The year 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel
Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain. Clemens’s work
stands tall to this day; you can’t tell me that THE
ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER and A
CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT are not the
great-grandfathers of the modern American thriller novel. Yet one
of his major projects has never seen the light of day --- until
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN was initiated and ended by Clemens in
frequent starts and fits over a period of several years until 1906,
when he hunkered down and declared it to be complete in 1909, the
year before he died. It was his wish that it would not see the
light of day as a book until 100 years after his death; having
reached that milestone, the first volume has now been published (to
be followed by two more in the coming years). It is a gem of the
highest order, a work of heft and craft with prose that burrows
into one’s conscience and never leaves.
While there have been other books published that purportedly
have been Clemens’s autobiography, it is this edition that is
as complete a version as we ever will be likely to get, presented
in the manner that most closely resembles the intentions of its
author. As you pick up AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, keep in mind
that Clemens did not compose this material using Microsoft Word.
Rather, it is painstakingly culled from a file several feet in
length and consisting of all manners and sorts of handwritten notes
and typewritten transcriptions with corrections and additions here,
there and everywhere. Clemens also decided that he would not write
the chronicle of his life in the order in which it occurred, and
that it would not be presented as such. He instead would write his
memoirs as he came to remember events, and that the finished work
would be published that way.
The task of editing and assembling the book (remember the
hodgepodge of what the editors had to work with) and bringing it to
market is thus one for which they cannot be accorded sufficient
accolades, not only for completing the project, but for doing it so
well. I truly believe that I would have run screaming from the task
within a month of undertaking it, spending the rest of my life in a
quiet room under sedation.
So what do we have in the first volume? It begins with an
introduction of almost 60 pages, which includes the editors’
reasons for doing what they did in the manner in which it was done.
This section includes some reproductions of Clemens’s
handwriting, which runs between slapdash and what you would see on
a physician’s prescription pad. Please do not skip over this,
or the introductory editorial material that opens each section and
the annotative comments that follow the autobiographical text.
Given the amount of time and effort that was devoted to bringing
Clemens’s words to light, the very least the reader can do is
appreciate why the editors made the decisions they did.
Following the introduction, one finds a series of manuscripts,
dictations and essays written between 1870 and 1905, of which some
are the product of Clemens’s abortive attempts to begin his
autobiography, others of which are magazine articles and edited
essays. Each and all make for riveting reading, concerning
everything from Clemens’s deep, abiding and loyal friendship
with President Ulysses S. Grant to the manner by which individuals
contrived, often successfully, to separate Clemens from his money.
We meet the Bernie Madoff of the 19th century, are exposed to the
blatant bias of the mainstream media (which did not regard Clemens
favorably; the favor was returned, in spades), and get some insight
into Clemens’s thoughts on his best-known novels. These
essays are fascinating both for the wealth of wit and language
contained within and the window into history that they provide,
given that they are more or less a contemporaneous account of
events as they took place, filtered, of course, through
Clemens’s memory, which was not always 100 percent reliable.
The result is an account that is true but not always entirely
The official autobiography begins 200 pages into the volume and
continues for the next 280. How to describe this? I can only note
that Clemens jumps all over space and time, beginning with his very
early childhood to his time in Florence, Italy, in the early 1900s
to the tragic death of his daughter and back again some 60 years.
Clemens was ever mindful that this final work would not be read for
another century, when he would be, in his words, “dead,
unaware, and indifferent,” so that he feels able to speak
with his “whole frank mind.” There are contemporaneous
indications from the man that he was not wholly successful in this,
but the overall conclusion that I reached is that I would hate to
have been Clemens’s enemy. Some of these passages burn and
singe and sting; others are infused with a subtle wistfulness,
particularly those dealing with departed family members and
Every passage, every paragraph, has some drop of magic to it.
The explanatory notes of the editors and appendices are important
as well. The notes clarify Twain’s passages, holding them up
to their historical context; the appendices include the texts of
two of Clemens’s speeches referenced in the volume, as well
as a list of the previously published works that are included here.
References and an exhaustive index are included as well, not to
mention a generous selection of photographs.
To this day, Clemens is sharp, astute, prescient (he notes the
inevitability of eBooks, though he does not call them that),
clever, and very funny. Laugh-out-loud funny, a century down the
road. That he should be so readable at this point speaks to the
quality of his writing, and of the man, truly one for all seasons.
If you are familiar with his work, you positively must add this to
your reading list. If you aren’t --- he has dropped off high
school and university reading lists, for some of the stupidest
reasons --- you have some catching up to do. Please start here.
This book, beautifully and wondrously executed, is
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 11, 2011