Mark Twain's life is just as interesting as his other stories

by Steve Paul

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

11 November 2010


Comic, showman and savvy sage. No, not Jon Stewart. We’re talking here of Mark Twain, the writer previously known as Samuel Clemens, whose eastern Missouri boyhood formed the foundation of some immortal landmarks of American literature.

Twain died 100 years ago this year, and he left behind a vast quantity of manuscripts with instructions not to publish until after his death or in some cases for a century.

Well, that outermost deadline has arrived, and now landing on best-seller lists is the first volume of Twain’s long-running attempt to tell his own story, to put his ultimate mark, as it were, on his life and times. A good amount of the material has appeared before in other forms, but this “Autobiography of Mark Twain,” issued by the University of California Press, includes the most authoritative, complete and unexpurgated versions of Twain at his self-reflective best.

If Twain had written nothing more than “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” he likely would still be considered the great American novelist. Even Ernest Hemingway, a man not known for dishing praise to fellow writers, pointed to “Huckleberry Finn” as the wellspring of modern American literature.

But Twain wrote much more material of long and lasting value: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”; “Roughing It,” about his post-Missouri life out West; travel pieces from around the globe; tall tales; and pointed commentaries on many of our favorite hot-button topics, such as politics and religion.

From the early 1860s to the first decade of the 20th century, Twain also made frequent attempts at writing his autobiography. He ultimately made two significant breakthroughs in trying to recount his family background, his early years in Hannibal, Mo., and the extraordinary journey he made from the Mississippi River to journalistic adventures to the peak of American celebrity. One breakthrough had to do with strategy.

“(I)n 1904,” he writes, “I hit upon the right way to do an autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.”

The other breakthrough had to do with technique. Twain discovered a significant difference between writing down his thoughts and speaking them.

Using a pen, he writes, “the result was not satisfactory, it was too literary.” So he tried dictation, first speaking into an early recording device, then, more fruitfully, speaking to a stenographer. Dictation, he found, freed his style and gave his words more of the sound of the spoken word.

As he wrote to his writer-editor friend William Dean Howells, “I have struck it! ... You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography; then you will realize with a pang, that you might have been doing it all your life if you had only had the luck to think of it. And you will be astonished (& charmed) to see how like talk it is, & how real it sounds ... & what a dewy & breezy & woodsy freshness it has, & what a darling & worshipful absence of the signs of starch, & flatiron, & labor & fuss & the other artificialities.”

This new volume, totaling more than 700 pages, includes all the early false starts and fragmentary pieces, plus a core work comprising a steady series of dictations Twain made in 1904 and 1906. Those sessions resulted in more than 5,000 pages of typewritten transcriptions.

All of this rich manuscript material has been housed for a half-century or so at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Editors, archivists and other staffers of the Mark Twain Project there have spent much of the last six years preparing publication of ink-on-paper and digital editions, both augmented by scholarly analyses and notes.

The project’s website aims to make all of Twain’s books, letters and other works available as authoritative editions in the coming years; find that at www.marktwainproject.org, and more about Twain at a companion graphic-heavy site, www.thisismarktwain.com. It’s rather extraordinary to find a complete edition of this volume also available simultaneously for free on the Internet.

Two more volumes of the autobiography are expected over the next five years or so, and those will contain a greater proportion of previously unpublished material, said Benjamin Griffin, an associate editor of the new volume.

The decision to incorporate all the fragments in this first volume results in something like a choppy ride for casual readers, but it makes chronological sense, Griffin said in an interview last week.

“There are a number of ways that legitimately could have been handled,” he said, “but we thought it was important that this edition contain not only his final autobiography ... but it should also include everything he explicitly designated at some time as autobiography so people could see the idea of the development of it as a project.”

When I asked Griffin how much of the work will feel new to readers, he answered with a Twain-like slyness. It depends, he said, on how much Twain you’ve read.

No matter how much Twain you’ve read, there’s a good chance you’d agree, as we like to say elsewhere in life, that too much is never enough.

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