Mark Twain Himself after 100 Years

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 6, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Mark Twain Himself after 100 Years


Well, there he stands - a bit concealed, a bit false, but still a colossus, H.L. Mencken wrote upon reading a biography of Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). These words might well apply to the enormous first volume of Twain's autobiography.

Clemens (1835-1910) specified that his true, full autobiography was not to be published for 100 years after his death so that he could speak freely. To those who have anticipated this publication for many years, there was a lip-smacking sense of an impending hullabaloo: Scores were going to be settled, names would be named and skeletons would be de-closeted and compelled to dance with unseemly mocks and grimaces. Further, the genial author of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), a convinced atheist and nihilist, surely would jeer louder and more blatantly than ever at the idiocies of the damned human race and the absurdities of religious belief.

However, as many readers may know, several curtailed versions of the autobiography have been published in the years since Clemens' death, beginning with Albert Bigelow Paine's two-volume edition in 1924, followed in time by others edited by Bernard De Voto and Charles Neider. What we see in this first volume of the official autobiography contains much that we have seen before - which is not to say that it is by any means stale or redundant. It is interspersed with material that Paine and the others did not see fit to publish in their versions, along with extensive annotations and endnotes, and is altogether a welcome addition to the corpus of Twainiana. (Two additional volumes will be published during the next five years.)

In 1906, Clemens articulated his unique method of writing his autobiography in words that appeared in Paine's edition and are reproduced in this most recent work. Having tried for many years to work systematically, using notes, he came to this realization: The thing uppermost in a person's mind is the thing to talk about or write about.

He adds, I am only interested in talking along and wandering around as much as I want to, regardless of results to the future reader. By consequence, here we have diary and history combined; because as soon as I wander from the present text - the thought of to-day - that digression takes me far and wide over the uncharted sea of recollection, and the result of that is history. Consequently my autobiography is diary and history combined.

The result of Clemens' talking along and wandering around was ably described by critic Leonard Woolf in his review of Paine's edition in words that apply equally well to the new edition: There is no continuity or chronological sequence; it is a disorderly, untidy, ramshackle book; but this conception of autobiography, like most of Mark Twain's ideas, is shown to have in it a broad vein of common sense streaked by genius.

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