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The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al.
University of California Press
It's funny, I think, how random the process can sometimes be of who we as a culture decide to remember for decades or sometimes centuries after their time, and who we tend to forget just a generation or two after their death, no matter how famous they were when alive; take for example Samuel Clemens, who I'll be referring to for the rest of this essay by his pen-name Mark Twain, no more notorious in the late 1800s than a hundred other people who served as his peers, but now a century later with 90 percent of those peers forgotten by the general public, but with Twain still thought of in an almost godlike fashion, pretty remarkable for a failed journalist and a bit of a crank who is best known for a series of folksy populist tales about a romanticized American past. But then again, once you stop and think about it, Twain actually accomplished a lot more than these businessmen and politicians around him who have now faded into obscurity; because for international readers who might not know, Twain came of age in a period of American history very similar in my opinion to what a place like India is going through right now -- a period when the US was dragging itself from second-world to first-world status for the first time, and was desperate to establish its first generation of artists, writers and thinkers to have a truly global effect on culture, artists who espoused an entirely new school of thought apart from what they learned simply by traveling to the already established parts of the cultured world. And Twain was one of these people, who at first became an international hit by writing post-Civil-War "pastoral" tales about a quaint and innocent rural America that had never actually existed, then honed his skills in his later years into a series of brilliantly satirical tales challenging the status quo, establishing a type of unique "American humor" (snarky, political, pop-culture-infused) that many Americans fondly look at as an integral part of our entire national spirit.
So no wonder, then, that Twain's century-in-waiting autobiography has unexpectedly become such a huge hit (see this fascinating NYT article for more -- turns out that the academic press who put this out went with an original print run of only 7,500 copies, thinking that the 800-page tome would be of interest to scholars only, but with it in actuality selling a third of a million copies in just its first few months); not just because of Twain's still near-holy status with most Americans, but because of the instantly intriguing hook behind its publication, the fact that Twain demanded that it not be published until a full hundred years after his death, so that he could feel free to write whatever nasty little stuff about the people around him that he wanted. Now, granted, this hasn't quite held true in the resulting century -- four smaller versions of this behemoth manuscript were published at various points throughout the 20th century -- but here on the literal centennial of his death, we are finally seeing the full and uncensored version for the first time, a publicist's wet dream that has made for dozens of fevered headlines from a lazy mainstream press.
But there are several important things to know about this book before reading it (technically only volume one of a coming three-book set), things that will help temper your enthusiasm down to a reasonable level; for example, of that giant bound volume now in stores, a full half of it is merely obsessive notes concerning the condition of the "Mark Twain Papers" when they were unearthed again for this project, with there turning out to have been three different physical copies in the vaults with multiple sets of notes, their authors and ages often in doubt, which was then further complicated by the fact that Twain sometimes out-and-out lied in these reminisces, sometimes exaggerated the truth, and sometimes in his old age simply got details wrong when transcribing them. And that's the second important thing to know -- that far from this being a traditional bio written in a linear or thematic order, Twain constructed these notes in the years before his death by dictating them to a stenographer from his bed in the mornings, three hours a day, nearly every day for four years straight, which he found such a delightful arrangement that he decided not to give his thoughts any kind of order at all, but rather ramble on about whatever struck his fancy that particular moment, no matter how little it might correspond to what he was talking about the day before. And pardon the trendiness of saying something like this, but that really does make this book less of a "biography" and more like the world's first blog, one that had maybe a dozen real-time readers back when he was first writing it, and especially when you add the literal clipped newspaper articles that Twain included in these transcripts, to further illustrate whatever little topic he was talking about that day. (In fact, Twain addresses this very issue in a highly meta way, spending several days discussing the tiny little scandal that was rocking the nation that week [some middle-class mom accidentally getting snubbed at some White House event], then musing on whether anyone was going to remember this incident even a decade from then, much less the "high future" of the early 2000s he was envisioning when writing it.)
And that's really the third important thing to understand about this book -- that despite the salacious reports from a contemporary media industry desperate to prove its own relevance, there's not really anything in Twain's autobiography that's going to come as a big shock, with his hundred-year delay done mostly to protect the feelings of little nobodies who Twain was angry at in his grumpy old age, such as the chapter on the horrible Italian woman who once rented his family a run-down house one summer. I mean, yes, Twain definitely unloads at various points on famous peers like, say, Jay Gould (banking magnate and the ninth richest man on the planet at his death); but Gould was one of the most hated men in the country by that point, the exact kind of tycoon that Twain skewered in his vicious The Gilded Age, so it comes as no surprise that he would dump on him in his "secret" memoirs as well. Now add a scholarly 60-page introduction to the entire thing, plus a copy of all the failed attempts Twain made at this autobiography in the years before this dictation process, and you quickly realize that the meat of this volume really only lays in a 300-page section right in the middle of it, a much more manageable challenge than what this doorstop of a book suggests.
But still, there's plenty of interesting things to read about in that 300-page core, including lots of stories about his childhood in rural Missouri and how they relate to his fictional books about that period; lots of invective against the various schemers, dreamers and other inventors who essentially bankrupted Twain several times over the course of his life; plenty of anecdotes about contemporaries like U.S. Grant, Booker Washington and Grover Cleveland; plenty of stories about family life, the ins and outs of marriage and fatherhood, and the various places they all lived over the decades; and on and on like this, most delivered in the same trademark style that make his public books so loved as well, a combination of optimism and fatalism that Twain was a master of spinning and twisting so much that you find yourself eventually laughing out loud from its sheer pathos. And that, frankly, may be Twain's best and last laugh of all, that he would have the balls to assume that these digressions would be such a hot item even a century after his death, and the talent to prove himself right. It was a fine read that I'm glad I took on, one I'd recommend to others, although only to those who already know a bit about his life and works; and I have to say that I'm now eagerly looking forward to the other two volumes in this series, hitting stores slowly over the next five to six years.
Out of 10: 9.3