Mr. Clemens, in his own words

Samuel Langhorne Clemens left instructions that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens left instructions that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death. (The Mark Twain House)
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By Jonathan Yardley
Friday, November 19, 2010


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. The response in the press and elsewhere has mostly been genuflection and adulation, not surprising 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 Reports from the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley indicate that significantly more unpublished material will be in the second and third volumes, but readers looking in this one for bombshells from the distant past will encounter precious few detonations,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 exploded.

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 useful or appealing to most general readers. 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 an immense book uncongenial for armchair reading. I wish that Berkeley had published it in separate volumes, one for the autobiography 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.)

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. 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. Still, it's useful to be reminded in the introduction that Twain began making stabs at telling his life's story in 1870 and was 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."

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