The sorrow dulled a little as the days passed. Just after Christmas Clemens wrote to Howells:
I haven’t done a stroke
of work since the Atlantic dinner. But I’m
going to try to-morrow. How could I ever——
Ah, well, I am a great and
sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool,
and all his work must be contemplated with respect.
So long as that unfortunate speech is remembered there will be differences of opinion as to its merits and propriety. Clemens himself, reading it for the first time in nearly thirty years, said:
“I find it gross, coarse—well, I needn’t go on with particulars. I don’t like any part of it, from the beginning to the end. I find it always offensive and detestable. How do I account for this change of view? I don’t know.”
But almost immediately afterward he gave it another consideration and reversed his opinion completely. All the spirit and delight of his old first conception returned, and preparing it for publication, he wrote:
—[North American Review, December, 1907, now with comment included in the volume of “Speeches.” (Also see Appendix O, at the end of last volume.)—I have read it twice, and unless I am an idiot it hasn’t a single defect in it, from the first word to the last. It is just as good as good can be. It is smart; it is saturated with humor. There isn’t a suggestion of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere.]
It was altogether like Mark Twain to have those two absolutely opposing opinions in that brief time; for, after all, it was only a question of the human point of view, and Mark Twain’s points of view were likely to be as extremely human as they were varied.
Of course the first of these impressions, the verdict of the fresh mind uninfluenced by the old conception, was the more correct one. The speech was decidedly out of place in that company. The skit was harmless enough, but it was of the Comstock grain. It lacked refinement, and, what was still worse, it lacked humor, at least the humor of a kind suited to that long-ago company of listeners. It was another of those grievous mistakes which genius (and not talent) can make, for genius is a sort of possession. The individual is pervaded, dominated for a time by an angel or an imp, and he seldom, of himself, is able to discriminate between his controls. A literary imp was always lying in wait for Mark Twain; the imp of the burlesque, tempting him to do the ‘outre’, the outlandish, the shocking thing. It was this that Olivia Clemens had to labor hardest against: the cheapening of his own high purpose with an extravagant false note, at which sincerity, conviction, and artistic harmony took wings and fled away. Notably he did a good burlesque now and then, but his fame would not have suffered if he had been delivered altogether from his besetting temptation.