BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume 1

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
How surreal it is to peruse the newly released autobiography of a preeminent man of American letters — 100 years after his death. Surreal and delightful. And such is the mettle of The Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and others at the Mark Twain Project and published by the University of California Press.

Twain, pen name of Samuel Clemens, ordered the delayed publication, initially as a scheme to extend his copyright and provide for his descendants and, ultimately, to free himself from society’s and his own censorship:

It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing would be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.

Indeed, it was a safe wager that there was little to nothing he could write in his era that would be unpalatable in today’s context. And certainly the juxtaposition of Twain’s century-old commentary on people, places and things with the news of today is amusingly familiar, although not a little disheartening:

As early as 1865 or ’66 I had had this curious experience: that whereas up to that time I had considered myself a Republican, I was converted to a no-party independence by the wisdom of a rabid Republican. This was a man who was afterward a United States Senator, and upon whose character rests no blemish that I know of, except that he was the father of the William R. Hearst of to-day, and therefore grandfather of Yellow Journalism—that calamity of calamities.

Although the delights of the autobiography are many, perhaps none is as sweet as the language Twain’s writing brings to a 21st Century audience. As much as anything else, The Autobiography of Mark Twain is a fabulous trip, led by a most gracious guide, through the recent history of the English language. Untextably, untweetably, so eloquently English. But for Twain it was a trip not easily taken.

He spent years attempting to craft his autobiography, producing scores of vignettes in unsatisfactory spits and spurts. It was not until January of 1906, four years before his death, that he and his muse came to terms — like two similar photographs suddenly blended into a single three-dimensional view, vibrantly dancing across the lenses of a stereoscope. And it is such depth and tone that the autobiography brings to the character of one of America’s most beloved, clever and brilliant authors.

Although the actual autobiography represents only about one third of the book’s pages (the first 200 pages are editorial content and preliminary drafts and the last 250 are notes and appendices), it is a rich trove of anecdotes and insights into Twain and his times. It begins with a bit of family history wrapped around a story of Twain’s hubris, recounted in unexpurgated self-revelation. It ends rather suddenly with a lovely letter from Helen Keller, dated March 27, 1906, that moved Twain to tears. She thanks “My dear Mr. Clemens” for his participation in “an assembly of wit, wisdom and philanthropy” on behalf of the blind at a New York fund-raising event.

Twain’s life was made interesting not only by his sensibilities and humor but also by the people whose company he kept — and the hilarious things he wrote about them. He might have fathered Dorothy Parker’s gift for executing an elegant literary assault. Consider this excerpt about one of Twain’s attorneys, William Hamersley:

Here and there I have seemed to cast little reflections upon him. Pay no attention to them. I have no feeling about him, I have no harsh words to say about him. He is a great fat good-natured, kind-hearted, chicken-livered slave; with no more pride than a tramp, no more sand than a rabbit, no more moral sense than a wax figure, and no more sex than a tape-worm. He sincerely thinks he is honest, he sincerely thinks his is honorable. It is my daily prayer to God that he be permitted to live and die in those superstitions.

To paraphrase a Southern colloquialism, Twain’s words are so sweet you wouldn’t know he slit your throat until you turned your head. But you would know the joys and sorrows of Mark Twain’s life if you were to tote this four-pound volume home and savor it. Then gird your loins for Volume 2, due out in October 2013.

Publisher: University of California Press Binding: Hardcover and e-book Pages: 738 Price: $35.00 for hardcover, e-books vary, available online for free at MarkTwainProject.org Book website: ThisIsMarkTwain.com

Crossposted at the North County Times.