Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Article excerpt

It's worth wading through this massive tome to mine its nuggets of unalloyed Twain.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, is a weighty piece of

literature: five pounds if it's an ounce, and 736 pages long. But

please don't blame Mr. Mark Twain. The first 58 pages are hijacked

by an editor, and the last 267 pages are squandered on appendixes,

notes, references, indexes, lost laundry tickets, and recipes for

chicken con carne. Those last two might not be all together accurate,

but let it go. I defy anyone to disprove me by wading through this

semantic morass.

Surrounded though he is by six editors, Twain still manages to get a

few words in edgewise. At one point he describes his feeling about

being edited for the first time in 32 years: "The idea! That this

long-eared animal - this literary kangaroo - this bastard of the

Muses - this illiterate hostler, with his skull full of axle- grease

- this.... But I stopped there, for this was not the right

Christian spirit."

It is well that Twain did not live to be 175 and witness the

publication of his posthumous, unexpurgated autobiography. It would

have laid him low, to be sure. Parts of it repeat passages from

editions of his previously published autobiography: an account of his

first public lecture, for example. There are new segments here, of

course, but they hardly seem scandalous or scathing enough to have

been kept from the public for a century after his death. Perhaps

Volumes 2 and 3 will contain more of the rockets' red glare.

The truth is that the juicy, uncensored stuff has been leaking out

for decades, such as in "Letters for the Earth," prepared for

publication in 1937 but not released until 1962. In it, Twain, a

nominal Christian for most of his life, fulminates against the

Almighty in the most sacrilegious fashion imaginable. Nothing in the

current volume comes close.

Having said all that, it is worth dodging the phalanx of editors to

get at Twain's prose and off-the-cuff observations. Some of these

pieces were dictated late in his life. He is a marvel of observation

and verbal assassination. This is how he sneaks up on a newspaper

editor: "[He was] a man of sterling character and equipped with the

right heart, also an historian where facts were not essential." He

nails Teddy Roosevelt: "He flies from one thing to another with

incredible dispatch - throws a somersault and is straightaway back

again where he was last week. He will then throw some more

somersaults and nobody can foretell where he is finally going to land

after the series." His description of Londoners throwing pennies

from tenement windows to bedraggled street singers below is


Such reports remind the reader that Twain began his literary career

as a journalist and before that he was a miner and before that a

deserter from the Confederacy. …

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