Van Wyck Brooks William Lyon Phelps - Essay

William Lyon Phelps

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many books have been written about Mark Twain; but with the exception of Paine's biography—perhaps the best biography ever written by an American—this work ["The Ordeal of Mark Twain"] by Mr. Van Wyck Brooks is the most important and the most essential. Mr. Brooks is one of our ablest critics, for he combines catholicity of taste with an almost austere sincerity. His book, like all books filled with ideas, is a challenge; it contains so much truth that it provokes and disturbs the reader, as all critical writing should do….

I say that this book contains much truth. I do not think it contains all the truth, or that it is wholly true. But it is packed with ideas….

The main idea in this book is that Mark Twain's career was a tragedy—a tragedy for himself and a tragedy for mankind. Every man who does not live up to his highest possibilities is living in a state of sin. Mark Twain was, therefore, one of the chief of sinners, because his possibilities were so great and he fell so short….

If I understand Mr. Brooks correctly, there were two villains in Mark Twain's tragedy—his mother and his wife. His mother was more eager to have him good than to have him great; his wife wanted him to be a gentleman. Between them they tamed the lion and made him perform parlor tricks. This hypothesis is worked out by Mr. Brooks with such ingenuity and such force that I can only advise every one to read the whole book with serious attention to every page. Yet although there is much truth in this explanation, I do not believe it to be the whole truth nor the real reason for Mark Twain's pessimism. (p. 1)

I do not believe that Mark Twain would have been happier if he had completely shaken off his mother's influence or if he had trampled on his wife's sensibilities. If he really were dissatisfied with his achievements—however unconscious that discontent may have been—this was not, I think, owing to the restrictions placed on him by his conventional wife; it was owing to the natural self-reproach in...

(The entire section is 848 words.)