Autobiography of Mark Twain:
The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al.
University of California, 743 pages, $34.95
This is the first volume of three in the exhaustive and unexpurgated edition of Mark Twain’s autobiographical papers. I phrase it that way because the text is not really, despite its title, an autobiography. It is a collection of the roughly five thousand pages of disparate memoirs, most of them dictated to a stenographer, that Twain left behind when he died in 1910, with instructions that they should not be printed in their entirety for a century. Previous versions of his autobiography were merely discrete samplings from this immense reserve, judiciously extracted and editorially altered to give the appearance of a finished work.
Now, at last, the full archive has been made available—which is, frankly, a mixed blessing. The editors have certainly been obedient to their rescript as scholars. This is an absolutely comprehensive document, with nothing overlooked or omitted.
That does mean, however, that the literary rewards it offers the reader are sometimes tediously deferred. Its many wonderful passages and fascinating tales are frequently submerged in a sea of incidental anecdotes, suggestive wisps of information, and random disiecta membra—especially in the early portions, which include every scrap not only of all the abortive attempts Twain made in his forties to sit down and write an account of his life but also of every minor reminiscence he happened to jot down.
I have to say, I am not sure that everything written in the first person really qualifies as autobiography; there are some episodes (such as Twain’s long and extremely boring recollections of the publishing history of General Grant’s memoirs) that might better have been relegated to an appendix. And there are longueurs in the dictated portions of the book: extended passages in which a charming but tartly garrulous old man, with all the time in eternity, allows himself to dilate upon his memories, his acquaintances, and his personal views. Had he ever edited these pages himself, he surely would have treated them with all the ruthlessness that his posthumous editors cannot.
All this said, however, the book is still a delight. True, it does not provide even the semblance of a connected narrative, of the sort that might grant us a clear perspective on the development of the intellectual, artistic, or emotional life of Samuel Clemens. In fact, Twain takes a certain satisfaction in avoiding such narrative, boasting that in the method he adopted—simply holding forth on whatever memory has happened to occur to him at the moment of composition and allowing it to take him where it will, establishing its own connections with the more remote or the more recent past by whatever digressive paths it opens up—he has discovered the perfect formula for a literary autobiography.
He is mistaken, but taken as a rambling tour of a long and rich life, this volume provides a striking portrait of the man—a fragmentary portrait, admittedly, but vivid nonetheless, and certainly as accurate as we can hope to possess. The dictated part of the text, especially, often has an immediacy about it that suggests it really is the person behind the persona who is speaking and that all his expressions of good humor, self-mockery, moral cynicism, generosity, bitterness, irreligion, and deep sadness constitute a frank and revealing confession of who he is and what he believes.
For many, the principal interest of this volume will be what it tells us about Twain’s novels and stories; and, in one sense, the material is thin. We learn of the uncanny, labyrinthine, bat-thronged caves near Twain’s childhood home that provided the model for the caverns in which Injun Joe starved to death in Tom Sawyer; we even learn that there was an original of Injun Joe. And, here and there, Twain makes passing mention of particular episodes or characters, or of the real events or persons transmogrified in them. But the details are sparse and the references fleeting.
There are, though, other ways in which this book does cast considerable light on Mark Twain the writer. For one thing, it reminds us of how good a writer he really was. The earlier materials, having been properly composed and subsequently polished, furnish all the evidence one could need that he possessed an enormous and enviable natural gift for telling a tale. Even when merely playing the raconteur, his sense of proportion and pace are nearly infallible. His few extended exercises in boyhood reminiscence invariably carry the reader along on their currents, and it is always something of a disappointment when they come to a premature halt at the point where the author let his pen drop.
The book also reminds us that Twain was a distinguished stylist when he chose to be, who could paint a scene with economy but also with a certain evocative luster—something, I think, we are prone to forget when, in our minds, we allow Twain the legend (languid spinner of wry aphorisms and homely witticisms) to overshadow Twain the artist. There are moments of the purest and most welcoming aesthetic wallowing in these pages, an almost Proustian delight in the sensuous opulence of a momentarily recaptured past: “I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the deep woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wild flowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees, the far-off hammering of wood-peckers and the muffled drumming of wood-pheasants in the remoteness of the forest.” Many of the “set pieces,” such as his descriptions of Vienna and Florence, are not to be missed.
More crucial, however, is the unprecedented access these memoirs grant us to Twain’s character, convictions, and thoughts. Here is where Twain’s decision to delay publication for a hundred years really does redound to our benefit. The knowledge that he was speaking chiefly to generations unborn allowed him—as he candidly admits was his intention—to deliver himself of opinions and tell stories he never could have committed to print during his life, in part because they would have given offense to persons still living and in part because his personal views often ran so absolutely contrary to the pieties of his day.
At the level of purely wicked pleasure, this means we can enjoy Twain’s more spiteful depictions of his contemporaries in a fairly relaxed spirit. It would be a pity, for instance, had fear of censure or of a lawsuit prevented Twain from describing William Hamersley, his associate in an unfortunate business venture, as “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.”
And it would have been a tragedy had he been obliged to restrain himself in his remarks on the Countess Massiglia (née Frances Paxton of Rupert, Pennsylvania) from whom Twain rented the Villa di Quarto outside Florence and whom he describes as “Satan,” “male in everything but sex,” “pestiferous,” “execrable,” “excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward”—not to mention an oppressor of the poor, heartless toward her tenant peasants; a “reptile” with a “filthy soul” who has restored his belief in hell. The text would have been impoverished by the suppression of these ringing rhapsodies of bile.
More shocking than any of his personal animadversions, however, would have been Twain’s social, political, and religious views. That Twain was something of a misanthropist is generally known; it was very much a part of the comic face he was always willing to turn to the world. What might come as a surprise to the reader of these memoirs is how deep, sincere, and acerbic his misanthropy really was. At times, its expressions take the form of mere disgust at human hypocrisy, pretension, and self-deception, as when he juxtaposes two newspaper stories—one concerning a Presbyterian churchman denied a license to preach because he believed the tale of Adam and Eve to be a myth, and the other concerning a massacre of Jews in Russia—and then expostulates on the sheer absurdity of “a beast and a brute” like man deluding himself that he is a moral being at all or daring to imagine he is anything more than a “fiend.” At other times, his general dislike of his species rises to a pitch of almost perfect hatred, as when he approvingly subjoins to one of his 1906 dictation sessions the text of a long, savage disquisition on “The Character of Man” that he wrote when he was only twenty-two.
Twain has little patience for those who are, to his mind, overly confident of their own virtue. His fairly robust distaste for clergymen occasionally slips out, as does his special detestation of missionaries (whom he evidently sees as little more than ambassadors of our corrupt culture in more unspoiled quarters of the earth). Most patriotism he regards as a nasty, fraudulent, and degrading emotion, whose chief effect is to blind men to their national evils: in the case of the United States, lynch law at home and imperialist atrocities abroad.
And then there are his various reflections on faith, including one particularly long, harsh, and disdainful commentary on the idiocy of human hope in providence in the midst of a world of such unimaginable suffering and so many monstrous misfortunes. On these matters, almost nothing of what he has to say could have been printed in his lifetime without harm to his popular reputation, and yet nothing brings us nearer to the essential truth of the man.
Without question, the most moving portions of this volume concern Twain’s daughter Susy Clemens, who died from meningitis at the age of twenty-four. He mentions also the death of his first child, Langdon, at twenty-two months, but only in passing. Susy’s death he recounts in painful detail, at the end of which he allows himself to pour out his grief in a terse but startling testament of cosmic despair, devoid of all his habitual irony—a lament over the pointlessness and cruelty of our existence; its illusions, humiliations, disappointments, and pains; the ultimate emptiness of life; the mercy of death (earth’s “only unpoisoned gift”); and the futility with which one generation follows another along “the same arid path through the same desert.”
For many days’ worth of dictation thereafter, Twain allows himself to recall various episodes of his daughter’s life, dwelling upon the delights of her mind and personality with all the devotion of which a doting father is capable, although without any mawkishness. He even reproduces passages from a biography she attempted to write of him when she was still a child, spelling errors and all. One sees him here genuinely sounding the depths of his love.
And then finally, almost casually, he remarks: “Susy died at the right time, the fortunate time of life; the happy age. . . . At twenty-four, such a girl has seen the best of life—life as a happy dream. After that age the risks begin; responsibility comes, and with it the cares, the sorrows, and the inevitable tragedy. For her mother’s sake I would have brought her back from the grave if I could, but I would not have done it for my own.”
That may be one of the most terrible sentiments I have ever seen or heard expressed. Maybe I understand it; a grieving man has to find whatever comfort he can, however dissonant a note it might strike. But it still seems to me that one could say such a thing only after one had passed beyond mere disillusionment, and perhaps even beyond despair. And this, I think, turns out to have been the strange secret that was usually concealed behind Mark Twain’s legendary mirth: a vision of the world marked by an utterly abysmal, utterly unrelieved bleakness.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.