The “Truth” of Mark Twain

Susy and Mark Twain: Family Dialogues

arranged and edited by Edith Colgate Salsbury
Harper & Row, 444 pp., $7.95

Mark Twain and Bret Harte

by Margaret Duckett
Oklahoma, 365 pp., $6.95

Mark Twain: Jackleg Novelist

by Robert A. Wiggins
Washington, 130 pp., $5.00

Mark Twain
Mark Twain; drawing by David Levine

To say that Mark Twain was more of a performer than a novelist, as his critics have said in both praise and disparagement, is to say that he was a Victorian. The theatricality of his prose, the conception of his public as an audience of responsive listeners rather than as solitary readers, the episodic nature of his fiction, cut to an oral rather than a literary measure—all this reminds us of the peculiarities of the novel of his century, and of one novelist in particular, Charles Dickens. Twain was surely the American Dickens, however much he would have hated the phrase—and however high a tribute it seems today.

Both Dickens and Twain read in public, partly to make money (to prop up the lavish style of life erected on their unprecedented literary fortunes), partly to satisfy their craving for theater. Both reacted to the experience with glee and self-disgust. But how different the sound of their voices, as anyone knows who has ever read aloud the stories of their orphan boys, David and Tom: the first voice rapid, precise, insistent, mysterious; the second, drawling, teasing, careless, and sly.

Twain began to talk to paying audiences in California in the 1860s. As DeLancey Ferguson has pointed out, listening to his own voice and copying the sound of it onto paper completed his long education as a prose writer. The laziest human noises of the Southwest went into the making of that sound: boys jawing over the back fence; townsmen in rocking chairs rambling on over a cigar; rivermen swapping stories over a bottle of whiskey, as they sprawl around the raft; miners drawling their histories as they lean against the saloon bar. (From one of these last Twain said he heard the story of “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which made him famous.) Time hangs heavy and there is nothing else to do but listen to the providential stranger with his funny story, which (as Twain said) “may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular.” Between method and material there was a close bond: Twain was as obsessed with the theme of laziness as Dickens was with that of energetic endeavor.

“The Jumping Frog,” Roughing It, and Innocents Abroad (like Boz and Pickwick, Dickens’s first works) were addressed to the predominantly male public among whom Twain lived comfortably as a bachelor for thirty-five years. It was only after his marriage that he turned to what can properly be called fiction: The Gilded Age (1873) was written by Twain with Charles Dudley Warner to provide better fare than the pap which, both men complained, their wives were in the habit of reading. From Huckleberry Finn on, every book Twain wrote, if his own statement can be credited, was not merely submitted to his wife for the editing so often bewailed…

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