He had in him an iconoclastic, even revolutionary vein which he obviously wanted to follow up and yet somehow never did follow up.
ALTHOUGH MARK TWAIN produced a surprising variety of books, ranging from a namby-pamby “life” of Joan of Arc to a pamphlet so obscene that it has never been publicly printed, all that is best in his work centres about the Mississippi river and the wild mining towns of the West. Born in 1835 (be came of a Southern family, a family just rich enough to own one or perhaps two slaves), he had had his youth and early manhood in the golden age of America, the period when the great plains were opened up, when wealth and opportunity seemed limitless, and human beings felt free, indeed were free, as they had never been before and may not be again for centuries. Life on the Mississippi and the two other books that I have mentioned [Roughing It, The Innocents at Home] are a ragbag of anecdotes, scenic descriptions and social history both serious and burlesque, but they have a central theme which could perhaps be put into these words: “This is how human beings behave when they are not frightened of the sack.” In writing these books Mark Twain is not consciously writing a hymn to liberty. Primarily he is interested in “character”, in the fantastic, almost lunatic variations which human nature is capable of when economic pressure and tradition are both removed from it. The raftsmen, Mississippi pilots, miners and bandits whom he describes are probably not much exaggerated, but they are as different from modern men, and from one another, as the gargoyles of a medieval cathedral. They could develop their strange and sometimes sinister individuality because of the lack of any outside pressure. The State hardly existed, the churches were weak and spoke with many voices, and land was to be had for the taking. If you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west; and moreover, money was so plentiful that the smallest coin in circulation was worth a shilling. The American pioneers were not supermen, and they were not especially courageous. Whole towns of hardy gold miners let themselves be terrorised by bandits whom they lacked the public spirit to put down. They were not even free from class distinctions. The desperado who stalked through the streets of the mining settlement, with a Derringer pistol in his waistcoat pocket and twenty corpses to his credit, was dressed in a frock coat and shiny top-hat, described himself firmly as a “gentleman” and was meticulous about table manners. But at least it was not the case that a man’s destiny was settled from his birth. The “log cabin to White House” myth was true while the free land lasted. In a way, it was for this that the Paris mob had stormed the Bastille, and when one reads Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Whitman it is hard to feel that their effort was wasted.
However, Mark Twain aimed at being something more than a chronicler of the Mississippi and the Cold Rush. In his own day he was famous all over the world as a humorist and comic lecturer. In New York, London, Berlin, Vienna, Melbourne and Calcutta vast audiences rocked with laughter over jokes which have now, almost without exception, ceased to be funny. (It is worth noticing that Mark Twain’s lectures were only a success with Anglo-Saxon and German audiences. The relatively grown-up Latin races—whose own humour, he complained, always centred round sex and politics—never cared for them.) But in addition, Mark Twain had some pretensions’to being a social critic, even a species of philosopher. He had in him an iconoclastic, even revolutionary vein which he obviously wanted to follow up and yet somehow never did follow up. He might have been a destroyer of humbugs and a prophet of democracy more valuable than Whitman, because healthier and more humorous. Instead he became that dubious thing a “public figure”, flattered by passport officials and entertained by royalty, and his career reflects the deterioration in American life that set in after the civil war…