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The Autobiography of Mark Twain

The Last Word, One Hundred Years Later

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Leave it to Mark Twain to have the last word. He died in 1910 while working on his autobiography which he insisted should not be published in its entirety for a hundred years. He believed his opinions—especially about religion and politics—were so controversial that he couldn’t express himself freely during his own lifetime. So The Autobiography of Mark Twain (Vol. 1) has finally appeared, and guess what? With almost no reviews, the book lands on The New York Times Book Review Nonfiction Best Seller list, in second position, the November 7th issue, higher up the list than the increasingly obscene titles that can’t even be printed without missing words. Talk about staying power.

I’d even call this a sign from above. If you look at the rest of the titles on the best seller list, many of them attack President Obama, so who’s reading Mark Twain? Even interested in him? How extraordinary that Twain—who feared he might offend his contemporaries—has become a best-selling writer, weighing in with a hefty 736 page oversized tome with print so small it may make you blind, and this is only the first volume of three volumes. To be fair, the actual autobiography doesn’t begin until page 201. Before that, there’s a lengthy and informative introduction by Harriet Elinor Smith, the editor, followed by miscellaneous manuscripts and dictations, from 1870 to 1905. And, when the actual autobiography ends on page 467, it’s followed by a couple hundred pages of explanatory notes. So the autobiography is 266 pages long.

But these 266 pages are pure Twain—crotchety, sarcastic, funny as hell, cynical, profound, and narrated by someone aware of his approaching death. Most of the passages were dictated beginning in 1906 and avoid strict chronological order. Twain was over seventy when he undertook the project. He had endured terrible financial difficulties because of a disastrous investment in the Paige typesetting machine almost two decades earlier, leaving him bankrupt. He had undertaken a round-the-world lecture tour to repay all the debts. In 1896, his daughter Susy (probably the love of his life) had died from meningitis at twenty-four. The same year, Jean, another daughter, was diagnosed as epileptic. His wife, Olivia, died in 1904. Twain’s darkest novel, The Mysterious Stranger, was written during these years but not published until after his death.

The temptation as a reviewer is to quote extensively from the autobiography, but there is so much choice material here that this review would never be finished. Thus, what follows is simply a teaser, which will hopefully lure you into reading the book. About the autobiographical form itself and a certain hesitancy about undertaking it, Twain mused, “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, (which are but the mere articulation of his feelings,) not those other things, are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust off his world, with its scattered snow summits and its vacant wastes of water—and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! A mere skin enveloping it. The mass of his is hidden—it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. Every day would make a whole book of eighty thousand words—three hundred and sixty-five books a year. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man himself cannot be written.”

About the character of man: “Concerning Man—he is too large a subject to be treated as a whole; so I will discuss a detail or two of him at this time. I desire to contemplate him from this point of view—this premises: that he was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn’t served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working himself up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably matter of surprise and regret to the Creator.” And regarding tolerance: “All the talk about tolerance, in anything or anywhere, is plainly a gentle lie. It does not exist. It is in no man’s heart; but it unconsciously and by moss-growth inherited habit, drivels and slobbers from all men’s lips. Intolerance is everything for one’s self, and nothing for the other person. The main-spring of man’s nature is just that—selfishness.”

Many of Susy’s own terse, biographical writings about her parents are incorporated into the autobiography, often becoming the spring board for Twain’s own observations. In a profoundly moving incident, Twain relates an incident when late in Olivia’s life he denied her a minor request because of the inconvenience it would have been for him. His observation: “And how brutal—that I could not be moved to confer upon my wife a precious and lasting joy because it would cause me a small inconvenience. I have known few meaner men that I am. By good fortune that feature of my nature does not often get to the surface, and so I doubt if any member of my family except my wife ever suspected how much of that feature there was in me. I suppose it never failed to arrive at the surface when there was opportunity, but it was as I have said—the opportunities have been so infrequent that this worst detail of my character has never been known but to two persons—Mrs. Clemens, who suffered from it, and I, who suffer from the remembrance of the tears it caused her.”

So this is Mark Twain complete for the first time, since bits and pieces of his autobiography have been quoted and referred to by Twain’s various biographers during the past hundred years but never have we had access to the entire half a million words (once all three volumes are published). And what do all these words tell us? Not only was Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens a man for all ages but probably the country’s greatest writer, also for all ages.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith
Volume 1: University of California Press, 736 pp., $34.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.