BOOK REVIEW: Mark Twain himself after 100 years

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, VOLUME 1
By Mark Twain
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith
University of California Press, $34.95, 760 pages

“Well, there he stands - a bit concealed, a bit false, but still a colossus,” H.L. Mencken wrote upon reading a biography of Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). These words might well apply to the enormous first volume of Twain’s autobiography.

Clemens (1835-1910) specified that his true, full autobiography was not to be published for 100 years after his death so that he could speak freely. To those who have anticipated this publication for many years, there was a lip-smacking sense of an impending hullabaloo: Scores were going to be settled, names would be named and skeletons would be de-closeted and compelled to dance with unseemly mocks and grimaces. Further, the genial author of “Tom Sawyer” (1876) and “Huckleberry Finn” (1884), a convinced atheist and nihilist, surely would jeer louder and more blatantly than ever at the idiocies of “the damned human race” and the absurdities of religious belief.

However, as many readers may know, several curtailed versions of the autobiography have been published in the years since Clemens’ death, beginning with Albert Bigelow Paine’s two-volume edition in 1924, followed in time by others edited by Bernard De Voto and Charles Neider. What we see in this first volume of the official autobiography contains much that we have seen before - which is not to say that it is by any means stale or redundant. It is interspersed with material that Paine and the others did not see fit to publish in their versions, along with extensive annotations and endnotes, and is altogether a welcome addition to the corpus of Twainiana. (Two additional volumes will be published during the next five years.)

In 1906, Clemens articulated his unique method of writing his autobiography in words that appeared in Paine’s edition and are reproduced in this most recent work. Having tried for many years to work systematically, using notes, he came to this realization: “The thing uppermost in a person’s mind is the thing to talk about or write about.”

He adds, “I am only interested in talking along and wandering around as much as I want to, regardless of results to the future reader. By consequence, here we have diary and history combined; because as soon as I wander from the present text - the thought of to-day - that digression takes me far and wide over the uncharted sea of recollection, and the result of that is history. Consequently my autobiography is diary and history combined.”

The result of Clemens’ “talking along and wandering around” was ably described by critic Leonard Woolf in his review of Paine’s edition in words that apply equally well to the new edition: “There is no continuity or chronological sequence; it is a disorderly, untidy, ramshackle book; but this conception of autobiography, like most of Mark Twain’s ideas, is shown to have in it a broad vein of common sense streaked by genius.”

What we see first and foremost is the humility of a man who had known much disappointment, misunderstanding and sorrow in his life, as well as the wry humor that lightened his life and his writings. In its pen portraits of the great and small who passed through Clemens’ world, this autobiography forms a massive illustration of the vanity of human wishes as well as the craven ugliness and soaring greatness of which human beings are capable.

One of the most touching episodes appears near the end of the volume and describes Clemens’ meeting with Annie Sullivan and 14-year-old Helen Keller, the renowned deaf and blind woman he deemed “a fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals.”

At one point, he sat with Miss Keller’s fingers resting upon his lips and told a long, funny story “which she interrupted all along and in the right places, with cackles, chuckles, and care-free bursts of laughter. Then Miss Sullivan put one of Helen’s hands against her lips and spoke against it the question ‘What is Mr. Clemens distinguished for?’ Helen answered, in her crippled speech, ‘For his humor.’ I spoke up modestly and said ‘And for his wisdom.’ Helen said the same words instantly - ‘And for his wisdom.’ I suppose it was a case of mental telegraphy, since there was no way for her to know what it was I had said.” In Helen Keller, as in the life of Joan of Arc, America’s most convinced cynic found a sunbeam of hope and encouragement amid an otherwise discouraging world.

As Mencken wrote of Clemens nearly a century ago, “He was and is the one authentic giant of our national literature.” This autobiography reveals, in patches of startling color and fitful flashes of lightning, what was giant about both the man and his writings.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books, 2005).

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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