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July 2024
2min read

Comment by Henry Nash Smith, professor of English at the University of California and literary editor of the Mark Twain Estate:

The principal feature of this article is its determination to make the facts of history and biography fit into a neat pattern. The pattern is that of the class struggle, conceived in very simple fashion as the struggle of the virtuous masses against the wicked bourgeoisie . As a result, the tone is highly moralistic.

Mark Twain would not be so widely read in Russia if his work did not lend itself in some ways to an interpretation of this sort. He often invites the reader to adopt the viewpoint of a low or humble character who is at odds with the mores and conventions of society. But the Soviet critic overinterprets this recurrent theme in Mark Twain’s work—perhaps because his vocabulary forces him to. By a stretch of the imagination we might be able to see the low-brow ridicule of the sanctimonious Pilgrims in The Innocents Abroad as an attack on the middle class, but the most resolute search cannot discover such a conflict in Roughing It . To take quite different examples, the bracketing of “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” and “A Letter from the Recording Angel” with the Autobiography fosters generalizations apparently covering all three works but applicable at most to the Autobiography , which is itself too chaotic in its comments about men and events to justify the critic’s description of it. (It contains, for example, much praise of Henry Huttleston Rogers, one of the most powerful financiers of his day.)

It is true that Huckleberry Finn contrasts Huck’s and Jim’s small world of goodness on their raft with “a large world of meanness and injustice” on the shore. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , however, is not built around this contrast. Unlike Huck, Tom is basically a conformist, and his outlawry is a game rather than a symptom of alienation. But A Connecticut Yankee is made to order for the critic who wishes to present Mark Twain as a satirist of the ruling classes. The book makes a frontal attack on the aristocracy and the monarchy (and also, although the Soviet critic curiously makes no mention of the fact, on the Established Church); and the Yankee’s effort to industrialize Britain and establish a republic ends in catastrophe. Yet even here the Soviet critic pulls things off center by refusing to consider Mark Twain’s attitude toward his central character. The Yankee is the author’s mouthpiece in attacking the aristocracy; and he also seems to speak for the author in his proposals to impose a “bourgeois civilization” on Arthur’s kingdom. Are we to infer that Mark Twain ceases at some point to sympathize with the Yankee?

The flat assertion that “Mark Twain endows the masses with kindness and nobility” is belied by all the major works mentioned. The only masses visible in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are the inhabitants of the towns along the shore, previously described as a “bourgeois society which is based on deceit and hypocrisy” and “a large world of meanness and injustice.” In A Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan begins with the faith that the mass of the people embodies all the true merit of the nation, but at the end he is compelled to face the “large and disenchanting fact” that “the mass of the nation” has been paralyzed by superstitious veneration for the church and the monarchy, and he calls the commoners “human muck.”

Finally, although in his later years Mark Twain did indeed denounce the imperialistic greed of the great powers in Africa and Asia, it would take more analysis and evidence than are provided here to prove that The Mysterious Stranger and What Is Man? arose from his recognition of unsolvable contradictions in capitalist society. The hypothesis is interesting but no more definitive than Bernard DeVoto’s Freudian analysis of the same books. A full reading of these works would not be limited by a single perspective, but might use suggestions derived from Marx, or Freud, or any other of the great system-builders. Such eclecticism no doubt seems decadent to Soviet critics; but their method seems needlessly simple-minded to us.

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