Twain’s autobiography, finally available after a century, is a garrulous outpouring—and every word beguiles
There was always something divided about Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a psychological fault line implicit in his desire to be known professionally as “Mark Twain” and in the word twain itself. One half of the great writer sought to reveal himself in an autobiography planned as early as 1876, when he was only 40. The other half quailed at trying to emulate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s frank “Confessions.”
“Rousseau,” Clemens pointed out, “confesses to masturbation, theft, lying, shameful treachery, & attempts made upon his person by Sodomites.” If we allow that fiction is a superior form of lying, it’s a fair guess that at least two of these embarrassments can be laid to the door of the author of “Huckleberry Finn.” Twain (let’s call him that, for critical convenience) enlarged on his qualms about self-revelation in a letter to his brother Orion. He noted with a touch of envy that Rousseau had been “perfectly aware of the shameful nature” of certain requisites of a true autobiography, “whereas your coward & your Failure should be happy and sweet & unconscious .”
The last four words were not so heavily erased that Orion could not read them. In 1899, still struggling to find an honest way to write his apologia pro vita sua, Twain told a reporter: “You cannot lay bare your private soul and look at it. . . . It is too disgusting.” The depth of that disgust was clear when he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells about “the author-cat” raking dust over every noisome revelation, “which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell . . . the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.”
It seems clear that Twain, an enormously successful writer and platform personality, had a black view of himself that went far beyond questions of sex or mendacity. His instinct was to take the often harsh facts of experience and sweeten them into something as delightful as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”—which, aside from being his most perfect book, is a boyhood memoir so thinly disguised that it could have been called “The Adventures of Sam Clemens.”
If he had not died in 1910, just as American puritanism was yielding to Freudian analysis of the torments of memory, Twain might have realized that his personal derelictions were (as far as we know) few, and by no means contemptible. Mark Twain was actually a magnificent person, blessed with literary genius, bonhomie and exquisite humor. His family and friends adored him. From the 1880s on he had the respect, even the reverence, of literary peers on both sides of the Atlantic. Publishers and lecture agents fought to sign him up. When, in 1894, he was ruined through no fault of his own (except the lifelong delusion that he was a shrewd investor), Henry H. Rogers, one of the busiest financiers on Wall Street, came to his rescue, as a national treasure that could not be foreclosed on.
By the time Twain had paid off his last debt and found himself wealthy once more, the most popular author-lecturer since Charles Dickens, he was an old man, bereaved of his wife and two of his four children. (Only one, his daughter Clara, would survive him.) Hamlin Garland, a fellow Midwesterner, observed that “Clemens, like many another humorist, was essentially sad.” Yet his volcanic vitality was intact, and the rapturous reception of his 70th-birthday speech at the Players Club in New York, in 1905, prompted him to return to the manuscript of his autobiography.
After some 30 or 40 false starts, it was already a formidable manuscript. Perhaps “repository” is a better word for what he proceeded to pile up over the course of six manic months in 1906 and left behind, still incomplete, at his death: an unorganized, crumbling, sneeze-provoking mass of letters, diaries, oral transcripts (more than 5,000 pages of them), news clips and other memorabilia. Now to be published in its entirety—this is the first of what will eventually be three volumes—”Autobiography of Mark Twain” aspires to completeness and definitiveness. Yet, as even the publisher admits, it is less a book than a gigantic fragment: the outpourings of a egotist so garrulous that the type sometimes dwindles to a size that will constrict your pupils.
Fortunately, Twain was that rare motormouth whose every word beguiles us. That does not mean that this book does not ramble. On the contrary, rambling is its deliberate style. Except for a few “written” passages of orthodox narrative and other preliminary scraps, it is mostly a collection of stream-of-consciousness monologues, dictated in Twain’s New York townhouse between Jan. 9 and March 30, 1906.
He congratulated himself on having hit upon something new in nonfiction, after more than 30 years of stylistic experiments: “a form and a method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face . . . like contact of flint and steel.” At the drop of an ash from his cigar, he could segue from memories of “Uncle Dan’l,” the original of Nigger Jim in “Huckleberry Finn,” to a headline in that morning’s newspaper. Oral flexibility transcended the drag of linear narrative and enabled Twain to be selective in his truth-telling. And since saying a thing was, in a strange way, less specific than writing it, he could edge closer to self-exposure—always with the liberating assurance that his comic persona would step in and make light of stories that threatened to become embarrassing or libelous.
To their credit, the editors of this centennial edition (most of the “Autobiography” has been published before, but in fragmentary and bowdlerized forms) make no attempt to connect Twain’s non sequiturs, other than simply to reproduce them in the order they were set down. Footnote fetishists will appreciate the meticulous annotations of every item needing amplification. And best of all, there is no tampering with Twain’s language, that superb instrument capable of a thousand modulations. Seemingly informal, it is in fact precise, taut, studded with mots that could not possibly be more juste: “I remember the raging of the rain on that roof . . . ”
Thanks to the shorthand skills of his stenographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, we could almost be guests in the great man’s bedroom. Curly-headed, bristle-browed and a touch bronchial at this time of year, Mark Twain lies propped up after breakfast and talks enchantingly about his barefoot boyhood in Missouri, his apprentice days as a printer’s brat and cub reporter, and his years piloting on the Mississippi. Then comes adventure after improbable adventure as he wanders across the breadth of the U.S., prospecting for silver here, escaping the penitentiary there, compulsively scribbling his experiences.
The publication of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in 1867 brings him his first fame and his first trip abroad, during which he meets the Buffalo heiress Olivia Langdon and vows to marry her. That dream is realized amid an accelerating rush to wealth and bestsellerdom, as book follows book and his travels expand to encompass the globe. In the process, he builds up an international reputation as the funniest man alive.
It is a mystery how Paine’s writing arm did not go into convulsions over, say, Twain’s story about being coached as a duelist in antebellum Nevada, or the one about the Episcopal minister whose hair turned green, or others about the over-efficient burglar alarm, the stammerer who tried to cure himself by whistling, and (most sublime of all) bare-assed Jim Wolf going after amorous cats on an ice-slick roof, with 14 saucers of red-hot candy below: “The frosty breeze flapped his short shirt about his lean legs; the crystal roof shone like polished marble in the intense glory of the moon; the unconscious cats sat erect upon the chimney, alertly watching each other, lashing their tails and pouring out their hollow grievances; and slowly and cautiously Jim crept along, flapping as he went . . .”
But no, I won’t spoil the story with further quotation. Let Twain get to his punch line with his own precise timing, in the sure knowledge that he will immediately trump it. This is the way with great raconteurs, and great melodists in music: There is always the delicious promise of more and better to come.
Aside from the occasional explosion of sulfurous wrath against some malefactor (“If I had his nuts in a steel trap . . . “), and one or two shock confidences (as when Twain unfairly blames himself for the death of his only son), there is little in this huge volume to justify his scruples about publishing it posthumously, in installments spread over a century, to spare the sensibilities of persons mentioned.
The most he will say about sex is that he finds it difficult to kiss and caress his near and dear. But this was less a matter of physical coldness than of upbringing. He does not sentimentalize any of the many painful experiences of his later years as a writer, publisher and bankruptee and maintains a self-control even when describing the loss, to heart disease, of his beloved wife, Livy.
Occasionally, maybe once in 50 pages, the old man will go on a little too long. His dreams, dietary problems and complaints about stock-market reversals are as boring as yours and mine. Many of the news stories he fixates on seem dated now. (An exception is the Moro Massacre of March 8, 1906, when clean-cut American boys in the Philippines behaved just as barbarously as they would later do at My Lai and Abu Ghraib.) On the whole, however, this volume is hard to stop reading. Twain’s prosody is so sure, and his powers of observation and selection so great, that he can take the most unpromising material—a real-estate deed, a letter from a would-be author—and make it glitter, like dull stone that turns out to be quartz or even diamond. Like Nabokov, he knew how to “caress the details, the divine details.”
There is a passage describing the interior of a farmhouse that young Sam lived in as a boy that matches anything in “Speak, Memory.” Significantly, however, these couple of pages are among the few that Twain took the trouble to write rather than dictate. If his autobiography is, ultimately, inferior to Nabokov’s, it is because he was mistaken in thinking that improvisations—even inspired improvisations—can ever cohere into a satisfactory whole. Unless there is line, there can be no architecture.
By June 1909, Twain realized that he was on the way to producing the longest book ever attempted. He lost heart and left it unfinished—at a half-million words. His stream of consciousness had become an unmanageable flood: He needed to get out of it before he drowned.
One of the first magazine men to pitch for serial rights to the autobiography prophetically advised Twain to insert a clause in his will allowing for full publication in “the year 2000 . . . by electrical method, or by any mode which may then be in use.” This edition is a bit late for that deadline. But stylistically speaking, it can only gain by appearing at a moment when the preferred forms of human communication are torrential texting and tweeting. What an irony that our supreme literary craftsman should be seen, in retrospect, as the inventor of the blog!
Mr. Morris is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Beethoven. “Colonel Roosevelt,” the final volume of his trilogy on the 26th president, will be published this month.
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