Mark Twains Americanism

H.L. Mencken
Mark Twain's Americanism
H. L. Mencken
The New York Evening Mail - November 1, 1917
When Mark Twain died, in 1910, one of the magnificos who paid public tribute to him
was William H. Taft, then President of the United States. "Mark Twain," said Dr. Taft,
"gave real intellectual enjoyment to millions, and his works will continue to give such
pleasure to millions yet to come. He never wrote a line that a father could not read to a
The usual polite flubdub and not to be exposed, perhaps, to critical analysis. But it was, in
a sense, typical of the general view at that time, and so it deserves to be remembered for
the fatuous inaccuracy of the judgment in it. For Mark Twain dead is beginning to show
far different and more brilliant colors than those he seemed to wear during life, and the
one thing no sane critic would say of him to-day is that he was the harmless fireside jester,
the mellow chautauquan, the amiable old grandpa of letters that he was once so widely
thought to be.
The truth is that Mark was almost exactly the reverse. Instead of being a mere entertainer
of the mob, he was in fact a literary artist of the very highest skill and sophistication, and,
in all save his superficial aspect, quite unintelligible to Dr. Taft's millions. And instead of
being a sort of Dr. Frank Crane in cap and bells, laboriously devoted to the obvious and
the uplifting, he was a destructive satirist of the utmost pungency and relentlessness, and
the most bitter critic of American platitude and delusion, whether social, political or
religious, that ever lived.
Bit by bit, as his posthumous books appear, the true man emerges, and it needs but half
an eye to see how little he resembles the Mark of national legend. Those books were
written carefully and deliberately; Mark wrote them at the height of his fame; he put into
them, without concealment, the fundamental ideas of his personal philosophy -- the ideas
which colored his whole view of the world. Then he laid the manuscripts away, safe in
the knowledge that they would not see the light until he was under six feet of earth. We
know, by his own confession, why he hesitated to print them while he lived; he knew that
fame was sweet and he feared that they might blast it. But beneath that timorousness
there was an intellectual honesty that forced him to set down the truth. It was really
comfort he wanted, not fame. He hesitated, a lazy man, to disturb his remaining days with
combat and acrimony. But in the long run he wanted to set himself straight.
Two of these books, The Mysterious Stranger and _What Is Man?_ are now published,
and more may be expected to follow at intervals. The latter, in fact, was put into type
during Mark's lifetime and privately printed in a very limited edition. But it was never
given to the public, and copies of the limited edition bring $40 or $50 at book auctions
to-day. Even a pirated English edition brings a high premium. Now, however, the book is
issued publicly by the _Harpers_, though without the preface in which Mark explained

his reasons for so long withholding it.
The ideas in it are very simple, and reduced to elementals, two in number. The first is that
man, save for a trace of volition that grows smaller and smaller the more it is analyzed, is
a living machine -- that nine-tenths of his acts are purely reflex, and that moral
responsibility, and with it religion, are thus mere delusions. The second is that the only
genuine human motive, like the only genuine dog motive or fish motive or protoplasm
motive is self interest -- that altruism, for all its seeming potency in human concerns, is
no more than a specious appearance -- that the one unbroken effort of the organism is to
promote its own comfort, welfare and survival.
Starting from this double basis, Mark undertakes an elaborate and extraordinarily
penetrating examination of all the fine ideals and virtues that man boasts of, and reduces
them, one after the other, to untenability and absurdity. There is no mere smartness in the
thing. It is done, to be sure, with a sly and disarming humor, but at bottom it is done quite
seriously and with the highest sort of argumentative skill. The parlor entertainer of Dr.
Taft's eulogy completely disappears; in his place there arises a satirist with something of
Rabelais's vast resourcefulness and dexterity in him, and all of Dean Swift's devastating
ferocity. It is not only the most honest book that Mark ever did; it is, in some respects, the
most artful and persuasive as a work
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