Front Door to Cuba

Martí on Mark Twain

By José Martí | Published in La Nación, Buenos Aires, January 11, 1885

[From: On Art and Literature by Jose Martí – Critical Writings / Translated by Elinor Randall / Monthly Review Press, 1982]


In spite of his reputation in the world of letters, Mark Twain is not a major luminary; but he shines with his own light, a rare quality today, and deserves his renown, which is great in both Europe and America. He was not led to a living by the hand, or given a good and handsome wife, or provided with a house and coach, as were the pampering customs in our lands just as soon as the young gentleman of the house left the halls of learning wearing the red or yellow doctoral hood.

He started out as a printer, but adventure whispered into his ear and he became a Mississippi river boat pilot; his face still shows that fresh and ruddy look. He took his pen name, “Mark Twain” on the Mississippi because he was captivated by the original. “Mark Twain,” the pilot would often call out when a depth of two fathoms was sounded. And as soon as he began telling, in his uninhibited joking manner, what he had seen of the world, and drawing out the real man from the man of appearances, he signed his name with the Mississippi cry: “Mark Twain.” Then he traveled as a secretary to one of his brothers through the mining country where people went to bed upon a lode of gold and awakened with a dagger in the heart.

He has been in factories of angry workers where the country is being forged; with those who make mistakes, who fall in love, who steal, who live in solitude and populate it; with those who build. He was fond of wandering about, and no sooner had he seen man in one place than he would leave him, eager to see him in another. He has a habit of blinking, as if to see better, or to prevent people from divining his thoughts by his eyes. He knows men and the efforts they put into concealing or disguising their defects. It amuses him to tell things so that the real man—hypocritical, slavish, cowardly, lascivious—falls from the last sentence of his story the way a clown’s polichinela tumbles out of the hands that are playing with it. And Twain peers into his sentence to watch the real man fall.

He draws with charcoal, but with swift and certain lines. He understands the power of adjectives—those adjectives which economize sentences—and piles them upon a character so that the man being depicted begins to move as if he were alive. His confidence in description has come from his habit of observation. There are credulous and ardent souls who see everything in the light of their own flames, or through the film covering their own eyes—see everything as nonsensical, enormous or deformed, false or confused. Then there are other souls, like Mark Twain, who are incredulous because of being experienced, and quieted down perhaps on account of their sufferings; and these see everything in natural size, no matter how impossible it is at times for them to divine, like defects in their own quality, the wings of things. His travel books have given him fame and a profit of four hundred thousand dollars. He tells his witticisms grudgingly, as it were, and produces them with no intention of causing harm.

He has no desire to school himself, so that men will not hide away and conceal their character from him, character which he brings out and for which he lies in wait with the skill of a good hunter. He must have the incurable melancholy of all those who know men deeply, and I believe he does have it. He married a wealthy woman and has been to the Sandwich Islands, through Europe, Egypt, and Palestine. His pen is inevitably moved by the mad and hypocritical. His wit derives from the originality and gross vitality of his own life. He has put them into practice for a long time with simple folk, and he must have been a madcap among them, for the common people appear in all his pages. He has more of Kock than of Chamfort. But over and above those men he has an exquisite sense of nature, for he had been favored by more delicate paint brushes he would have produced some glorious copies. His own person, making jokes and scoffing, diminishes his vivid pictures.

For anyone who reads Mark Twain’s description of Athens by night, there is no need to go there if one would rather not, for it is described so glowingly that one can see it; nor is there any need to go to the pyramids. He undertakes to tell how, standing atop one of them, one of the guides wagered that he could descend from there and climb to the top of the next pyramid, and then return to the one upon which they were standing, all within ten minutes. And the swift Arab starts running; Twain describes him descending hurriedly, turns him loose on the burning sands below. Now you see him as a dog, now as a dove, now as a fly, now you see him no longer, just a wild black dot climbing riotously up a pyramid, reaching the summit, waving coming down riotously up a pyramid, reaching the summit, waving, coming down and starting to run again. Now he touches the base of the pyramid, now returns like the wind, now he is at the top again and has won his bet. The ten minutes have not yet gone by. In a scant twenty lines Mark Twain tells this whole tale, and although he does not describe it thread by thread, one can sense the magnificent solitude, the burning sun, the Great Pyramid, the distance between it and the others, the whirling sands, and the burnoose floating out behind the guide.

Mark Twain writes novels, not yet well put together. As if unwillingly and in an offhand manner, he recites incidents from his life or episodes from his books; he trudges off stage into the wings as if bored, speaks his piece to the public as he might do to his own children to entertain them and then be free of them. In these recitations he adds to the wittiness of his thought that which produces an irresistible contrast between his comical and exaggerated portrayals and the ill-humored, nasal, and imperturbable tone of voice he uses to recite them. He achieves no effect with brief jokes, but draws them out and dilutes them for the sake of the lot of them, because his pungency lies not in felicity of expression, which is usually violent when he strives for it or expands it; rather, it lies in the justice of his criticism and in his manner of opposing appearances to feelings. Wandering about and appearing unexpectedly has always pleased and been useful to him, and this method and tendency of his is revealed in the titles of his best books: Innocents Abroad, Innocents at Home, A Tramp Abroad, a method which surely leads to an extremely ingenious slingshot.

Sometimes he picks up an avalanche of witticisms and sets them to dancing upon an atom, with the marvelous skill of a balancing act. The Figaro of Paris revels in his books, translating and celebrating him not for the purity of his style, because he knows his people and has no desire for delicacy, but for the subtlety of his observation.

He wears his shock of white hair long; his eyes show experience, depth, and roguery; a long, aquiline nose presides over a martial mustache; the rest of his face, of a healthy color, he keeps clean shaven. He thrusts his head forward as if scrutinizing; he carries his shoulders high as if he has decided to shrug them forever. Such is Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens, the foremost American humorist.

Knighthood was once in fashion, and outside of the Quixote, nowhere was it better treated, nor thrashed and trounced more effectively or in so novel a manner, than in the book which was written with the force of a natural man, by the perspicacious and indignant humorist, Mark Twain.

He lives in his castle because his home in the town of Hartford, surrounded by oaks and bordered by a lake, looks like castle; but he earned it with his brains, describing it in Roughing It the rustic characters seen with his own all-absorbing eyes in hospitals and fights and mines and on rivers, and in The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad whose rough-hewn wit found men laughing from London to Cairo. He has a countryman’s hand and smokes his tobacco in a pipe, but one can discern in those books a man able to see for himself, his wisdom refined by long and severe hardship, and a love for the unfortunate. With the most cultured and relaxed skill, moved by the disorder he sees, by the injustice which exasperates him, and by the highborn who keep riding on the backs of the poor, he finally created this book about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In it, by means of a simple device of contrasting the free Yankee with the castle lords of the Round Table, and with anger bordering at times upon the sublime, he makes clearly evident the disreputable way by which some men desire to lord it over others, eating from their wretchedness and drinking from their misfortune. And so skillfully does he develop his theme that the salient character of that age of kings and bishops, peasants and slaves, proving to be a picture of what is beginning to be seen in the United States, is more than a mere copy. And virtuous men, armed by nature in hunger and solitude, are scourging with the lash of apostles, appearing with a pen as a spear and a book as a shield, to overthrow those castles built with the dollars of the new knighthood. There are paragraphs in Mark Twain’s book that make one want to set out for Hartford and shake hands with him. He has hoisted a flag for men, and men will be grateful to him. The Quixote will be readily acceptable in libraries, and with it the Connecticut Yankee. There are visors and leather shields in both, and the two books resemble one another in a magnificent mockery, but the Quixote is what it is, a wise and sorrowful portrayal of man’s life, and the Connecticut Yankee, invigorated by indignation, is a battle in cowboy style—with lariat and revolver like those of its hero—against Sir Lagramor, in behalf of the majesty and crown of free and simple man. The plot fits into a thimble; a factory foreman, in an encounter with a rebellious worker, is hit in the head with a crowbar. When he regains consciousness, with his skills of the present-day Yankee, electric and hustling, he finds himself in the court where all knowledge resides in Merlin, with the vault of heaven the miter, the loves of Lancelot and Guinevere the kingdom’s morality, and the will of the powerful King Arthur the government. Those travels of the king, incognito and the Yankee who has defeated Merlin and is now prime minister, over the scaffold-studded slopes of the infamous castle, through peasant villages and the fields of plowmen, into the hut of smallpox that was cursed by the Church, with the chains of slaves sold to the highest bidder! That joust of “Slim Jim,” dressed in the tights of a gymnast, astride his prairie nag and armed with only a pistol at his best and a lariat swinging in the air—that joust against the iron tower rushing upon him, the great Sir Lagramor, Merlin’s protégé, who falls backward, his horse’s silver-studded trappings flying in all directions, his arms and legs pointing skyward, the lariat around his neck, and his buttocks in the sand! That site wired for electricity where “Jim” and his fifty-two young men—fifty-two youths of dawning courage with truly marvelous spears never seen before, win a battle against twenty-five thousand defenders equipped with the helmets and suits of armor of knight-errantry. And the language of the essence of Yankeeism.

Twain takes everything typical and expressive in the vernacular, and talks with “Jim” in Yankee and with Merlin and King Arthur in the speech of the chronicles.

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