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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 187

opinion that he was a humorist merely, he did depend in his art primarily upon the humorist’s technique. “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art,” he said of the oral method of humor. Now the tricks of oral delivery are those he used most, whether he spoke or wrote. His rapid improvisation has the effect of flowing speech. To all appearances—which are borne out by what is known of his habits of composition—he drove his pen through his sentences at almost the rate of conversation, and had constantly a physical audience in mind. On it he tried his “wandering and purposeless” incongruities, his “slurring of the point,” his “dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, apparently as if one were thinking aloud.” When actually lecturing he could hold, with his inflections and pauses, the attention of the most fastidious hearers as well as of the ordinary crowd, making capital of his lower moments and shading down the higher with humorous deprecation. Perhaps he never realized how far the coldness of print limited him in his control over his readers. At any rate, his methods were essentially oral. They reveal themselves in his partiality for autobiographical narrative, in his rambling sentence-structure, in his anticlimaxes and afterthoughts. Above all they are revealed in his humoristic device of occupying the stage so much of the time in his own person. For Mark Twain to practise his art was, more than with any other American writer, to exhibit and expound his own personality. The greatness of his personality was the measure of his fame.



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