Howells tells of discussing these vital matters with him in “an upper room, looking south over a quiet, open space of back yards where,” he says, “we fought our battles in behalf of the Filipinos and Boers, and he carried on his campaign against the missionaries in China.”
Howells at the time expressed an amused fear that Mark Twain’s countrymen, who in former years had expected him to be merely a humorist, should now, in the light of his wider acceptance abroad, demand that he be mainly serious.
But the American people were quite ready to accept him in any of his phases, fully realizing that whatever his philosophy or doctrine it would have somewhat of the humorous form, and whatever his humor, there would somewhere be wisdom in it. He had in reality changed little; for a generation he had thought the sort of things which he now, with advanced years and a different audience, felt warranted in uttering openly. The man who in ’64 had written against corruption in San Francisco, who a few years later had defended the emigrant Chinese against persecution, who at the meetings of the Monday Evening Club had denounced hypocrisy in politics, morals, and national issues, did not need to change to be able to speak out against similar abuses now. And a newer generation as willing to herald Mark Twain as a sage as well as a humorist, and on occasion to quite overlook the absence of the cap and bells.
MARK TWAIN—GENERAL SPOKESMAN
Clemens did not confine his speeches altogether to matters of reform. At a dinner given by the Nineteenth Century Club in November, 1900, he spoke on the “Disappearance of Literature,” and at the close of the discussion of that subject, referring to Milton and Scott, he said:
Professor Winchester also said something about there being no modern epics like “Paradise Lost.” I guess he’s right. He talked as if he was pretty familiar with that piece of literary work, and nobody would suppose that he never had read it. I don’t believe any of you have ever read “Paradise Lost,” and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic—something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
Professor Trent also had a good deal to say about the disappearance of literature. He said that Scott would outlive all his critics. I guess that’s true. That fact of the business is you’ve got to be one of two ages to appreciate Scott. When you’re eighteen you can read Ivanhoe, and you want to wait until you’re ninety to read some of the rest. It takes a pretty well-regulated abstemious critic to live ninety years.
But a few days later he was back again in the forefront of reform, preaching at the Berkeley Lyceum against foreign occupation in China. It was there that he declared himself a Boxer.