Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

books or but doubtfully latent in them. Mark Twain is many-sided; and he has ripened in knowledge and in power since he first attracted attention as a wild Western funny man. As he has grown older he has reflected more; he has both broadened and deepened. The writer of "comic copy" for a mining-camp newspaper has developed into a liberal humorist, handling life seriously and making his readers think as he makes them laugh, until to-day Mark Twain has perhaps the largest audience of any author now using the English language. To trace the stages of this evolution and to count the steps whereby the sage-brush reporter has risen to the rank of a writer of world-wide celebrity, is as interesting as it is instructive.

I.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born November 30, 1835, at Florida, Missouri. His father was a merchant who had come from Tennessee and who removed soon after his son's birth to Hannibal, a little town on the Mississippi. What Hannibal was like and what were the circumstances of Mr. Clemens's boyhood we can see for ourselves in the convincing pages of 'Tom Sawyer.' Mr. Howells has called Hannibal "a loafing, out-at-elbows, down-atthe-heels, slave-holding Mississippi town;" and

Mr. Clemens was himself a slave owner, who silently abhorred slavery.

When the future author was but twelve his father died, and the son had to get his education as best he could. Of actual schooling he got little and of book-learning still less; but life itself is not a bad teacher for a boy who wants to study, and young Clemens did not waste his chances. He spent three years in the printing office of the little local paper, - for, like not a few others on the list of American authors that stretches from Benjamin Franklin to William Dean Howells, he began his connection with literature by setting type. As a journeyman printer the lad wandered from town to town and rambled even as far east as New York.

3000

When he was seventeen he went back to the home of his boyhood resolved to become a pilot on the Mississippi. How he learnt the river he has told us in Life on the Mississippi,' wherein his adventures, his experiences, and his impressions while he was a cub-pilot are recorded with a combination of precise veracity and abundant humor which makes the earlier chapters of that marvelous book a most masterly fragment of autobiography. The life of a pilot was full of interest and excitement and opportunity, and what young Clemens saw and heard and

divined during the years when he was going up and down the mighty river we may read in the pages of 'Huckleberry Finn' and 'Pudd'nhead Wilson.' But toward the end of the fifties the railroads began to rob the river of its supremacy as a carrier; and in the beginning of the sixties the civil war broke out and the Mississippi no longer went unvexed to the sea. The skill, slowly and laboriously acquired, was suddenly rendered useless, and at twenty-five the young man found himself bereft of his calling. As a border state, Missouri was sending her sons into the armies of the Union and into the armies of the Confederacy, while many a man stood doubting, not knowing which way to turn. The ex-pilot has given us the record of his very brief and inglorious service as a soldier of the South. When this escapade was swiftly ended, he went to the Northwest with his brother, who had been appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Nevada. Thus the man who had been born on the borderland of North and South, who had gone East as a jour-printer, who had been again and again up and down the Mississippi, now went West while he was still plastic and impressionable; and he had thus another chance to increase that intimate knowledge of American life and American character which is one of the most precious of his possessions.

While still on the river he had written a satiric letter or two signed "Mark Twain "- taking the name from a call of the man who heaves the lead and who cries "By the mark, three," "Mark twain," and so on. In Nevada he went to the mines and lived the life he has described in ' Roughing It,' but when he failed to "strike it rich," he naturally drifted into journalism and back into a newspaper office again. The Virginia City Enterprise was not overmanned, and the newcomer did all sorts of odd jobs, finding time now and then to write a sketch which seemed important enough to permit of his signature. The name of Mark Twain soon began to be known to those who were curious in newspaper humor. After a while he was drawn across the mountains to San Francisco, where he found casual employment on the Morning Call, and where he joined himself to a little group of aspiring literators which included Mr. Bret Harte, Mr. Noah Brooks, Mr. Charles Henry Webb, and Mr. Charles Warren Stoddard.

It was in 1867 that Mr. Webb published Mark Twain's first book, 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras'; and it was in 1867 that the proprietors of the Alta California supplied him with the funds necessary to enable him to become one of the

passengers on the steamer Quaker City, which had been chartered to take a select party on what is now known as the Mediterranean trip. The weekly letters, in which he set forth what befel him on this journey, were printed in the Alta Sunday after Sunday, and were copied freely by the other Californian papers. These letters served as the foundation of a book published in 1869 and called 'The Innocents Abroad,' a book which instantly brought to the author celebrity and cash.

Both of these valuable aids to ambition were increased by his next step, his appearance on the lecture platform. Mr. Noah Brooks, who was present at his first attempt, has recorded that Mark Twain's "method as a lecturer was distinctly unique and novel. His slow, deliberate drawl, the anxious and perturbed expression of his visage, the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, the surprise that spread over his face when the audience roared with delight or rapturously applauded the finer passages of his word-painting, were unlike anything of the kind they had ever known." In the thirty years since that first appearance the method has not changed, although it has probably matured. Mark Twain is one of the most effective of platform-speakers and one of the most artistic,

« VorigeDoorgaan »