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 by later critics, but was actually read aloud to his wife and daughter, chapter by chapter, nightly as it was written. We are reminded again of Dickens, reading aloud his own works in the same fashion, to his wife and sister-in-law—but of whom else? Only the Victorians could conceive or survive so extraordinary a method of serious literary work.

To understand the Twain of Huckleberry Finn, then, we must understand not only his Virginia antecedents and his Missouri upbringing, his Mississippi piloting and his Nevada prospecting, his California journalism and literary associations—but his home for twenty years in Hartford, Connecticut. Wife and three daughters; cats, dogs, servants, ducks, carriage, and sled; neighbors, telephone, and amateur theatricals; “Ombra,” garden, and billiard room; silver stencilled mahogany panelling, peacock-blue library, red soap, Tiffany glass, the Italian water-color called Emmeline, and the Emerson motto over the library fireplace—all these were stage and audience to Twain’s performance as a literary man. In the words of Edith Colgate Salsbury, who has put together in Susy and Mark Twain the best possible memorial to the improbable Clemens establishment, they were also “creations reflecting the powerful influence of Sam Clemens.” Carefully selected representatives of the outside world were admitted to wonder and applaud: house guests like G. W. Cable, “Uncle Remus,” and the Howells family; neighbors from the surrounding genteel literary colony of Nook Farm; and story-book servants. “It used to strike me as heavenly,” said Katy Leary, the Irish maid who stayed thirty years. “‘Twas a home just like you’d make for yourself—like a dream house, don’t you know, that you would like more than anything else in the world.”‘

For the twentieth-century sensibility such theatrical enchantment is difficult to recapture. But where relatives, hangers-on, and worshippers have failed in the past, Mrs. Salsbury succeeds because of the cleverness of her method. Susy and Mark Twain is made up almost entirely of the words of the Clemens family, their servants, guests, and neighbors, all drawn from letters, journals, and reminiscences. The lines are parceled out, like lines in a play, to such characters as SAM (Twain), LIVY (his wife Olivia), and SUSY (his oldest daughter). Mrs. Salsbury herself appears, briefly, as NARRATOR. She writes neither as a critic nor as a biographer, but as an artist whose work on the restoration of the Twain house in Hartford led to research into the life of that house, and so to this book.


A great deal of Twain is left out, just enough to make the book as endearing a portrait of the artist as we have. Seen from the setting of the Hartford house, Twain appears an adoring and beloved husband and father; a superlative entertainer (some of whose impromptu fairy tales are recorded here, without, however, his billiard-room smut); a gentle and loving friend to all who entered into the spirit of the dream-house (Mrs. Salsbury spares us Bret Harte’s disastrous 1873 visit); a lovably impractical businessman (the Charles Webster fracas happens off stage); an endearingly eccentric Nobleman of Letters (such embarrassments as the Whittier birthday dinner are merely glanced over).

If the seamy side of Twain is missing from the picture, the tragic side, on which criticism has dwelt since Van Wyck Brooks’s Ordeal of Mark Twain, is certainly present. The 1890s were for the Clemenses years of disaster. In 1891 the family went abroad to economize, closing up the Hartford home temporarily—as they thought. In 1894 Twain’s publishing firm went bankrupt, and the invention in which he had placed all his hopes and spare cash, the Paige typesetter, failed irrevocably. In 1895, Twain set out on a round-the-world lecture tour to repay his creditors and the next year, just as she was sailing to rejoin her parents, twenty-four-year-old Susy died. Other horrors were to follow, but Mrs. Salsbury’s story properly ends with the death of Susy, the most beloved, the rarest spirit, and the closest to Twain.

All the painful themes of the Victorian father-daughter relationship are present in Susy’s last years, reminding us of Dickens’s possessiveness, autocracy, and egotism—though Twain was incapable of Dickens’s ruthlessness toward his children. When the news of Susy’s death came, Twain carried on about his own responsibility, but Livy, sensible even in grief, said “Susy’s gone—Life has killed her!” Life was the enemy against which the dream-house had been built as a refuge: the home called childhood, to which, as Twain had difficulty understanding, there was really no possibility of return. He was particularly moved by the knowledge that Susy had been carried into their Hartford home, now occupied by tenants, to die. “She died in our own house—not in another’s,” he said; “died where every little thing was familiar and beloved; died where she had spent all her life till my crimes made her a pauper and an exile. How good it is that she got home again.”

On April 15, 1879, Twain wrote his good friend Howells a long letter from Paris, where he was living with his wife and young daughters. One brief paragraph from the letter appears in Susy and Mark Twain: an account of a visit from “a mighty nice old gentleman,” Tauchnitz, the great German publisher of English-language works, who, in those barbarous days before international copyright, was eccentric enough to pay foreign authors. “One can’t have the heart to dicker with a publisher who won’t steal,” Twain wrote Howells. Though it is irrelevant to her study of Twain as a family man, Mrs. Salsbury excerpts the paragraph to enhance her portrait of Sam Clemens as a genial, upright Victorian literary man. What she omits is quite another man, who was capable of writing in the same letter paragraph after paragraph of vituperation on the subject of his old California friend, collaborator, and mentor, Bret Harte, who had in fact brought about the meeting between Twain and Tauchnitz. That Twain was capable of characterizing Harte to Howells as a shameless scoundrel, a drunkard, a thief, a deliberate swindler, a hypocrite and snob, a slovenly worker, and an ass; that he was even capable of writing President Hayes that Harte was an unfit appointee to the American foreign service, at a time when Harte desperately needed such an appointment (the puzzled President elicited a contrary opinion from Howells, his relative by marriage) will come as no surprise to readers of the hysterical memoir that Twain consecrated to his hatred of Bret Harte, posthumously published by Bernard DeVoto in Mark Twain in Eruption. But it would surprise unsuspecting readers of Susy and Mark Twain.

Bret Harte’s side of the story, and a rougher, nastier side of Mark Twain are the subject of Margaret Duckett’s Mark Twain and Bret Harte, a study of the relationship between the two “frontier” authors. Though slightly younger than Twain, Harte was the first to see literary material in the characters and scenes of goldrush California. Mrs. Duckett proves effectively that Twain as a literary debutant set his sights on imitating Harte’s success, that he resented Harte’s easier entry into the salons of literary gentility, in England as well as America, long after Harte’s talent had run dry and Twain’s fame and fortune had become assured. (She also makes out a good case for the influence on Tom Sawyer of Harte’s story of a wild frontier child, “M’liss.”)


Bret Harte was apparently just the sort of man-about-letters to exacerbate the Victorian sensibilities of Twain and even the more merciful Howells. Whenever the conjugal yoke pressed hardest, whenever costly establishments, debts of honor, domestic monotony, a high-minded, sickly wife and adorable but noisy children appeared a burden rather than a blessing, Harte became a convenient scapegoat. Though apparently guiltless of the major sins of which Twain accused him, Harte was an irresponsible, improvident fellow with expensive tastes, who borrowed money without much intention of returning it, and lived abroad in reasonable contentment for many years without the encumbering presence of his wife and children. (He was also, as contemporary New England anti-Semites were well aware, part Jewish.) Harte’s style of life may now appear less oppressive than the overblown cosiness of Twain’s Nook Farm establishment. (Susy Clemens envied the more adult way of living she found, in the last year of her life, at the Howellses’ in New York: “an attractive little flat, little housekeeping care, and Society on the easy and intellectual form of a foreign city…the atmosphere was alive in a wonderful large way.”) But to a man like Twain, for whom political and social moralities were of far less importance to his self-esteem than a finicky domestic morality, Bret Harte was an offense.

Mrs. Duckett’s final defense of Bret Harte rests on his record as a defender of racial minorities, at a time and in a place where Mexicans, Indians, Negroes, and Chinese, all objects of Harte’s concern, most needed a champion. Whatever Twain’s homey virtues, she implies, in the domain of social conscience he was wanting; whatever Harte’s literary vices, as a sentimentalist of noble-hearted whores and gamblers, he may have left a more humane portrait of the American frontier than did Mark Twain.

Twain was of course an incomparably greater artist than Bret Harte: it can be argued that, at his best, he wrote a prose more brilliant than that of any other English-language story teller, on either side of the Victorian Atlantic. So great was the consequence of Twain’s verbal magicianship that the American language can be said to have been born in his writing. But Twain is read for more than style. As Mrs. Duckett reminds us, Twain’s “realism” and the reality behind it still matter, for better or worse. No less an authority than Lionel Trilling has told us that Huckleberry Finn is “one of the central documents of American culture,” not for language alone, but for “its power of telling the truth.”

That truth has commonly been summarized, ever since Bernard DeVoto took Twain’s reputation in hand in the 1930s, as having to do with the homespun, indigenous, anti-genteel virtues of the American frontier. Twain was spokesman for the “folk mind,” according to DeVoto: “the folk mind, that is, in mid-America in the period of the frontier and immediately following, the folk mind shaped for use by the tremendous realities of conquering a hostile wilderness…” DeVoto’s theme reappears in a current muddled work of criticism by Robert A. Wiggins, Mark Twain: Jackleg Novelist. Mr. Wiggins asks us to regard Tom Sawyer as “the eternal symbol of the primitive mind as it occurs in boys close to the folk rather than those reared in a nursery.” As proof he offers us some of Tom’s “dreams,” which Mr. Wiggins calls “elemental even for the folk-mind”: such as those of finding buried treasure, performing self-sacrificial acts for love, saving a life, triumphing over an enemy. If these “dreams” are not the ordinary furniture of the Victorian nursery, what are they?

A more useful approach to the assessment of Twain as a spokesman for American values and delineator of the American character is provided by Bryant Morey French’s detailed study of The Gilded Age. Mr. French’s thesis is that Twain’s first novel must be read very seriously as a work of mature, strong, and thoughtful social commentary, unique for its time and important for its consequences: the development of social realism in American literature. He argues that Twain, not Charles Dudley Warner, his collaborator, set the tone and purpose of the book’s satirical content. Twain contributed to The Gilded Age the improvident Hawkins clan, a portrait of the Clemens family; Colonel Sellers, whose prodigious schemes beckon the Hawkinses ever westward; the small-town Missouri and Mississippi river locales;—and also, Mr. French argues, most of the material about corruption in national politics, the Washington scenes, and the characters of Senator Dilworthy, the villain of the novel, and Laura, its lost woman. With one exception, all Mr. French’s evidence—the title of the book, the method of collaboration, use of sources, jottings in Twain’s notebooks, contemporary reactions—goes toward proving that The Gilded Age damned with effective satire the national “speculative fever”; that it attacked “the spirit of headlong exploitation of the continental frontier for the profit of the northern capitalists”; that it defended “the basically innocent against the malevolent…the middleclass frontiersman and townsman against a centrally controlled national political machine.” But the exception, alas, is the evidence of the novel itself.

The problem in The Gilded Age, as indeed in all Twain’s work, is the kind of American character that Twain opposed to his obviously malevolent scoundrels, the sort of people he regarded as innocent and attractive, indigenous and folksy, normal, like himself, and therefore endearing. These are the Twain folk who, DeVoto said, were “shaped by the tremendous realities of conquering a hostile wilderness.” But if there is one thing Twain’s people appear to have learned from the experience of grappling with the wild, it is that the whole business is a great deal too much trouble to bother with. Hardly a sod is turned, or seed planted, or road cleared, or house built, or animal hunted anywhere in Twain’s fiction of “the frontier.” True, Huck Finn finds an abundance of rabbits, snakes, and turtles on Jackson’s Island, but his approach is not sanguinary: “We could a had pets enough if we’d wanted them.” Firearms, incidentally, are mentioned in Twain’s fiction with an uneasiness that recalls his admission, in the “Private History” of his inglorious campaign as Confederate ranger, that “in all my small experience with guns I had never hit anything that I had tried to hit.” Elsewhere in that revealing memoir Twain explains why he and his childhood friends made such fools of themselves trying to ride the horses and mules that farmers lent them for their soldiering: “for,” he says, “we were town boys.”

The town is everywhere in Twain’s fiction, and the wilderness scarce. Farmers are almost as hard to find on his frontier as pioneers. In the background of his novels there are innumerable lawyers, judges, bankers, and politicians, and in the foreground a surprisingly large number of widows and spinsters, living, one presumes, on unearned increment. These ladies appear to have limitless time to devote to the Bible reading, face-scrubbing, ruffle starching, and patent-medicine feeding that make up the town style of child-raising. In the frontier towns of Twain’s books for children one finds a superabundance of food, clothing, and entertainment (even the formal kind, such as Becky Thatcher’s picnic, to which written invitations are issued). But one commodity is scarce: work. No villager appears too preoccupied to give up whole days to dragging the river or searching caves or celebrating funerals for lost children—for children appear to be the focus of every grown-up’s deepest concern.

And what of the children themselves? Some of the boys might surely, as members of fatherless frontier families, have chores to do. Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence immediately comes to mind, that scene which Leslie Fiedler has aptly called a classic of genre painting. What is interesting here as a revelation of Twain’s frontier is not so much the enormous expenditure of imagination, talent, and intelligence on the avoidance of physical labor—for that theme is everywhere in Twain’s work—but the make-work nature of the job itself. Aunt Polly assumes, apparently without caring, that Tom will never do it. The chore is imposed merely as improving discipline: “I’ll just be obleeged to make him work, to-morrow, to punish him. It’s mighty hard…but he hates work more than he hates anything else, and I’ve got to do some of my duty by him, or I’ll be the ruination of the child.”

Tom Sawyer, pace Mr. Wiggins, is perhaps an imperfect representative of the frontier folk mind: Twain commentators are all agreed that Huck Finn represents Twain’s folk-America at its best. Twain does not, in Tom Sawyer, tell us how Huck manages to live. We know that he sleeps in hogsheads and, after a few days on Jackson’s Island, grows homesick for his old life, for all the world like the country-exiled New York newsboys of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, that much misrepresented work which appeared a few years before the creation of Huck. There are many curious points of resemblance between the most attractive boy heroes of Twain’s frontier West and Alger’s urban East: an aversion to washing and a fondness for rags, a dislike for normal family life, and a love of practical jokes and vulgar entertainments, an independent sassiness and a native shrewdness, the vices of smoking and swearing, even the virtue of tolerance. They diverge, however, in their attitude to stealing, something at which Dick draws the line, but without which Huck would not survive.

The morality of stealing is in fact a central issue in Huckleberry Finn, though criticism has rarely examined any aspect of Twain’s complicated handling of the subject except where it affects Huck’s attitude toward chattel slavery. Yet stealing, swindling, and what Nigger Jim calls “specalat’n” are the realities of Huck’s Mississippi life, just as they are the spirit of The Gilded Age. Man-made produce, whether found, scavenged, “borrowed,” or stolen, is, far more than fish and game, the support of Huck’s raft existence. Many of the great river’s gifts are tagged by Huck with a cash value, from the catfish “as big as a man” (“he would a been worth a good deal over at the village”), to a drift-canoe (“she’s worth ten dollars”), to the floating cordwood and broken rafts: “I reckoned I would have great times now if I was over at the town…all you have to do is to catch [the drifting logs] and sell them to the wood yards and the sawmill.”

On the morning that Huck feels too lazy to cook breakfast, the quicksilver bread comes floating providentially by, and is eaten with appreciation. “It was ‘baker’s bread’—what the quality eat; none of your low-down corn-pone.” Huck acquires forty dollars in gold through his (justified) lie about smallpox in the family; he loots a steamboat wreck and the floating death-house. (A surprising amount of stealing from the dead goes on in Twain’s books, apparently without the operation of any frontier taboo.) And Huck steals from his father, who would otherwise steal from him the money that, in the previous volume, Huck and Tom had stolen from the robbers. The famous chapter dealing with Huck’s resolution to aid in the evasion of Jim, who represents among other things a valuable piece of property, must be read in the context of a whole volume of inquiry into the various justifications for swindling and theft.

Huck’s flight to Jackson’s Island has been romanticized, in the long critical apotheosis of this novel, into a symbol of man’s flight from corrupt civilization to an ideal wilderness. Huck’s statement is more explicit: “Jackson’s Island is good enough for me; I know that island pretty well, and nobody ever comes there. And then I can paddle over to town nights, and slink around and pick up things I want. Jackson’s Island’s the place.” Huck is equally clear about what “picking up things” means: “sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable…I slipped into the cornfields and borrowed a watermelon, or a mushmelon, or a punkin, or some new corn…” Whether this is “borrowing” (Pap’s view) or “stealing” (the widow’s), is the substance of a serious discussion between Huck and Jim, reminiscent of Tom Sawyer’s confrontation, during his own island expedition, of “the stubborn fact that taking sweetmeats was only ‘hooking,’ while taking bacon and hams and such valuables was plain simple stealing—and there was a command against that in the Bible.”

Huck and Tom are mere children, but the thieves and swindlers of The Gilded Age are not. Childish distinctions between hooking and stealing, speculating and swindling are not weighty enough to carry the burden of social waste reflected in that novel. Twain leaves us little to choose between Senator Dilworthy and Colonel Sellers, vicious as is the former and deliciously comic as the latter is supposed to be. Colonel Sellers is something more than a lazy, pompous windbag, more than a Micawber of the frontier. In his desperately proud avoidance of productive labor, there are few depths of dishonesty and chicanery to which the Colonel will not descend. There is more irony, perhaps, than Twain intended in Sellers’s reply when asked his occupation during the novel’s trial scene: “the Colonel looked about him loftily…and then said with dignity: ‘A gentleman, sir.”‘

The accent is distinctly Southern, and the assertion of gentility at all costs has less to do with frontier folk than with the social values of the slaveholding South. At the beginning of The Gilded Age both the Hawkins and the Sellers families own slaves; by the end, the Colonel has come down to grumbling about “the emancipated race.” “Idle, sir, there’s my garden just a ruin of weeds. Nothing practical in ’em.”

Just how Southern Twain was we know more from his own emphatic selfportraits than from his commentators, who have preferred to place him in the open spaces of frontier society. His people migrated from Virginia and Kentucky to Missouri towns settled by respectable, slave-holding Southerners. Clemens’s father owned slaves as long as he could afford them and speculatively bought large tracts of land which he never intended to work himself. The Clemens clan was sustained through years of poverty by the conviction that they were superior to people who worked with their hands; they were members of Virginia aristocracy. (Susy Clemens, by the age of thirteen, had already heard enough of this to put at the head of her biographical sketch of her father the information that “Grandpa Clemens was of the F.F.V.’s of Virginia.”) The final prop of their Southern gentility was the mystique of descent from English nobility. (The American Claimant, Twain’s late novel, which is to some degree an apology for Colonel Sellers, deals with the Colonel’s adventures as heir to an earldom.)

Mark Twain wrote home, during his first trip East, about his annoyance with the “infernal abolitionists” and his yearning “to see a good old-fashioned negro.” When the Civil War came, he went back to Hannibal, Missouri to volunteer for duty (brief and ineffectual though that duty turned out to be) on the Confederate side, even though many of his fellow Hannibal citizens had already swung over to the Union. Neither in the 1860s nor after the war did Twain take the Southern cause very seriously, and, as a rational man, he certainly welcomed emancipation. But nothing in his temperament or background points to his being capable of writing an abolitionist novel, as many critics have read Huckleberry Finn. Nor can the portraits of Negroes in Twain’s novels be made palatable to the present generation of Civil Rights activists. Stupidity, shiftlessness, superstition, helpless immaturity, and ineradicable ignorance are the qualities we find in Twain’s Negroes, relieved only, in Pudd’nhead Wilson, by depravity, viciousness, and cruelty. Far from being an abolitionist work, Huckleberry Finn reads like a Southerner’s reply, thirty years too late, to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that other classic story of a runaway slave. (Harriet Beecher Stowe was a Nook Farm neighbor throughout the writing of Huckleberry Finn.)

Southern, too, is Twain’s handling of the theme of the swindle. In his recent book, The Americans, Daniel Boorstin expresses a great deal of admiration for the role of the Booster in the opening of the frontier, for the man who called every log cabin a city, every city an Athens, and capitalized on the credulity of the newcomer. “Rewards went to the organizer, the persuader, the discoverer of opportunities, the projector, the risk-taker…” These were not only personal financial rewards, but larger rewards as well, for without the Booster’s lies, settlers might not have been attracted to the widening West and cities like Chicago and Denver might never have come into being. But in the South the doctrine of economic development by advertising was never productive, and it is not productive in Twain. A character like Colonel Sellers (and indeed Tom Sawyer) has much of the rhetoric of the Booster, but with a difference: his puffery is conceived as nothing but a futile swindle, with the future nowhere to be seen.

The dishonest schemes that make up the scandals of The Gilded Age shock us less by their dishonesty than by their futility. No one believes (or cares) that the fraudulent railroad speculations will ever materialize as railroads; that the Federal millions poured into the Hawkins’s Tennessee land will ever produce an institution to educate Negroes; that the cities of Colonel Sellers’s speculative imagination will ever be habitable. Elsewhere in Reconstruction America the same kind of corrupt speculation did produce, whatever the moral and financial waste, great tangible results—but not in the world of Twain’s Southern imagination. He gives us a surprisingly closed society, from which the very rich and very poor are excluded, in which each character preys on every other: the Colonel on his relatives, the Senator on the Colonel, the Colonel on the Eastern dudes, the dudes on their friends and backers, her husband on Laura and Laura on her lovers, the railroad people on the local landowners and the landowners on the northern capitalists…The whole interlocking structure of speculative swindling is just as trivial, just as unproductive, but far less amusing than the little swindle at the center of “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Colonel Sellers’s most dramatic swindle is the romancing of Stone’s Landing, alias Napoleon, into “a city built up like the rod of Aladdin had touched it,” that is, a scheme prime for extracting capital out of city slickers from the hopeful East. It stands on the bank of Goose Run, alias Columbus River, a stream languishing for golden rain from the Federal treasury: “if it was widened, and deepened, and straightened, and made long enough, it would be one of the finest rivers in the Western country.” This insalubrious spot was one of the unlikely places where Mark Twain’s path crossed that of Charles Dickens, for the model for Stone’s Landing, a notorious Missouri land fraud called Marion City, was studied by both writers. Dickens used it as the nodel for Eden, the fraudulently puffed swamp settlement that draws Martin Chuzzlewit across the ocean to bitterest disappointment in the New World. Twain certainly had Dickens’s denunciation of the “Eden” fraud in mind when he whitewashed Colonel Sellers’s “Napoleon” city.

In fact, Twain could hardly have managed to turn his Southern relations into Colonel Sellers without the model of Dickens’s Micawber clearly before him. (He had sat literally at the feet of Dickens when, on his last tour of the United States, the English novelist read David Copperfield in Steinway Hall.) Micawber and Sellers were both portraits of the artist’s father, as new material in Mr. French’s study makes clear, and both portraits show that the two Victorians could excuse a great deal of shiftless immaturity in the older generation on the plea of humorous eccentricity and theatrical style. But Dickens roundly chastises Micawber, though Micawber is a failure largely because he opts out of a hidebound, snob-ridden, bureaucratic society. Twain, on the other hand, is mighty partial to Sellers, a far more venal humbug: the Colonel succeeds, out there on the Missouri frontier, whenever he can get away with exploiting the weakness and credulity of his fellowman. There is surely a kind of American truth here, in Twain’s marvelous capacity to laugh at the little swindles of the folks back home.

Dickens and Twain also sailed down the same Mississippi. Where, through laughter and illusion, Twain made the child’s Mississippi plain for us, with its lazy sensuality, its broad serenity, its abundance of song-birds and reflected stars, Dickens saw something different:

Looking down the filthy river after dark, it seemed to be alive with monsters, as these black masses rolled upon the surface…the boat…was fairly hemmed in;…and was constrained to pause until they parted, somewhere, as dark clouds will do before the wind…

In good time, next morning, however, we came again in sight of that detestable morass called Cairo…But looking southward from this point, we had the satisfaction of seeing that intolerable river dragging its slimy length and ugly freight abruptly off towards New Orleans; and passing a yellow line which stretched across the current, were again upon the clear Ohio, never, I trust, to see the Mississippi more, save in troubled dreams and night-mares…

This Issue

January 20, 1966