One evening, so the story goes, when Mark Twain was in London he dined out in society with Whistler and Henry James, and the latter, broaching a subject that seemed innocently appropriate for the occasion, inquired: “Do you know Bret Harte?” “Yes,” Twain replied, “I know the son of a bitch.” Justin Kaplan in his new biography of Mark Twain regretfully acknowledges the story may be apocryphal; but even if it is, Twain and James achieve in the exchange that unity in dissimilarity that is often said to characterize the best images of metaphysical poetry.
It is well known that neither Twain nor James had any admiration for the other’s work. Nevertheless, there has been a persistent tendency on the part of critics to pause from time to time from more strenuous reflections and imagine the two in some kind of relation. One of the first to do so was Edmund Wilson, who, in “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” wrote: “It is curious to compare A Sense of the Past with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with which it really has a good deal in common.” Wilson’s remark is more than a passing insight: It marks an important conjunction in the orbits of two major American writers who are moving in opposite directions. But even before Wilson, Constance Rourke in American Humor wrote of Christopher Newman in James’s The American: “He might have been in San Francisco or Virginia City with Mark Twain; he had the habits of the time and place.”
Such examples could be multiplied very easily. Later we shall glance at one of the reasons why critics are so disposed to associate two writers so unlike: but here one may simply observe that, in a curious way, Twain’s attitudes sometimes appear to be a kind of distorting mirror held up to James’s. “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it,” Twain caused Pudd’nhead wilson, who is a persona of himself, to write in his calendar. James never held a sentiment even remotely like that, but old-time critics sometimes thought he did, and Twain’s attitudes often conform with remarkable fidelity to the erroneous image of James that once circulated in this country among American literary patriots.
THE SO-CALLED DEFINITIVE EDITION of Twain’s work is in thirty-seven volumes. Probably the collected edition of no other major American writer contains so uneven a body of work, or work whose attitudes and point-of-view are so uncertain and wavering. Twain criticism has, for the most part, showed remarkable efficiency in recognizing the several masterpieces, and in sifting, among the remainder, the good from the indifferent and the inept. In what is probably the best critical book on the work itself, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, Henry Nash Smith writes: “The main line of his development lies in the long preoccupation with…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.