Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/31

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13
Fiction

scenic immensities, stricken with plagues, famines, ferocious beasts, superstitions, over-population, and swooning heat:


a haunting sense of the myriads of human lives that have blossomed, and withered, and perished here, repeating and repeating and repeating, century after century, and age after age, the barren and meaningless process; it is this sense that gives to this forlorn, uncomely land power to speak to the spirit and make friends with it; to speak to it with a voice bitter with satire, but eloquent with melancholy.


There are satirical and witty disquisitions on imperialistic morality apropos of Madagascar, the Jameson Raid, Cecil Rhodes, and the British dealings with the Boers. The barbarity of the civilized in contact with the so-called backward peoples excites his indignation, but history and travel show him its universality and quiet his sensibilities to a state of tolerant contempt for all unregenerate mankind: "Christian governments are as frank to-day, as open and above-board, in discussing projects for raiding each other's clothes-lines as ever they were before the Golden Rule came smiling into this inhospitable world and couldn't get a night's lodging anywhere."

Mark Twain s fiction, a large and highly diversified section of his total output, should be regarded as, hardly less than the travel books, the work of a humorist whose most characteristic form was a medley in divers keys. His critical champions used to allege that recognition of his sterling literary talent was delayed by his reputation as a creator of laughter. At the present time the danger is perhaps rather that some of his novels and tales will be unduly disparaged precisely because criticism has been persuaded to take them too seriously. With an instinct for an ingenious plot and unquestionable power of characterization within certain limits, Mark Twain sometimes lacked the ability and the patience and even the desire to carry a long piece of fiction through in the key on which he began. He would begin a story, for example, on the key of impressive realism, shift to commonplace melodrama, and end with roaring farce; and this amounts to saying that he did not himself steadily take his fiction writing seriously. He sometimes took it very lightly, like an improvising humorist; and the discords which affect