José Martí on Mark Twain’s Literary Humor

José Martí’s pioneering remarks on Mark Twain underlines why the great American humorist stands among the universal authors that transcend.

The first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiographical trilogy met its release date in mid-November last year. With due prudence, the author who championed the art of literary humor in America (née Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had asked editors to publish the self-told story of his life only after clearing one hundred years of his death.

With the publication now shelved at major bookstores, readers may test if the trademark acerbity of his prose can still deliver the type of chuckle our world begs for today. Uncensored and branding a non-chronological freestyle narrative, readers may delight as the clipped twang voice knocks highfalutin mainstream and undresses, among other quirks and twists, the failures of our humankind.

Transcendental Humor

Humor might hold the title of being studied as much as a laboratory guinea pig. In the higher reaps of literature, it “can be dissected, as a frog can,” complained E.B. White, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Lofty thinkers such as H. Spencer, A. Schopenhauer, and E. Kant had cross-sectioned humor based on the “theory of incongruity,” for laughter—they coincided—most often erupts from a sudden breach in the logic of an expected action. But here again, the less than purely scientific mind shrugs its shoulders before the inmost coils of what strikes just as an ephemeral value.

In 1949, the Danish psychologist H. Hoeffding revealed a distinction of interest to thoughtful writing. Transcendental humor, he noted, may trickle as a rare occurrence, but worthwhile literature attains it when embracing our “total feelings.” It seldom stirs a belly laugh, he added, but rather a smile from within, subtle and quieting, and above all, humanizing beyond any national frontier.

José Martí on Mark Twain

José Martí (1853-95) was the first to write in Spanish on Twain while stationed as a correspondent in New York City. The most prestigious and widely read newspaper then in Latin America, La Nación, from Buenos Aires, published his first set of remarks on Twain early in January 1885.

United States stood then as the grail for modernity in the hemisphere, and its south-of-the-border neighbors, avid for development and progress after straggling under the Spanish Crown, could hardly wait to read Martí’s weekly “letters,” which other papers in the region soon nicked and reprinted. Up to this day in Latin America, most of the impressions about its northern counterpart originated from Martí’s late journalism.

Twain’s “Magnificent Gibe”

At a time when capitalistic prowess in the New World furnished the chief referent for moral conduct, Martí praised how Twain defied it from the vicissitudes of his own life experiences. “It is necessary for literature to have a soul bleeding underneath it,” he noted. In his view, Twain was born smack out of Nature, not out of the evermore-languid excesses of books.

That “magnificent gibe” with which the comic realist cautioned against the narrow foresight of his homeland also concerned Martí, who had already predicted Twain’s chide with respect to United States’ meddling in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. T

he quintessential American contrarian, observed Martí, writes books by which readers can laugh, though the comical does not derive from caricaturizing, but rather from discerning our contradictions with apparent innocent slyness. Twain was indeed a master at “contrasting with great artistry what affects thought and feeling, and what is thought and felt,” concluded Martí.

Twain’s Side-Excursions

The autobiographical writing method that also defined Twain’s lifestyle splays to what he calls side-excursions from all mental stockades and ordinariness. “Loyalty to petrified opinion,” he admonished, “never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.” These “extra-lived” moments, as Martí would have said, were in Twain’s phrasing “the life of our life-voyage, and should be, also, of its history.”

The American free-spirited author eked humor under this premise in literature. He saw in humans a pathetic farce over which a good mock could awake us to greater possibilities. Truth and benevolence alone are not sufficient to slake our thirst for happiness. Our future must also feed on a creative fib drawn from the purest laws of Nature.

A century ago, when Twain at last devised an adequate storyline technique for his autobiography, he also hit upon the perfect moment for another check on the transcendence of his humor. To read his autobiography today may also test the validity of a true smile.

[January 2, 2010]

Top image: Fairy Tales by Paul Klee, 1920

Photo: A. F. Bradley, 1907