Only with the publication of this, the third and final volume of his “Autobiography,” do we finally understand why Mark Twain wanted the book kept under wraps until 100 years after his death. He did take potshots at various targets in the first and second volumes, but most of them were minor figures hardly remembered today. (He’s probably right, for example, to charge that Bret Harte’s meager talent burned out after he wrote four or five memorable short stories, and that late in life Harte became a sponger, but who really cares now?) In Volume 3, however, Twain is at full cry in pillorying two of the most widely admired 20th-century Americans: the eternally adolescent Teddy Roosevelt and the vainglorious Andrew Carnegie.
At one point, Twain vilifies TR by comparing him to the vilifier’s own most famous creation: “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world . . . always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience.” Elsewhere, Twain calls Roosevelt “the missing link,” i.e., the supposed evolutionary place-holder between the ape and Homo sapiens.
As for Carnegie, whom he knew quite well, Twain besmirches the philanthropist’s habit of donating libraries bearing his name to towns throughout the land: “Mr. Carnegie never gives away money with any other object in view than the purchase of fame.” On top of that, Twain charges, Carnegie entertains a wrongheaded view of his own character: “He thinks he is a scorner of kings and emperors and dukes, whereas he is like the rest of the human race: a slight attention from one of these can make him drunk for a week, and keep his happy tongue wagging for seven years.”
Overall, however, Volume 3 is of a piece with the other two: rambling; charming; vitriolic; confessional (“I am fond of pomp and display”); shot through with wit, lyricism and regret. One of Twain’s central insights about himself is that, like Tom Sawyer in front of that whitewash-needing fence, he loved work that could be turned into play: prospecting for gold and silver, steamboat piloting and, most of all, writing.
Can editing qualify as play, too? Let’s hope so for the sake of the editors at the University of California’s Mark Twain Project, who devoted more than a decade to bringing this captivating and invaluable trilogy into print in the form its author meant it to have.
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
Edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith
Univ. of California. 747 pp. $45