MARK TWAIN’S GREAT SUBJECT. Putting to one side HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Mark Twain would remain a giant. I read somewhere (and have looked for it unsuccessfully on Google) that Henry James had missed out on the great subject of the development of America in the last half of the nineteenth century. Mark Twain took on that subject, and I think that critics who dismiss his work as not sufficiently weighty underestimate the importance of that subject. Twain’s voice is new to literature, so much so that books before it are referred to as “in the genteel tradition.” The exaggerations—the “stretchings”—are part of that voice, but so is the scoffing. LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPI (which should be counted as one of Twain’s great books) portrays the opening of a continent. THE INNOCENTS ABROAD (apparently Twain’s best selling book in his lifetime) shows American attitudes to Europe as persuasively as Henry James does–only the attitudes are different.

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