Twain’s Memoirs Well Worth 100-Year Wait

Twain, hard at work.By William D. Aubin

Appropriately (if my readers will bear with me, you will see just how appropriately), my attempts to obtain, read, and review the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, make for an entertaining and illustrative tangent of their own.  As I am wont to do this time of year, I answered the editorial call to review a book over Christmas break by quickly scanning the list of the year’s bestsellers online, and the Autobiography leapt out as one whose author I recognized by name and for whom that distinction did not cause an immediate sour feeling in my stomach.  I like Tea Party manifestos and ghostwritten memoirs of pop stars as much as the next guy, of course, but it’s part of my New Year’s resolution to stop being part of the problem.  So, having made what I considered a safe selection, I announced my choice and planned to pick up the foreboding tome — 750 pages, hardcover — when I got to the mall bookstore for my Christmas shopping.

This is where the plan fell apart: editors at the University of California Press had massively underestimated the popular appeal of the first release of the unabridged memoirs of the man who was the international literary giant of his day and who remains at the top of the American canon today, a hundred years after his death.  There were no copies available at my Barnes and Noble, nor any bookseller I was likely to stumble across, nor even from Amazon or any other online retailer.  Initially merely irritated, I became horrified to the point of despondency when I received as gifts (from people that claimed to know me) the latest hardcover offerings of two cable news pundits.

Would I be reduced to writing that most tired of cop-outs, the ironically enthusiastic review of this year’s list of which Democrats are Destroying America?  Had I come so far, and soared so close to the Promised Land, only to be forced to revisit the boilerplate politics of my sophomore year in high school?

As has happened more times than I give her credit for, I was rescued by my mother, who gave me the early and insightful gift of an Amazon Kindle, an e-book reader that let me instantly download the entire book for a third of the price and no trip to the shady black-market book peddler who hangs around the loading dock of my local Books-A-Million, always promising that he can get me the good stuff. (At least I’ve always assumed he was a book dealer.  What else could he keep in that van?)  I could fill the rest of the article extolling the Kindle and its alleviation of this and others of my woes, but that kind of emphasis on bourgeois technology cheapens a publication like this one, and I’ve never believed in giving undue (uncompensated) advertisement.  So I set to reading.    

The above is not a review of an autobiography, but neither is The Autobiography of Mark Twain an autobiography, exactly.  The former is a (hastily composed and comparatively vulgar) story from a specific memory, and the latter is an astoundingly long, impossibly gripping collection of the same, from one of the most beloved storytellers to ever live.  

Twain grappled with the best method by which to write his own story for decades, eventually hitting upon what he proudly called the “Final (and Right) Plan” in the last six years of his life: a series of dictations and manuscripts that catalogue whatever recollection entered into Twain’s thoughts during that particular sitting, which took place predominantly between 1905 and 1907.  

The result is a nonfiction short story collection refreshingly devoid of the restraints of chronology and filled with equal parts beloved phrasings of Mark Twain and controversial political and personal opinions of Samuel Clemens.

This controversy is the overwhelming narrative in critical reviews of the Autobiography, and ties in nicely to the intriguing curiosity of an autobiography that was stalled from publication by the order of its author for a century.  Twain states quite clearly in the text that he wanted more than anything the freedom to write as if he were dead, without having to worry about soured relationships that would come with his very frank appraisals of friend, acquaintance, and enemy.  He further reasoned that the first, second, third, and fourth editions would have to be devoid of all “sane expressions of opinion” to protect his heirs and the living subjects of his rumination or their recent decedents.  Twain had no desire to seek revenge through words from the grave, but wanted the freedom to be as straightforward on paper for the masses as he was with those he knew in life.  Anyone who takes the time to crack open (or download) these memoirs will feel grateful that Twain took whatever precautions he needed to feel secure enough to produce such a delightful work, and lucky that our lives line up with his planned centennial publication schedule.

The allure of the book to some may be the revelations of an American hero, revealed after a century of silence to an awestruck populace — the Times and others have gotten themselves into a tizzy about what Twain’s opinions of the Spanish-American War tell us about how he would have stood on Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance.  But that is not the strength of this volume, which its editors estimate contains only about 5 percent previously unreleased material.  Most of the people singled out for scorn by Twain have indeed passed into obscurity, and the roasting he gives them are some of the strongest parts of the books not because he ‘names names’, but because the humorist is allowed to unload with both talented and impeccable barrels.  The description of an Italian countess that wronged the Clemens family is one of the best pieces of comedy ever written, and has been rightfully singled out by other critics.

Twain is deadpan, sardonic, and playfully misanthropic in his final years, but it is his insistence that the best jokes be self-deprecatory that ensures the writing never feels like the dated complaints of an aging humorist, truly transcending the context of his lifetime.  Twain strikes the reader immediately as the man who would happily admit that he had failed at almost everything he tried, from investing in a printing machine to managing a publishing company to a lifetime of missed social cues.  He can share these stories, and delights in doing so, because he is a man in love with the churning nature of living, of throwing oneself into ventures and seeing the world, and of truly learning by seeing what the people of Europe, the West, the North, and many other more distant locales were really doing.  

Twain wrote so many cherished books and stories because he met those characters and rode on those rivers; grew up on those farms and toured that countryside.  Readers get the chance to meet the elderly slave from Twain’s childhood that was the inspiration for Jim from Huckleberry Finn, and they get to revisit the cave where Injun Joe met his demise.  It didn’t matter to the Twain of 1906 that he had been swindled by a conman or hopelessly tangled the family’s finances, because he never forgets his gift for drawing stories out of real life, and recognizes that no matter the costs of his failures, he has turned their retelling into books that more than made back the losses.

In a month where we are learning that a publishing company is releasing a censored version of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, it could not be a better time to revisit the man who took great pains that his true feelings be known to all who cared to read them, uncorrupted and unapologetic.  But don’t read the book exclusively for the allure of dusty old gossip.  Read it because its author isn’t trying to sell you for or against Sarah Palin, Iraq (no matter what the Times says), gay marriage, Barack Obama, or his new show on Fox or MSNBC.  

Mark Twain is selling you on living life and observing it go by, because he had a tremendously fulfilling time doing so himself.  If you can ever find a copy, don’t let the size of this volume —or the two slated to follow it in twenty-five and fifty years, respectively — deter you.  Fans of topics as far ranging as historiography, the evolution of the American lecture circuit, and the final years of Ulysses S. Grant’s life will be intrigued by the extra addition of memos and notes on these topics.  

More importantly, anyone who remembers what it was like to laugh at an unrefined, no-strings-attached, American joke; anyone who wants to go back to those log buildings in Hannibal, Missouri that part of us all remember in a distant memory, from this life or a past one; all readers that want to fill up their shiny new e-book reader with the rediscovered words of an old legend rather than the pop-politics of the day: you will not be disappointed.