Turn West, Turn East: Mark Twain and Henry James

Turn West, Turn East: Mark Twain and Henry James

Turn West, Turn East: Mark Twain and Henry James

Turn West, Turn East: Mark Twain and Henry James

Excerpt

Plutarch, that eminent Greek who, as Emerson said without meaning disrespect, prattled history, wrote his famous Parallel Lives of noble Greeks and Romans at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century A.D. He was the inheritor of the great Greek culture, a citizen of a Roman Empire which in his own day reached the peak of wealth and power and was consciously responsible for world leadership between the Atlantic and the deserts of central Asia. He was only one of many who asked the Roman equivalent of the current question, "What does it mean to be an American?" but, being happily ignorant of the economic interpretation of history, he was able to concentrate on an explanation which suited his genius as well as his education, and became, as Perrin, his translator, says, the greatest of ethical portrait painters. His consummate art was to make "deeds and words, whether authentic or not, portray a preconceived character -- a more or less idealized character." In short, he was essentially what we call a historical novelist; and to make his style "denser," as Henry James would say, he constructed his greatest work in parallel lives of Greeks and Romans, born some centuries apart, but in the same stream of Mediterranean history, the same moral climate, and facing situations of great resemblance. His interest, like a first-rate novelist's today, was essentially in men and women in action and the results of such action. He wrote to please and instruct, and indeed his book has been one of the most successful of all time, and a notable influence upon later creative literature as well as upon history.

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