Essays on Paul Bourget by Mark Twain

absorption, and put both of them into his tales alive. But when he came

from the Pacific to the Atlantic and tried to do Newport life from study-

conscious observation–his failure was absolutely monumental. Newport is

a disastrous place for the unacclimated observer, evidently.

To return to novel-building. Does the native novelist try to generalize

the nation? No, he lays plainly before you the ways and speech and life

of a few people grouped in a certain place–his own place–and that is

one book. In time he and his brethren will report to you the life and

the people of the whole nation–the life of a group in a New England

village; in a New York village; in a Texan village; in an Oregon village;

in villages in fifty States and Territories; then the farm-life in fifty

States and Territories; a hundred patches of life and groups of people in

a dozen widely separated cities. And the Indians will be attended to;

and the cowboys; and the gold and silver miners; and the negroes; and the

Idiots and Congressmen; and the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the

Swedes, the French, the Chinamen, the Greasers; and the Catholics, the

Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the

Spiritualists, the Mormons, the Shakers, the Quakers, the Jews, the

Campbellites, the infidels, the Christian Scientists, the Mind-Curists,

the Faith-Curists, the train-robbers, the White Caps, the Moonshiners.

And when a thousand able novels have been written, there you have the

soul of the people, the life of the people, the speech of the people; and

not anywhere else can these be had. And the shadings of character,

manners, feelings, ambitions, will be infinite.

“‘The nature of a people’ is always of a similar shade in its

vices and its virtues, in its frivolities and in its labor.

‘It is this physiognomy which it is necessary to discover’,

and every document is good, from the hall of a casino to the

church, from the foibles of a fashionable woman to the

suggestions of a revolutionary leader. I am therefore quite

sure that this ‘American soul’, the principal interest and the

great object of my voyage, appears behind the records of

Newport for those who choose to see it.”–M. Paul Bourget.

[The italics (”) are mine. It is a large contract which he has

undertaken. “Records” is a pretty poor word there, but I think the use

of it is due to hasty translation. In the original the word is ‘fastes’.

I think M. Bourget meant to suggest that he expected to find the great

“American soul” secreted behind the ostentatious of Newport; and that he

was going to get it out and examine it, and generalize it, and

psychologize it, and make it reveal to him its hidden vast mystery: “the

nature of the people” of the United States of America. We have been

accused of being a nation addicted to inventing wild schemes. I trust

that we shall be allowed to retire to second place now.

There isn’t a single human characteristic that can be safely labeled

“American.” There isn’t a single human ambition, or religious trend,

or drift of thought, or peculiarity of education, or code of principles,

or breed of folly, or style of conversation, or preference for a

particular subject for discussion, or form of legs or trunk or head or

face or expression or complexion, or gait, or dress, or manners, or

disposition, or any other human detail, inside or outside, that can

rationally be generalized as “American.”

Whenever you have found what seems to be an “American” peculiarity, you

have only to cross a frontier or two, or go down or up in the social

scale, and you perceive that it has disappeared. And you can cross the

Atlantic and find it again. There may be a Newport religious drift, or

sporting drift, or conversational style or complexion, or cut of face,

but there are entire empires in America, north, south, east, and west,

where you could not find your duplicates. It is the same with everything

else which one might propose to call “American.” M. Bourget thinks he

has found the American Coquette. If he had really found her he would

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Categories: Twain, Mark