Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Project
The complete and authoritative edition
Volume one

The long awaited first volume of Mark Twain's unabridged autobiography is a great fat doorstop of a book that the casual reader might avoid trying to tackle. In fact more than a third of the volume is taken up by various editorial introductions and explanatory notes that can be safely ignored in favor of the actual words of the great man. This makes it a much easier read than it, at first, appears.

Twain's plan for this autobiography was to dictate his reminiscences to a shorthand secretary. He allowed himself to talk about whatever subject came to his mind at the moment and put it into the book in just that order. It is just the plan that you use when you go after your grandfather with a tape recorder and demand that he say something for posterity. If you keep at it long enough you will have a vast collection of anecdotes which cover a good part of the old man's life and some of it will be true.  This is a good plan, a reasonable plan, which saved a great deal of effort on the part of the author. It makes it a bit hard for the reader, but if you've already read Albert Bigelow Paine's biography, Charles Neider's version of the autobiography or the new one by Fred Kaplan, or even Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It, you will get along just fine.
Twain says that he would like future autobiographies to follow the format that he has created for his. We may have to wait another hundred years to see if his advice will be taken.

The point of waiting a hundred years for the publication of this tome is to allow Twain to say what he really thought on any subject or about any person without fear of offending someone he knows. He must have thought it would take a century to cool down the public reaction to his views on religion, although there is nothing in this volume of the autobiography that comes close to what appeared in Letters From the Earth, which was published soon after his death.

I would like to quote Twain on the subject of Book Reviewers: "A generation ago, I found out that the latest review of a book was pretty sure to be a reflection of the earliest review of it; that whatever the first reviewer found to praise or censure in the book would be repeated in the latest reviewer's report, with nothing fresh added.  . . .  I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades and that it has no real value - certainly no large value." I came to the same conclusion about my second year as an English major. Somehow I persevered long enough to get a BA.

Now that I have written my piece I can go read Garrison Kiellor's pan of the autobiography in the New York Times. My policy is never to be influenced by other reviewers by the simple device of not reading them until it's too late.

This post is in the 59th

Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at Colloquium.


News has reached me that NewSouth Books, a publishing house in Alabama is bringing out new sanitized editions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the long controversial word "nigger" will be replaced with "slave" and in which Injun Joe will be referred to as "Indian Joe." The publisher's stated goal is to get the books back into classrooms in which they have been dropped from the curriculum due to complaints about the use of those terms.

I know that this has been an issue decades. I have always thought that those who wanted to ban the books were ignorant people who had never read them or who were incapable of understanding what they read. I'm sure that am Clemens is spinning in his grave over this bowdlerization of his work. What do you think?

P.S. Do you suppose that this is where George Lucas go the idea for Indiana Jones?

Note: Even though this was posted in December of 2010, I cheated just a little bit and submitted this as my "best of 2011" blog post in the Jon Swift Memorial Roundup. Click the link and see what a lot of bloggers think was their best post of the year.
keywords Mark Twain, autobiography, memoir


  1. Now that I have finished Keith Richards Life, another door stopper, I can start on the Mark Twain Autobiography. I agree about not reading the notes. It is Mark Twain's words that count.

  2. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Kyle and Sveta

  3. Thank you Kyle. Merry Christmas to you and Svetlana, too.


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