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'Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3': rambling, cantankerous, funny – and sad

In addition to humor and raw partisanship, the book is punctuated with moments of great darkness.

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    Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3
    By Mark Twain
    University of California Press
    792 pp.
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The third and final volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography is finally here and it is much like its younger siblings, birthed in 2010 and 2013 by Caesarean section as well: obese, rambling, cantankerous, repetitious and, of course, funny.

The tale of Wrapping Alice, a member of the household staff who turns out to be a man, is a delight and involves a cameo by an alliterative Swedish tradesman, Bjurnsen Bjuggersen Bjorgensen. That name alone will get the reader through the next 100 pages.

The book runs to 715 pages, including references, notes etc., and boasts a gaggle of editors, who don’t appear to lay a glove on the verbatim transcripts of Twain’s periodic dictation from March 1907 to late December 1909. The only order herein is the chronological appearance of each entry. It has been thus for all three volumes, and the simplistic charm of this approach has its limits.

At one point Twain is recounting his meeting with King Edward VII of England and alludes to a previous encounter with Edward when he was a mere prince. The author reports that he dictated that story “more than a year ago” and that it eventually will surface in his finished autobiography. If ever there is a moment for the aforementioned swarm of annotators to earn their keep, surely this is it. Was said encounter described in volume one or two? A summary of it would be most welcome. But, alas, as Twain well knew, there is no accounting for editors. 

In addition to spinning the occasional good yarn, the author continues to pummel the usual suspects, among them President Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, copyright laws, himself, and the human race. He is deeply cynical about the world and his own nation. He returns again in this volume to his belief that America will soon revert to a form of monarchy, that humankind simply isn’t capable of sustaining democratic polity.

The enduring popularity of Roosevelt despite the calamitous Panic of 1907 mystifies Twain, who points out that it is the plutocrat J.P. Morgan rather than the trust-busting president who rides to the nation’s rescue. He opines: “Mr. Roosevelt is the most formidable disaster that has befallen this country since the Civil War – but the vast mass of the nation loves him, is frantically fond of him, even idolizes him … it sounds like a libel on the intelligence of the human race, but it isn’t; there isn’t any way to libel the intelligence of the human race.”

In addition to humor and raw partisanship, the book is punctuated with sadness. The author’s friends and family are dying all about him. In fact, the book begins with a lament on the death of Isabella Beecher Hooker, former Hartford neighbor, suffragist, and the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. By 1907 Twain has lost his wife and two of four children and the death of his daughter Jean on Christmas Eve, 1909 brings his dictations to an abrupt halt. Twain would die four months hence.

The most coherent and engaging section of this volume is Twain’s account of his triumphant, month-long sojourn in Great Britain, occasioned by the honorary degree that the University of Oxford bestowed on him. The man who relentlessly satirized kings, dukes, kinglets and such gaudy truck is welcomed with loving arms by the British, starting with the stevedores at dock as his ship comes in. Royalty will follow their lead, and Twain gets to hobnob with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In this last chapter in his life, he is the most interesting man in the world – and  arguable the most famous as well. Being renowned, of course, isn’t all toasts and pâté. Much of the discourse herein deals with the trauma of fame and the mundane challenges of a very wealthy man with an ungainly entourage. He makes comedic hay from some of this. The tales of his eccentric staff – such as Maria McManus, his daughter’s “damp-nurse” who is fond of the grape – are quite funny.

In some cases, however, the domestic drama is quite serious. This volume’s final chapter is Twain’s long account – dubbed The Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript – of the events that led him to fire his business manager along with his secretary and housekeeper. It is the stuff of tabloid headlines, but long, involved, and unrelenting: a sandbox perhaps for Twain scholars but hardly winning fare for the lay reader.

Household horrors notwithstanding, Twain’s eclectic autobiography does reveal much about how he lived and what he thought. He makes a clear distinction between his public thoughts and his private ones. The later he deemed too radical and grim for his contemporaries to appreciate, and, not incidentally, too detrimental to the high regard in which the world held him. Hence he made sure that his autobiography would not be published until long after his death.

Twain's private thoughts are decidedly unfunny. He has come to believe that there is no such thing as free will or self-sacrifice. We are compelled to do the things we do, whether good or bad. And he freely confesses that he can’t bring himself to share his pessimistic views with the world that idolizes him.

Twain is not proud of this, explaining: “What a coward every man is … The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in the procession but carrying the banner.”    

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