Mark Twain and his never-ending autobiography are back.
Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 was published this month, following on the heels of Volume 1, which became an immediate bestseller when published in 2010. (Twain required that this work be kept private until 100 years after his death. It will be capped by a third volume.)
But don’t look for the trappings of a traditional autobiography anywhere in this mammoth book. It consists of unvarnished dictations that Twain produced from April 1906 through February 1907, seasoned here and there with news articles that caught Twain’s fancy, letters, and scraps of literature from various sources, including a biography of him written by his daughter Susy when she was a teenager.
The dates of the dictation are the only aspect of the text that are chronological. Twain, who was 71 years old in 1906 (he died four years later), meanders hither and yon with no apologies. His topmost goal is to entertain himself. He knows that what he says will not appear in print until long after his death, so he has few if any societal inhibitions. Literarily, he is a dead man talking.
Twain had been working on his autobiography in fits and starts for a quarter of a century with little success. But by this point he has grown tired of writing and admits there are a handful of books lurking in him that will never see the light of day. That is as sad as almost anything else in this book.
Indeed, the great writer and humorist frequently is sad, weary, and deeply cynical in this volume. His wife and soul mate, Livy, two of their four children, and many friends have died. (He will outlive a third child, Jean.) He is not happy with his country, its recent imperialistic adventures, his species, his God, his late brother Orion, or then-President Theodore Roosevelt, whom he ranks as the worst chief executive ever. He even pretends not to be happy with himself, but this lacks conviction.
Twain believes that he will not live much longer and seems cheered by the prospect. Despite such gloom, his devastating wit is in evidence. Waiting his turn to speak to a theater audience of several thousand people, he reports, “A man who couldn’t speak, spoke. And a woman who couldn’t sing, sang. Another man who couldn’t speak, spoke. A mixed string-and-banjo-band made some noises, and when the house rejoiced that the affliction was over, the band took it for an encore and did the noises over again.”
Twain ambles through eternal truths and trivia, telling of world events and personal piques. Witticisms appear at random intervals, and the ensuing laughter can be dangerous to the lower extremities if one doesn’t have a vicelike grip on this weighty tome. The reader encounters the likes of Helen Keller, Uncle Remus (Joel Chandler Harris), and the German emperor (who asked the famous author to dine with him) – along with Twain’s commentary on palmistry, mesmerism, the campaign for simplified spelling, minstrel shows (which Twain recalls fondly), and multiple discourses on copyright laws.
The unrestrained Twain surprises. Having previously written about the inanity of kings and predicted the demise of hereditary folly, he is now worried that the monarchy – perhaps in the form of an imperial presidency – will mount a comeback, that mankind isn’t up to the exigencies of democracy. As with so many things Twain has written, such commentary has a remarkable shelf life.
Actual autobiographic tidbits are scarce. Twain’s mother had eight or nine children (he isn’t sure), but we learn only of Orion. (Twain’s life and times are far better and concisely chronicled in a previous autobiographical distillation, edited by the late Charles Neider and published more than half a century ago.)
We almost didn’t have Twain. He claims to have nearly died on numerous occasions. Even when healthy, his future was riotously uncertain. In the early 1860s, in his mid-20s, he was scratching out a living in the Nevada territory as a day laborer. He recalls: “Once more there was no outlook, and I stood upon the very verge of the ministry or the penitentiary – nothing could save me but an accident.” He fell into journalism, thankfully.
As in Volume I, Twain is pursued by a posse of editors. They get the last word in this book – 238 pages worth, filled with minutia and detritus enough to choke a blue whale. Nonscholars will be tempted to skip these pages, but they should at least note the editors’ warning that Twain “takes considerable liberties with the facts.”
Twain himself was quick to concede that “when we are hot with the fires of production we would even distort the facts of the multiplication table.” Maybe so. Butas long as it’s the great Twain doing the distorting, I suspect most readers will share my attitude, which is: “Let ’im rip.”
David Holahan is a Monitor contributor