Edited by Robert Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith
Univ. of California. 733 pp. $45
The material that composes this, the second volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography (the publication of which he forbade until a century after his death), was dictated by the Man from Missouri in 1906 and ’07. And in case you had any doubt about it, the new book demonstrates that Twain dictated as well as he wrote. Here is a beaut of an anecdote featuring Twain himself; his old crony William Morris Stewart, a U.S. senator from Gilded Age Nevada; and the president of the United States. (The same story is told in Volume 1 of the autobiography, though at shorter length and with much less oomph.)
As Twain tells it, he was in Washington during President Ulysses Grant’s first term. “Near the White House,” he recalls, “one morning, I encountered Senator Stewart. . . . He asked me if I would like to see the President. Naturally I said I would. General Grant was the tallest figure in Christendom at the time, and I had never seen him. I supposed that Stewart merely meant to intrude me into the White House and furnish me a distant look at the President. That he would actually introduce me was a thing which could not occur to me.” But in fact, that was just what the bumptious politician had in mind.
“Stewart went blundering into the President’s private office, by authority of a rude privilege sacred to Senators.“When Stewart made the introduction, “the President slowly raised his head, turned his face, and looked sternly up at me for as much as an hour and a half without winking. I do not mean that it was really that long. I only mean that it seemed that long. When I had endured it as long as I could, and when it seemed to me that somebody must rupture that devastating silence or I should die, I said hesitatingly, ‘Mr. President, I am embarrassed — are you?’ ”
Flash forward years later to a second meeting between the two men (you may recall that, later still, they entered into a business arrangement by which Twain published Grant’s memoirs). It was in Chicago, whose mayor saw fit to present the writer to the ex-president. “General Grant fixed that same stern look upon my face which had congealed the blood in it in a bygone day,” Twain writes; “he allowed it to do its crumbling and disintegrating work upon me for an hour and a half — then he said: ‘Mr. Clemens, I am not embarrassed — are you?’ ”