Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/38

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20
Mark Twain

Without it, and its little companion-piece, In Defence of Harriet Shelley (1894), we should have a harder task to prove, against those that take him for a hard unsanctified philistine, his invincible chivalry and fineness in relation to womankind, feelings precious in a free society, and fostered, as we like to think, by a thoroughly established American tradition.

But if we value a book in proportion to its saturation with its author's most distinctive qualities and in proportion to its power, exerted or latent, to affect the general literary current, we shall hardly rate Joan of Arc among Mark Twain's most interesting or significant books. In its utterly reverent treatment of the traditional and the supernatural it impresses one as a counterpoise obviously unequal to the task of making a balance with the great burden of naturalistic and radically iconoclastic writing in the other scale.

Mark Twain counts as an influence because he is an innovator. The great notes of his innovation from Innocents Abroad to A Connecticut Yankee are: first, the disillusioned treatment of history; second, the fearless exploitation of "the natural man," or, the next thing to it, "the free-born American"; and, lastly, a certain strain of naturalistic pessimism. In the first class go the foreign-travel books, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee; and the impulse properly proceeding from them is imaginative satire. In the second class go Roughing It, Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn, Adam's Diary, and Eve's Diary; and from such work has proceeded an observable impulse to the cultivation of the indigenous, the elemental, the primitive, and, perhaps, the brutal and the sensual. For the third class one can glean representative paragraphs only here and there among the writings published in Mark Twain's lifetime; but the posthumously published philosophical dialogue What is Man? (1905) and The Mysterious Stranger (1916), a romance, and some of the letters are steeped in a naturalistic melancholy and tinged with a philosophical bitterness of which American literature before Mark Twain showed hardly a trace. That strain seems likely to be influential too, and, unfortunately, not always in connection with the fine bravado of his American faith, which occasionally required an antidote to its natural insolence.