Book review: The great American writer Mark Twain specified that his autobiography not be released until 100 years after his death (in 1910). Now, in "Autobiography of Mark Twain," the first of three planned volumes, Twain tells his life story in his own unmistakable voice.
‘Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1’
edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Project
University of California Press, 736 pp., $34.95
In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Huck tells us about the oppressive civilizing efforts of the Widow Douglass, who has adopted him. “She put me in them new clothes again,” he says, “And I couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up.”
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A similar sartorial abuse befell Mark Twain himself. When Twain dictated his autobiography, he stipulated that it not be published until a hundred years after his death (on April 21, 1910) and that it be presented in the rambling form in which he told it. He wanted it published with the “worshipful absence of the signs of starch, & flatiron, & labor & fuss and the other artificialities.” He says, “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.”
But the thousands of pages were plundered for publication several times before the century expired. Even the great critic Bernard DeVoto not only published excerpts but said proudly that he had “given the book a more coherent plan than Mark Twain’s.”
Now the University of California Press presents a version that preserves Twain’s dictations as he left them, a huge volume of recollections arranged not chronologically but rather as they came to mind, ranging from his earliest memories to his last years.
The first of three planned volumes, the book is a treat for general readers, although to make it suitably scholarly as well the editors have, like the Widow, put Twain in fancy new clothes. In a volume of almost 750 pages, almost 500 are notes, introductions, explanations and references, as if to make the undisciplined Twain as respectable and civilized as the Widow tried to make Huck.
The good news is that the body of the autobiography is intact. Readers can safely ignore most of the appended material unless and until it’s needed. What comes through is the unmistakable voice of a great author musing not only on his own life but on the process of recollecting it.
Huck tells us that he had “never seen anybody but lied one time or another,” and Twain doesn’t exempt himself. An autobiography, he acknowledges, “inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth,” but he adds, “the remorseless truth is there, between the lines.”
And it is. His touching portraits of his wife and daughters as paragons of beauty and virtue probably depart from verifiable historical fact, but they are the heartfelt truth of a devoted husband and father. He tells us, for example, of his wife’s effort to make his speech more genteel. Having overheard him cursing, she tried to reprove him by repeating his oaths.
Her curses, though, were “velvety, unpractical, apprentice-like, ignorant, inexperienced, comically inadequate, absurdly weak and unsuited to the great language. In my lifetime I had never heard anything so out of tune, so incongruous.”
“There,” she said, “now you know how it sounds.” He replied, “Oh Livy, if it sounds like that God forgive me, I will never do it again!”
Twain may have painted a rose-colored portrait of his family relations, but delaying publication “did free him to express unconventional thoughts about religion, politics, and the damned human race, without fear of ostracism,” according to the introduction. Interspersed with loving memories of his family are rants against the unbridled greed of the economic titans of the Gilded Age (a title he gave the last part of the 19th century); unabashed attacks on atrocities committed by American forces in the Philippines; satires on the self-righteous piety of religious leaders; and rebuttals to the casual racism of the day.
“The Autobiography of Mark Twain” is a rich, true self-portrait of a great heart that lives again whenever we hear that immortal voice.
Richard Wakefield, a Tacoma Community College instructor, recently won the 2010 Howard Nemerov Sonnet award for his sonnet “Petrarch.”