Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays

Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays

Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays

Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays

Excerpt

by Henry Nash Smith

Twentieth century criticism of Mark Twain has followed the general course of American criticism. It has been influenced by the impressionism of the years before the First World War, the search for a usable past during the 1920's, the cult of realism and of social significance during the 1930's, the emphasis on technique that became fashionable in the later 1930's and 1940's, and the interest in symbolism, often involving psychological speculation, that has rather paradoxically flourished along with formalism in recent years. But Mark Twain poses special problems. He was a humorist, and criticism is notoriously helpless in the presence of writing that is really funny. Furthermore, he was and is immensely popular, whereas in our day it is usually taken for granted that writers of any consequence are alienated from society.

Since humor is so difficult to analyze, Mark Twain's strongest attraction for most of his readers has been very little discussed in print. On the other hand, the fact of his astonishing hold on a vast unliterary public has been a central concern for critics almost from the beginning of his career. The extent of his popularity during his own lifetime can best be conveyed by an anecdote. In 1878 a ne'er-do-well named Jesse M. Leathers got on a train in Cincinnati bound for Washington, D.C. As he wrote Clemens in a begging letter some years later, he had no money to pay his fare, and when the conductor discovered this fact he was "furious." But Leathers was not without resources. In lieu of a ticket he produced a brief note addressed to him by Clemens (whom he had not met and never would meet). The conductor looked at the signature and the monogram on the notepaper, smiled, and said, "That will do. I like Twain." Leathers continued:

He took me to Chillicothe, the end of his route, where I stopped over night. Here I made the acquaintance of a gifted Irishman who, when he saw your letter, put up the drinks for the house, and invited me to dine with him. He proved to be a boss workman on the Baltimore & Ohio R. R. and learning my embarrassed condition by degrees offered to settle my Hotel bill and presented me a pass over the Road which carried me to Parkersburg, Va.

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