Mark Twain's Latest Autobiography

By Loving, Jerome | Humanities, March 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Mark Twain's Latest Autobiography

Loving, Jerome, Humanities

It may seem odd that a literary scholar and biographer such as myself should review a scholarly edition that has been on the New York Times best-seller list for nearly three months. The last time I looked, volume one of Autobiography of Mark Twain (edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al. of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley) was holding its own at number five on the list, just ahead of another comedian's take on the human race, Jon Stewart's Earth (The Book). Usually, these robust annotated editions are priced around $100 and have a print run of 1,500 or less. This one published by the University of California Press is priced to sell at $34.95, for which the buyer gets 760 pages of relatively small print (at least for a best-seller). And from what I've heard, the publisher had originally planned to print only 50,000, but has now sold hundreds of thousands of copies since its issue on November 15, shortly before Mark Twain's 175th birthday. Such books are usually reviewed in scholarly journals at least a year or more after their quiet, almost secret publication. This one has already been reviewed prominently in the New Yorker and the New York Times as well as in newspapers as far away as Hong Kong.

One hundred years after his death on April 21, 1910, Mark Twain is having one of the busiest years of his afterlife. While he was still alive, he wrote satires about heaven (where the prophets are as remote as rock stars) and the Garden of Eden (which Eve renames "Niagara Falls Park"), but he never could have imagined such a heaven (or hell) on earth as this. Last spring a number of books about him appeared - another biography, a book about his last four years as the "Man in White," one about his rocky relationship with a woman who ran his household after his wife's death, and a rehearsal of Twain's western years in the Nevada Territory, a period also colorfully covered in Roughing It (1872). But the real fireworks were held for last. First, there appeared volume one of the Autobiography and then, soon after thè first of the new year, we heard about the forthcoming publication of Professor Alan Gribben's NewSouth edition of "Huck Light," a combined edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which the N-word is replaced by the word "slave."

The Autobiography presents for the first time "Mark Twain's authentic and unsuppressed voice" in his diaries and dictations, while the NewSouth edition will expurgate his most magnificent work, effectively pruning the novel of its historical irony. After all, Huck is not an abolitionist. He simply likes Jim better than the slave's owner, and so determines to "go to hell" for his willingness to assist a runaway slave. General outrage has been expressed at the "bowdlerization" of Twain's magnum opus. Yet the expurgation also says something about us in the twenty-first century. In the refusal of so many public school districts to teach Huckleberry Finn simply because of the N-word, we are threatening the lifespan of an American classic. It has been proposed to send Huck exclusively to college, but even there its future may be bleak. It is impossible, for example, to find "Nigger Jeff," Theodore Dreiser's finest short story, in any college anthology today. According to the website for the new edition of Twain's classic, the expurgation is "intended to counter the 'preemptive censorship' that Dr. Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists nationwide."

Mark Twain was no stranger to censorship, including self-censorship. He would change just about anything if he thought it threatened sales. He simply didn't want a lowly editor to tamper with his prose, but he gave his friend William Dean Howells carte blanche over the final draft of Tom Sawyer. He removed the "raft" scene from the first edition of Huckleberry Finn because it had been published already in Life on the Mississippi, and he feared readers might mistake Huck for an old book and thus not buy it. …

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