The Autobiography of Mark Twain

It’s worth wading through this massive tome to mine its nuggets of unalloyed Twain.

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    The Autobiography of Mark Twain:
    Volume 1
    By Mark Twain
    University of California Press
    760 pp., $34.95
    View Caption

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, is a weighty piece of literature: five pounds if it’s an ounce, and 736 pages long. But please don’t blame Mr. Mark Twain. The first 58 pages are hijacked by an editor, and the last 267 pages are squandered on appendixes, notes, references, indexes, lost laundry tickets, and recipes for chicken con carne. Those last two might not be all together accurate, but let it go. I defy anyone to disprove me by wading through this semantic morass.

Surrounded though he is by six editors, Twain still manages to get a few words in edgewise. At one point he describes his feeling about being edited for the first time in 32 years: “The idea! That this long-eared animal – this literary kangaroo – this bastard of the Muses – this illiterate hostler, with his skull full of axle-grease – this.... But I stopped there, for this was not the right Christian spirit.”

It is well that Twain did not live to be 175 and witness the publication of his posthumous, unexpurgated autobiography. It would have laid him low, to be sure. Parts of it repeat passages from editions of his previously published autobiography: an account of his first public lecture, for example. There are new segments here, of course, but they hardly seem scandalous or scathing enough to have been kept from the public for a century after his death. Perhaps Volumes 2 and 3 will contain more of the rockets’ red glare.

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The truth is that the juicy, uncensored stuff has been leaking out for decades, such as in “Letters for the Earth,” prepared for publication in 1937 but not released until 1962. In it, Twain, a nominal Christian for most of his life, fulminates against the Almighty in the most sacrilegious fashion imaginable. Nothing in the current volume comes close.

Having said all that, it is worth dodging the phalanx of editors to get at Twain’s prose and off-the-cuff observations. Some of these pieces were dictated late in his life. He is a marvel of observation and verbal assassination. This is how he sneaks up on a newspaper editor: “[He was] a man of sterling character and equipped with the right heart, also an historian where facts were not essential.” He nails Teddy Roosevelt: “He flies from one thing to another with incredible dispatch – throws a somersault and is straightaway back again where he was last week. He will then throw some more somersaults and nobody can foretell where he is finally going to land after the series.” His description of Londoners throwing pennies from tenement windows to bedraggled street singers below is delightful.

Such reports remind the reader that Twain began his literary career as a journalist and before that he was a miner and before that a deserter from the Confederacy. He was a man on the make, an American through and through. He was poor and made a fortune. Lost it and made another one. He would become one of the most famous men in the world; cavort with presidents, plutocrats, and generals; and live at times like the royalty he so vividly scorned in a world that was still chock-full of kings and queens and dukes and such gaudy truck.

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.

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.

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