In the Master’s Voice
The key to understanding Mark Twain’s Autobiography appears almost at the end of this second volume (of what will be three), in a passage written Tuesday, February 26, 1907: “Last week I started a club. The membership is limited to four men; its name is The Human Race. It will lunch at my house twice a month, and its business will be to discuss the rest of the race. It is privileged to examine, criticise, and discuss any matter that concerns the race, and do it freely. In the matter of subjects and manner of temperament, there are no limitations. The reason that certain tender subjects are avoided and forbidden in all other clubs is because those clubs consist of more than four members. Whenever the human race assembles to a number exceeding four, it cannot stand free speech. It is the self-admiring boast of England and America that in those countries a man is free to talk out his opinions, let them be of what complexion they may, but this is one of the human race’s hypocrisies; there has never been any such thing as free speech in any country, and there is no such thing as free speech in England or America when more than four persons are present; and not then, except the four are all of one political and religious creed.
“Whenever our club meets, its first duty will be to synopsize the performances of mankind as reported in the newspapers for the previous fortnight, and then discuss such of these performances as shall require our most urgent attention. After this stern duty shall have been accomplished the talk may wander whither it shall choose. Of a necessity, man will come in for more censures than compliments, more reproach than praise; but he will also have done some things during the fortnight of a sort to earn our commendation, and we shall confer it upon him in full and hearty measure.” My assumption is that two of the four members of this club will be Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain. You can speculate about the remaining two.
When he made these remarks, Twain was in his early 70s, dictating his memoirs and observations on just about anything that came to his mind: recent events from the newspapers; the correspondence he received from friends and disparate readers of his works; passages from his deceased daughter’s, Suzy’s, autobiography; visits from friends and celebrities; and his own movements at the time (often for invited lectures), mostly honoring him because of his age. As triggers for his memories and observations, these events provide an open field for his thoughts—particularly his strong opinions that he feared would not be acceptable during the era when he was writing. A hundred years later (as the guidelines in his will specified) these opinions are hardly controversial at all. One wonders if Twain could witness America today what his observations might be—not shock but perhaps a certain sadness about the trivial focus of our discourse. No surprise then that his Human Race club would best be served limiting the membership to four. Or two, as I have suggested.
Still, the Autobiography provides us with Twain in his prime. His thoughts turn again and again to those he has outlived: not just Suzy but his wife, his brother Orion, and his peers who have also passed away. Clearly, he is aware of his own mortality—in spite of the famous remark he made about his supposed demise, reported in the Evening Sun: “the report is greatly exaggerated.” Many of these reminiscences (such as those of his brother) provide us with accounts of his earlier activities when these people were still alive. Twain was a reporter in Nevada in the 1860s, when Orion was an assistant to the governor. The remarks about Orion provide a source of on-going sadness for him because of his brother’s repeated failures as a businessman.
Twain made his own series of bad business ventures also described in this volume. Once he became successful financially (which meant working out careful arrangements with his publishers—after a series of successful books that had brought him only modest remuneration), he needed to invest his increasing hoard, and that’s where he, too, often made poor decisions. Early on, he purchased patents on “revolutionary” inventions that went no where, losing so much money that when offered the opportunity to invest in an invention called the telephone, by someone named Graham Bell, he passed on that one, a regret that he had for many years. Later, it was the Page typesetting machine that Twain kept pouring money into—a total of $170,000 dollars—and then lost it all. It was a beautiful machine; it simply had too many movable parts given to breaking down. Because of his arrangement with J. W. Page (whom he refers to as “a descendant of Judas Iscariot”), when the business failed, the debts became Twain’s.
What did he do? What he had done before. He paid back all of the creditors by undertaking an elaborate lecture tour around the world. But, obviously, it took its toll on him as did his on-going fight with the government to get the copyright laws changed so that books didn’t go into public domain after forty-two years. (Because of the work of others, that change was finally made.) His interest in copyright extension was forward looking, as were others, growing out of his increased concern that his estate would need to provide on-going income for his heirs, though he was the one who outlived most of them. Livia, his wife, especially needed expensive medical care. The household could not be run on a shoe-string.
Twain’s famous humor also kept him going, though much of what he writes about may be more humorous to the reader than to the man himself. It also borders on the cynical. There are repeated mentions of an on-going battle with houseflies in the Hartford residence. Included in the autobiography is Twain’s famous parable of Christianity’s lock on reason: “Was It Heaven or Hell?” a story about why people lie to one another, why avoiding the truth in certain instances may do more good than telling the truth. Discussing the character of God, he observes, “We brazenly call our God the source of mercy, while we are aware, all the time, that there is not an authentic instance in history of His ever having exercised that virtue. We call Him the source of morals, while we know by his history and by his daily conduct, as perceived with our own senses, that He is totally destitute of anything resembling morals.” Twain rails against the Immaculate Conception. About Adam’s creation, he states, “I believe that our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.” Many of these remarks—some of them like one-liners appropriate for stand-up comedian—are part of the subject of his favorite attack: Christianity. There is no evidence of heaven, he tells us. Some of these remarks, he fears, are so controversial that they should not be available to readers until five hundred years have passed. And finally this telling statement: “It is an awful world—it is a fiendish world.”
The attacks on Christianity never set well with Livia, his wife. For years, it has been known that she edited, i.e., censored, much of what Twain wrote. Suzy’s autobiography proves that beyond any doubt in a revealing passage quoted at the beginning of the entry for November 19, 1906. Twain cites the entry to demonstrate that Suzy—perhaps the love of his life—had a bit of a learning problem. She couldn’t spell properly. “Ever since papa and mamma were married, papa has written his books and then taken them to mamma in manuscript and she has expergated them. Papa read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ to us in manuscript just before it came out, and then he would leave parts of it with mamma to expergate, while he went off up to his study to work, and sometimes Clara and I would be sitting with mamma while she was looking the manuscript over, and I remember so well, with what pangs of regret we used to see her turn down the leaves of the pages, which meant that some delightfully dreadful part must be scratched out. And I remember one part pertickularly which was perfectly fascinating it was dreadful, that Clara and I used to delight in, and on with what despair we saw mamma turn down the leaf on which it was written, we thought the book would be almost ruined without it.”
There’s an anomaly of Twain’s writing and his wife’s control over it. Twain permitted Livia’s censorship of his work in spite of being such a free spirit, going his own way. And the explanation? No doubt in part the ambivalence he had dealing with his wife’s health. But also what he clearly knew from the time he was a child. You can’t win every battle. Pick the ones worth winning.
A much earlier incident in his life when he was still a boy confirms this. When he was growing up in Hannibal, Mo., (in 1850, when he was fifteen), a “mesmerizer,” came to town. Twain was skeptical of the entire thing—the foolish things people did (barking like dogs, recoiling from a snake) at the command of the hypnotist. He was convinced that one of his friends had faked his supposed trance because the boy had little imagination and his antics were uninspired. So Twain volunteered to be hypnotized and put on such a remarkable display of insane antics (including a detailed description of a Virginian mansion where he had never been) that he was celebrated in Hannibal. But it was all fakery on Twain’s part. This is his final remark about mesmerism: “When the magician’s engagement closed there was but one person in the village who did not believe in mesmerism, and I was the one.”
The entries in this second volume of Twain’s autobiography begin April 2, 1906 and conclude February 28, 1907. Though I was fascinated once again by much of what Twain had to say, I was less taken than I was by the first volume, possibly because of the novelty of reading something “new” by the man many people believe is our country’s greatest writer. Still, I will want to read the third and final volume when it appears in a couple more years. The editors of “The Mark Twain Project” should be commended for their massive undertaking.
Were Twain alive today, I’m pretty certain he would be writing for CounterPunch.
Edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith
and Other Editors of the Mark Twain Project
Univ. of California Press, 733 pp., $45
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.