Mr. Clemens, in his own words

By Jonathan Yardley
Friday, November 19, 2010; 2:06 PM


Volume 1

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith

Univ. of California. 716 pp. $34.95

Hard upon a fat dose of advance publicity - including a cover story in Newsweek and a front-page report in the New York Times - here at last is the first volume of the "Autobiography of Mark Twain," published as its author wished a century after his death. To date the response in the press and elsewhere has mostly been genuflection and adulation, not surprising perhaps when one considers that this is a "new" book by one of the very few American writers whose greatness is beyond question. Still, our gratitude for this book should be tempered by an objective reading of it, which yields less rhapsodic judgments.

The first caveat is that not much in this first volume is really "new"; most of it has appeared (often gratuitously and insensitively edited) in various forms, including previous books passed off by their editors as Twain's autobiography. Reports from the Mark Twain Project at the University of California in Berkeley indicate that significantly more unpublished material will be in the forthcoming second and third volumes, but readers looking in this one for bombshells from the distant past will encounter precious few detonations, or at least few that have not already been ignited.

A second caveat is that the scholars at the Twain Project - the importance and value of whose labors should not for a moment be minimized - have included vastly more scholarly apparatus in this edition than will be either useful or appealing to most general readers. The result is that of this book's 736 pages, only 264 are taken up by the autobiography itself. The other 500 or so pages include "Preliminary Manuscripts and Dictations" done by Twain between 1870 and 1905 and nearly 200 pages of "Explanatory Notes." The result is a book immense in both size and weight, uncongenial for armchair reading. I wish that California had published it in separate volumes, one for the autobiography itself and the other for the supplemental material, and I hope that in time it will publish the autobiography, without apparatus, in a paperback edition. (It is, however, now available as an e-book.)

Thus as it comes to us now the autobiography is a book for scholars rather than readers and must be approached as such. Though the scholarship is (or appears to be) impeccable, it gets in the way. My advice is to skip it. I read the long introduction, all the preliminary manuscripts and many of the explanatory notes, and found that I could have done quite happily without them, though it's useful to be reminded in the introduction that Twain began making stabs at telling his life's story in 1870 and had been repeatedly frustrated in the effort, largely because he was torn between his instinctive urge to tell the truth and his mature understanding that certain truths simply cannot be told, either because they would be too painful to others or because they are beyond the memoirist's understanding.

Finally, he made two decisions that allowed him to get underway: to delay publication for a century after his death, giving him what he called "a freedom which he could secure in no other way"; and to dictate rather than write his story, permitting him "to wander whenever I please and come back when I get ready." He began his dictations in January 1906 and continued work on the project nearly to the end of his life, though what we have here was dictated in a mere three months. By late March 1906 he had developed what he called a "system" of autobiography, and he had a very high opinion of it:

"I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published, after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method. . . . It is a deliberate system, and the law of the system is that I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted. It is a system which follows no charted course and is not going to follow any such course. It is a system which is a complete and purposed jumble - a course which begins nowhere, follows no specific route, and can never reach an end while I am alive. . . ."

Every memoirist is of course entitled to tell his or her story in whatever manner seems most appealing, but Twain chose one loaded with pitfalls. His was one of the most interesting and unpredictable minds this country has produced, but this discursive ramble through his life and mind proves nothing so much as that what interested him at any given moment is not necessarily of interest to anyone else. Reading the "Autobiography of Mark Twain" too often is like being trapped in a locked room with a garrulous old coot (Twain turned 70 just before these dictations began) who loves the sound of his own voice and hasn't the slightest inclination to turn it off. The best passages here are funny or thoughtful or touching or outspoken, sometimes all at once, but others are merely buzzes, hums and drones.

Dictation is a wonderfully easy way to write, but it's also a wonderfully easy way to avoid the writer's obligations of self-discipline and discrimination. If I may inject a personal note, in the early 1990s I was invited to edit the professional memoir of H.L. Mencken, newly opened to the public at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. It had been dictated to his secretary and ran to nearly 1,800 pages, many of them clogged with the minutiae that Mencken loved not wisely but too well. I removed some 60 percent of the contents, preserving (so I like to think) the wheat of the book and eliminating the chaff. As it happens, Twain's chaff is often better than Mencken's, but chaff it still is, and the reader must be prepared for it.

The good parts? Early on, there's a lovely extended passage about Twain's boyhood summers at his uncle's farm in Missouri. It begins, "The life which I led there with my cousins was full of charm, and so is the memory of it yet," and continues for three pages of incandescent prose that should be clipped and framed. There are several lovely passages about his wife, Olivia, who "passed from this life one year and eight months ago" and whom he loved with an undying passion. There is an amusing, touching account of how she gently but firmly called him on the carpet for his social failings, moments that utterly delighted their daughters, who "called it 'dusting-off papa.' " There is the confession that Huckleberry Finn was modeled upon his boyhood friend Tom Blankenship, whose father "was at one time Town Drunkard, an exceedingly well defined and unofficial office of those days." As for Tom himself:

"He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person - boy or man - in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy, and was envied by all the rest of us. We liked him; we enjoyed his society. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents, the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than of any other boy's. I heard, four years ago, that he was Justice of the Peace in a remote village in Montana, and was a good citizen and greatly respected."

There are also, as advertised in the prepublication ballyhoo, a few moments of Twain at his most splenetic. He takes a vicious, well-aimed whack at the corrupt financier Jay Gould, deplores the behavior of American soldiers during a massacre of 600 "savages" in the Philippines, and has the last word on those of us who practice a benighted livelihood: "I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value. . . . However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden. Meantime, I seem to have been drifting into criticism myself. But that is nothing. At the worst, criticism is nothing more than a crime, and I am not unused to that."

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