Scribner's Magazine
Book Reviews by Eli Siegel 1931-1934

From Scribner's, November 1932

Mark Twain's America, by Bernard DeVoto. Little, Brown. $4.

Mr. DeVoto is profoundly furious. He is tired of certain critics. He is the West intellectually rising at the East. He takes America away from the clinicians to the believers in corpuscular joy. He thinks that various esteemed critics of Mark Twain have a pitiful notion of what he's about. He is through with the Thin-blooded Criticism of America. His book should start a much-needed and extensive row.

It is as a patriot in the 1932 manner that Mr. DeVoto writes. He implies that both Dostoievsky and Arkansas can be beautiful. And since he sees Mark Twain as having in him more than any other writer the unlimited and astounding truth of forty-eight States, he wants him studied—as Homer has been studied; not as a bodiless and sourceless instance of frustration.

And so Mr. DeVoto has it in for Messrs. Brooks, Frank, and Mumford. These critics he regards as plainly inequipped for some of their chosen jobs. Mr. Brooks, author of the most influential critical work on Mark Twain, is most largely the object of Mr. DeVoto's mental charges. He shows, to my satisfaction, anyway, that Mr. Brooks started on the Twain job without a complete set of tools. And he had measurements and plans and time; but no lumber.

It may very well be that a new period in the history of United States thought will have some sort of ascertainable beginning in "Mark Twain's America." I do not mean this to be the flamboyant laudation it may seem. For plainly, America is looking at itself newly these days; and more effectively than anywhere else I know, Mr. DeVoto's book contains the makeup of its new attitude. And, therefore, Mr. DeVoto's scoldings of Messrs. Brooks, Frank, and Mumford are not just scoldings: they are inevitable declarations of intellectual war. America has had joy, says Mr. DeVoto; it has had a folk-art; life in it has been just as free and as essentially aesthetic as anywhere else; this America made Mark Twain, and didn't ruin him; and if you don't know the earthy, coarse, glowing, cruel and beautiful Southwest of say, 1830, you might as well stick to Mallarme and keep off the Mark Twain sector.

In the activity of taking America and Twain out of the hands of the mournfully misinformed, Mr. DeVoto goes, at times, critically wild, and is unfair. His intensely loving concentration on Twain has made him, I imagine, unseeing of the joyous qualities of other American writers. Twain's mind did have its rifts and chasms, and unfortunate anaesthesias—as all writers' minds have had. That is why it is more than ever necessary not to miss powers in an author towards whom one is spiritually indisposed. An author to whom Mr. DeVoto is unfair is Emerson. He calls Whittier and Longfellow better artists than he; and doesn't seem to have much use for him generally. Well, Emerson had life in him that Mr. DeVoto doesn't seem to see; and on Mark Twain's own terms, insofar as there is more life in Emerson—much more—than in Whittier or Longfellow, he is the better artist, in the essential meaning of that word. And Mr. DeVoto really maltreats Bret Harte: Harte wasn't the literary good-for-nothing our critic represents him as being.

And I here come to the danger contained in "Mark Twain's America." It may make for a new kind of literary unfairness. Twain himself could be ragingly unfair,— in the same way that Bostonians were unfair to him. He could not accommodate himself to honest artistic worlds that were foreign to his way of mind. He saw no good in Jane Austen or James Fenimore Cooper: entirely different people and both good. The danger I talk of is the coming into existence of a "rough" and "wild-and-woolly" cock-eyedness in literature. It so happens that Mark Twain and William Cullen Bryant are both good writers; and if American criticism goes Trans-Mississippi, it may be that only literary boulders will be seen as good, with carved marbles forgot. But we should like both Nevada and New England; both "The Big Bear of Arkansas" and Emily Dickinson.

Eli Siegel.

Reviews by Eli Siegel from Scribner's Magazines 1931-1934. Copyright 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 Charles Scribner's Sons; copyrights renewed. Reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.

More Scribner's Reviews by Eli Siegel

arrowA Calendar of Sin by Evelyn Scott
arrowMark Twain's America by Bernard DeVoto
arrowTragic America by Theodore Dreiser
arrowThe Road Leads On by Knut Hamsun
arrowEva Gayby Evelyn Scott
arrowThe Life of Emerson by Van Wyck Brooks
arrowAdventures in Genius by Will Durant
arrowAnn Vickersby Sinclair Lewis
arrowBreathe Upon These Slain by Evelyn Scott
arrowThe Sheltered Life by Ellen Glasgow
arrowEimi by E.E. Cummings
arrowJohn Dryden by T.S. Eliot
arrowSelected Essays
: 1917-1932 by T.S. Eliot

arrowThe First Wife and Other Stories by Pearl S. Buck
arrowThe Sibyl of the North: The Tale of Christina, Queen of
by Faith Compton Mackenzie
arrowThe Soul of America by Arthur Hobson Quinn
arrowThree Cities: A Trilogy by Sholom Asch
arrowEdmund Kean by Harold Newcomb Hillebrand
arrowWilliam Carlos Williams: Collected Poems, 1921-1931
arrowA Cultural History of the Modern Age by Egon Friedell, Vol. II
arrowThe Proud and the Meek(Men of Good Will, Part II)
     by Jules Romains
arrowThe Proud and the Meek(Men of Good Will, vol. III)
     by Jules Romains

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