be utterly devoid of any sense of humor and treat the most absurd incidents of The New Pilgrim’s Progress as if set down by the author in solemn and serious earnest. The pretended review began:

Lord Macaulay died too soon. We never felt this so deeply as when we finished the last chapter of the above-named extravagant work. Macaulay died too soon; for none but he could mete out complete and comprehensive justice to the insolence, the impudence, the presumption, the mendacity, and, above all, the majestic ignorance of this author.

The review goes on to cite cases of the author’s gross deception. It says:

Let the cultivated English student of human nature picture to himself this Mark Twain as a person capable of doing the following described things; and not only doing them, but, with incredible innocence, printing them tranquilly and calmly in a book. For instance:

He states that he entered a hair-dresser’s in Paris to get a shave, and the first “rake” the barber gave him with his razor it loosened his “hide,” and lifted him out of the chair.

This is unquestionably extravagant. In Florence he was so annoyed by beggars that he pretends to have seized and eaten one in a frantic spirit of revenge. There is, of course, no truth in this. He gives at full length the theatrical program, seventeen or eighteen hundred years old, which he professes to have found in the ruins of the Colosseum, among the dirt-and mold and rubbish. It is a sufficient comment upon this subject to remark that even a cast-iron program would not have lasted so long under the circumstances.

There were two and one-half pages of this really delightful burlesque which the author had written with huge-enjoyment, partly as a joke on the Review, partly to trick American editors, who he believed would accept it as a fresh and startling proof of the traditional English lack of humor.

But, as in the early sage-brush hoaxes, he rather overdid the thing. Readers and editors readily enough accepted it as genuine, so far as having come from The Saturday Review; but most of them, regarded it as a delicious bit of humor which Mark Twain himself had taken seriously, and was therefore the one sold. This was certainly startling, and by no means gratifying. In the next issue he undertook that saddest of all performances with tongue or pen: he explained his joke, and insisted on the truth of the explanation. Then he said:

If any man doubts my word now I will kill him. No, I will not kill him; I will win his money. I will bet him twenty to one, and let any New York publisher hold the stakes, that the statements I have above made as to the authorship of the article in question are entirely true.

But the Cincinnati Enquirer persisted in continuing the joke — in “rubbing it in,” as we say now. The Enquirer declared that Mark Twain had been intensely mortified at having been so badly taken in; that his explanation in the Galaxy was “ingenious, but unfortunately not true.” The Enquirer maintained that The Saturday Review of October 8, 1870, did contain the article exactly as printed in the “Memoranda,” and advised Mark Twain to admit that he was sold, and say no more about it.

This was enraging. Mark Twain had his own ideas as to how far a joke might be carried without violence, and this was a good way beyond the limits. He denounced the Enquirer’s statement as a “pitiful, deliberate falsehood,” in his anger falling into the old-time phrasing of newspaper editorial abuse. He offered to bet them a thousand dollars in cash that they could not prove their assertions, and asked pointedly, in conclusion: “Will they swallow that falsehood ignominiously, or will they send an agent to the Galaxy office? I think the Cincinnati Enquirer must be edited by children.” He promised that if they did not accept his financial proposition he would expose them in the next issue.

The incident closed there. He was prevented, by illness in his household, from contributing to the next issue, and the second issue following was his final “Memoranda” installment. So the matter perished and was forgotten. It was his last editorial hoax. Perhaps he concluded that hoaxes in any form were dangerous playthings; they were too likely to go off at the wrong end.

It was with the April number (1871) that he concluded his relations with the Galaxy. In a brief valedictory he gave his reasons:

I have now written for the Galaxy a year. For the last eight months, with hardly an interval, I have had for my fellows and comrades, night and day, doctors and watchers of the sick! During these eight months death has taken two members of my home circle and malignantly threatened two others. All this I have experienced, yet all the time have been under contract to furnish “humorous” matter, once a month, for this magazine. I am speaking the exact truth in the above details. Please to put yourself in my place and contemplate the grisly grotesqueness of the situation. I think that some of the “humor” I have written during this period could have been injected into a funeral sermon without disturbing the solemnity of the occasion.

The “Memoranda” will cease permanently with this issue of the magazine. To be a pirate on a low salary, and with no share in the profits of the business, used to be my idea of an uncomfortable occupation, but I have other views now. To be a monthly humorist in a cheerless time is drearier.

Without doubt he felt a glad relief in being rid of this recurrent, imperative demand. He wrote to Orion that he had told the Galaxy people he would not write another article, long or short, for less than $500, and preferred not to do it at all.

The Galaxy department and the work on the Express were Mark Twain’s farewell to journalism; for the “Memoranda” was essentially journalistic, almost as much so, and as liberally, as his old-time Enterprise position. Apparently he wrote with absolute freedom, unhampered by editorial policy or restriction. The result was not always pleasant, and it was not always refined. We may be certain that it was because of Mrs. Clemens’s heavy burdens that year, and her consequent inability to exert a beneficent censorship, that more than one — more than a dozen — of the “Memoranda” contributions were permitted to see the light of print.

As a whole, the literary result of Mark Twain’s Buffalo period does not reach the high standard of The Innocents Abroad. It was a retrogression — in some measure a return to his earlier form. It had been done under pressure, under heavy stress of mind, as he said. Also there was another reason; neither the subject treated nor the environment of labor had afforded that lofty inspiration which glorified every step of the Quaker City journey. Buffalo was a progressive city — a beautiful city, as American cities go — but it was hardly an inspiring city for literature, and a dull, dingy newspaper office was far, very far, from the pleasant decks of the Quaker City, the camp-fires of Syria, the blue sky and sea of the Medit&ranean.

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