The Autobiography of Mark Twain
It’s worth wading through this massive tome to mine its nuggets of unalloyed Twain.
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He came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835 and went out with it in 1910. He roared around a good bit in between. At a time when most people lived their whole lives close to home, Twain hopscotched from Missouri to Arizona, from Arizona to California, to the Sandwich Islands, to Florence, to Buffalo and Hartford. And that’s just a sampling. He saw the world from the bottom up and from the top down. The view might have been better from on high, but the company wasn’t nearly as entertaining. He wrote mainly about the people he met on the way up.Skip to next paragraph
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Yes, this autobiography is worth the effort, and the arm strain. Think of yourself as a miner in the Arizona Territory, panning for bits of gold, hoping for that nugget of unalloyed Twain. They’re here but you have to be patient. The author will rattle on and on about how the publisher from whom he snatched Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography was going to cheat the poor (literally poor) national hero and former president – unintentionally, of course, but underpay him spectacularly all the same. Twain’s publishing sleight of hand was a rare business success – and one thinks perhaps he doth protest too much about his rival publisher in order to make his coup seem more gallant.
In fact, Twain seems a bit prone to disputations: with newspaper owners and editors, with entrepreneurs and inventors, landladies and even members of the rarified Monday Evening Club in Hartford. One suspects the author might be a difficult man to get along with at times, perhaps oftentimes. He was, after all, not happy with the human race, himself included, or with its Creator, either. No one was exempt from his withering appraisals, even people he more or less liked.
His biggest regret may have been that he went too easy on his species. He laments that he pulled too many punches in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” a brilliant satire in which he mocks not only feudal 6th-century England but also 19th-century industrial America. In it he anticipates in vivid and frightening details the total, mechanized warfare that would erupt nearly three decades later. He saw clear through his fellow man. He would not be surprised in the least at the fix we are in today.
David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.