Mark Twain: Two Frontiersmen

Mark Twain: Two Frontiersmen

This time, reports of his death weren’t greatly exaggerated.


It is an odd reflection that the future literary historian who seeks the greatest American writer of the end of the nineteenth century will pretty surely have to choose between Mark Twain and Henry James. None of their contemporaries, we feel, has so fully realized his native gift. Mark Twain and Henry James have apparently gone as far as it is possible to go in diametrically opposite directions. Yet there is a point at which their talents meet. Both are essentially frontiersmen. Mark Twain is the chronicler par excellence of the palpable frontier of robust America; Henry James is the scrupulous analyst of that spiritual frontier which unrobust and nostalgic America established in the old country. Each has brought to his chosen material a singular expertness and fidelity. If Mark Twain has stretched his muscles and spent his sympathy from the Mississippi to the Sierras, Henry James has no less lived strenuously through the more sombre spiritual adventure of the American in Europe.

Sooner or later, sociologists will take account of a significant reciprocal movement. Just as America has attracted the alert, muscular, and hopeful hordes of Europe who seek material prosperity, so Europe has obsessed the gentler, more discursive, and brooding imaginations of a certain type of Americans. It is easy to dismiss them, once for all, as bad Americans. A careful reading of Henry James’s novels would prompt a more pitying judgment. Through their lack of simplicity and of constructive energy these people are aliens in their own land. They long for certain fruits of leisure and joys of reflection that it supplies in rather short measure. They are oppressed by the sense of a relentless activity the value of which they are forced to question. Whether they go to Europe or stay, they are in a manner outlanders, and where they settle in numbers there is a spiritual frontier.

It is needless to say that Henrv James is their prophet. That he is their advocate, it would be hazardous to assert. With them he shares the habit of suspending judgment in favor of simple observation. Their minds and his are possibly never made up. A kindred destiny forces them to seek a lodging-place amid the graceful forms and complicated allurements of relatively finished civilizations.

Now, the characteristic of Mark Twain’s people is that their minds, are made up on all main issues. They laugh at themselves and their neighbors, but they never ask the paralyzing question cui bono? For them anything and everything is worth while. Their extreme exemplar is the Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. It never occurs to them to see the other side. Why is “Innocents Abroad” an infinitely diverting book? Partly, we think, because the innocents are so supremely unconscious of the fact that the gods are laughing not with them, but at them. No other writer has created so many forthright efficient persons; no one so fully grasped the stalwart insouciance which is the very genius of outward America.

How exterior Mark Twain was, it is difficult to imagine. It was at once his superiority and his limitation. One may say that, the philosopher in the man almost never slopped over into his books His concern was with action, and it is significant that when he essayed what he probably regarded as higher flights, not the novel but sheer romance was the result–“Joan of Arc.” He is akin to the great impersonal geniuses who have made the picaresque tale classic-the Le Sages, the Defoes, the Smolletts. His manner grew inevitably out of his matter. It was plain, forceful, with the effective inelegant flexibility of life itself. In a high degree, he was creative. He set forth in flesh and blood pretty much all that Whitman intimated in nebulous and rhythmical metaphysic. A great figure who knew his bent and followed it to culmination with instinctive and unperturbed consistency.

An equal fidelity to his vision distinguishes Henry James. Being complicated, he has disdained to make it simpler than it is. Every phase of the soul yearning for orderliness amid the tumult of mere deeds–all the pathos of the temperament vainly seeking congenial forms–he has fathomed and exemplified. Is Europe a home, a casual inspiration, a mere narcotic? Such problems he never settles. Enough that it draws those pioneers who at home find no space for dreams. As Mark Twain was predestined to be a clear writer, Henry James was fated to be a difficult and obscure one. Mark Twain’s material has bounds–is as apparent as a pack train on a sky line. Henry James’s material leads him to deeper mental involutions, border-line stuff, where the landmarks are matter of conjecture.

Of these two great writers whose stars have led them to antipodal frontiers, which will the future choose? We are not in a position to answer. Possibly the future will perceive the value of Mark Twain’s foursquare pioneers, whereas, when America has absorbed her nostalgics, Henry James’s people may look like odd and incredible figments. We rather think that some place may be found for them beside other exemplars of disillusion–Pater’s Marius and Byron’s melancholy Childe. And obviously the ultimate preference will depend largely upon whether the choice is by life or by art. On either score, Mark Twain’s chances seem pretty good, while the fate of Mr. James’s delicate art seems to be involved in the hesitancy that afflicts his own heroes.

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