Mark Twain: The Amer­i­can lit­er­ary lion roars again

As per the author’s in­struc­tions, his full au­to­bi­og­ra­phy will be pub­lished a cen­tury af­ter his death, be­gin­ning with Vol. 1 on Nov. 30


Hav­ing cre­ated a quintessen­tially Amer­i­can brand of hu­mour and style of lit­er­a­ture, Mark Twain ( 1835-1910) can now add to his myr­iad ac­com­plish­ments the ti­tle of Amer­ica’s first blog­ger. No mat­ter that the Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Mark Twain, edited by a team led by Harriet Eli­nor Smith, weighs in at more than 5,000 pages. Vol. 1, cov­er­ing the pe­riod from 1870 to 1906, and clock­ing in at a bit more than 700 pages ( in­clud­ing 200 pages of notes), is be­ing pub­lished to co­in­cide with Twain’s 175th birth­day, Nov. 30.

But what a blog it is: A prose paean to Twain’s enor­mous en­ergy level, his in­ces­sant need to ex­press him­self, and, on a par­al­lel track, his un­wa­ver­ing nar­cis­sism. He re­jected tra­di­tional means of or­derly ex­po­si­tion in favour of cre­at­ing a free­wheel­ing record of his thoughts, un­re­strained and un­fil­tered ex­cept by the king — him­self.

No Amer­i­can author has ever cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion the way that Twain did and con­tin­ues to do a cen­tury af­ter his death at 74. ( Av­er­age life ex­pectancy for men at the time was 47.) He was the first Amer­i­can global celebrity, with his sig­na­ture claim­ing a higher price than pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt’s ( to Twain’s de­light, since he did not much care for Teddy). His great ac­com­plish­ment in cre­at­ing a dis­tinct Amer­i­can sense of self and at­ti­tude is well de­scribed by Charles Ku­ralt: “ If I had to say as much about Amer­ica as I pos­si­bly could in only two words, I would say these two words: Huck Finn.”

Com­pos­ing his mam­moth au­to­bi­og­ra­phy took Twain, on and off, more than 35 years of a life that in­cluded much sat­is­fy­ing suc­cess as well as dev­as­tat­ing losses. He started writ­ing in­stal­ments the same year he mar­ried Olivia Lang­don, in 1870, when he was 35. His first ef­fort de­scribed the land in­vest­ment his fa­ther had made, a pur­chase that weighed upon Twain like a mill­stone due to the an­nual taxes he had to pay af­ter his fa­ther’s death. ( In an ironic twist, af­ter the land was sold, oil was dis­cov­ered there.) While sus­tain­ing such a self-fo­cus over such a long time would be an im­prob­a­ble pas­sion for most mere mor­tals, Twain, de­spite his ex­tremely mod­est be­gin­nings in Florida, Mo., was not a hum­ble guy. In­deed, he deemed his ac­com­plish­ments so nu­mer­ous and spec­tac­u­lar that by the end of his life he found the best anal­ogy was com­par­ing him­self with Hal­ley’s comet: “ The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘ Now here are these two un­ac­count­able freaks; they came in to­gether, they must go out to­gether.’”

Never one to rest for any pro­longed pe­riod of time, by the time of his death, Twain had man­aged to cross the At­lantic 29 times, com­pleted an around-the-world lec­ture tour at age 59, writ­ten more than 50,000 letters, scores of short sto­ries, some 3,000 news­pa­per and mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles and more than 30 books.

Twain’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of­fers a melange of child­hood rem­i­nisces, vit­ri­olic di­a­tribes, por­traits of in­di­vid­u­als ad­mired and de­spised, eu­lo­gies ( most mov­ingly of his daugh­ters Susy and Jean), po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious ex­e­ge­sis and, ev­ery­where, ev­i­dence of his as­ton­ish­ing, light­ning-quick wit. We learn what emo­tion­ally moved him: his el­egy of his youngest daugh­ter, Jean, is heart­break­ing in its expressed anguish; what an­gered him: Count­ess Mas­siglia ap­par­ently was the most cor­rupt and evil land­lady in his­tory; and of his de­light with the ec­cen­tric­i­ties of lan­guage, in par­tic­u­lar the beau­ties and beasts of Ger­man.

The com­po­si­tional method was one he had honed through­out his adult life and had prac­tised for decades be­fore thou­sands on five con­ti­nents: He sim­ply talked. Twain is pop­u­larly re­garded as the finest standup co­me­dian ever and here was his op­por­tu­nity to com­bine his tal­ent at en­ter­tain­ing an au­di­ence with the es­tab­lish­ment of his lit­er­ary and per­sonal legacy.

With the aid of Is­abel Van Kleek Lyon, his pri­vate sec­re­tary, and var­i­ous stenog­ra­phers, Twain used his voice to recre­ate his past and to give shape to the way he would be re­mem­bered in the fu­ture. While he cer­tainly in­tended that the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy would doc­u­ment what was, he also re­al­ized it was a ve­hi­cle for him to shape fu­ture gen­er­a­tions’ per­cep­tions of him. To that end he de­clared that the full au­to­bi­og­ra­phy could not be pub­lished un­til a cen­tury af­ter his death. Twain un­sen­ti­men­tally re­garded his demise as “ the refuge, the so­lace, the best and kindli­est and most prized friend and bene­fac­tor of the erring, the for­saken, the old and weary and bro­ken of heart.”

In mak­ing this ar­range­ment, Twain added an­other ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment to his al­ready very full bas­ket: He has be­come the only writer in his­tory to have a new work come out a hun­dred years af­ter pass­ing away. This is not to say that this is the first time the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy has seen the light of day. In­deed, 95 per cent of Vol. 1 has been pre­vi­ously pub­lished in a num­ber of other edi­tions that were pub­lished af­ter Twain’s death and with only one ex­cep­tion, they all vi­o­lated his dic­tate that en­tries not be chrono­log­i­cally or­ga­nized or di­vided into group­ings. The only edi­tion true to Twain’s wishes was scholar Michael Kiskis’s 1990 Mark Twain’s Own Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy: The Chap­ters from the North Amer­i­can Re­view. The bulk of the pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished ma­te­rial will be avail­able in Smith’s vol­umes 2 and 3, to ap­pear over the next five years, re­sult­ing in ap­prox­i­mately half of the con­tents of the orig­i­nal reach­ing the pub­lic for the first time.

In the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Twain gen­er­ously pro­vides the 21st cen­tury afi­cionado a mar­vel­lous read. His crys­talline hu­mour and ex­pan­sive range are a con­tin­u­ous source of de­light and awe. What about the ac­cu­racy of his ac­counts? The proto-blog­ger was form­ing his world, what he thought his ex­is­tence and ac­com­plish­ments should be, not nec­es­sar­ily what ob­jec­tive ob­servers might de­tail as ac­tu­ally hav­ing taken place.

In­deed, Twain de­lib­er­ately tweaked his earnest au­di­ence mem­bers who de­sired the truth: “ I have not pro­fes­sion­ally dealt in truth. Many when they come to die have spent all the truth that was in them, and en­ter the next world as pau­pers. I have saved up enough to make an as­ton­ish­ment there.”

This was his ver­sion of re­al­ity, and what an en­ter­tain­ing record it is. Twain has given us “ an as­ton­ish­ment” in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy with his fi­nal, beau­ti­fully un­or­ga­nized ge­nius and in­tem­per­ate thoughts. Pull up a chair and revel. Laura Tromb­ley is pres­i­dent of Pitzer Col­lege and the author of Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hid­den Story of His Fi­nal Years.


A like­ness of Mark Twain stands in Sa­muel Cle­mens’ boy­hood home in Han­ni­bal, Mo.

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