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Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Vol. 1
Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Vol. 1
Mark Twain
University of California Press, 2010
736 pp., $45.00

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Allen C. Guelzo


Marking Twain

An autobiography that could never be finished.

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Yet Clemens' guilt had a certain self-serving aspect, as though its chief problem was the pain it caused him, not the larger metaphysical conclusions he might draw from it. He raged against the money-makers of the Gilded Age, not because their works were evil, but because the ones he trusted had taken the profits of his writing and nearly sunk him into destitution. In his youth, Clemens asserted, "there was nothing resembling a worship of money or its possessor." But men like "Jay Gould," he complained, "reversed the commercial morals of the United States …. The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it." He left no whip unbloodied when opportunity came to lay it on the back of John D. Rockefeller, "twaddling sentimental sillinesses to a Sunday-school," or those of the tribe of Rockefeller he believed had lured him unwisely into fortune-making schemes. He was careful, however, not to include on his rap-sheet of robber princes his own father-in-law, who had made a fortune in coal, lumber, and railroads in upstate New York. And he displayed a stupendous insensibility to the amoral celebrity-of-the-day, Daniel Edgar Sickles, who had murdered his wife's lover on the sidewalk in front of the White House, escaped hanging by pleading temporary insanity, wangled a commission in the Union Army and cheerfully disobeyed George G. Meade's orders to stand his ground at Gettysburg, then dodged court-martial when a piece of Confederate ordnance blew his knee-cap off, used his position as U.S. minister to Spain to seduce Queen Isabella, embezzled funds devoted to monument-building at Gettysburg, and spent the half-century between Gettysburg and his own death in 1914 defaming the reputation of Meade. Sickles, in Clemens' eyes, was just an adorable old duffer who "always seems modest and unexasperating" and "never made an ungenerous remark about anybody." Clemens first met Sickles in Paris, and later lived across the street from him in New York City, and, in the company of perhaps only four or five other people on the rest of the planet, was "sure Sickles must have been always polite." Clemens assumed the most amazing innocence in others until proof of guilt emerged; but when it did, the only cure he had for the sting of gullibility was to sink their reputations in the Gehenna of his sarcasm.

Another part of Clemens' guilt is reflected in the remarkably poor way he handled his own fame. After speaking at Carnegie Hall, "the usual thing happens," Clemens said (or wrote). "I shake hands with people who used to know my mother intimately in Arkansas, in New Jersey, in California, in Jericho—and I have to seem so glad and so happy to meet these persons who knew in this intimate way one who was so near and dear to me. And this is the kind of thing that gradually turns a person into a polite liar and deceiver, for my mother was never in any of those places." Clemens, for all that he snarled at people peddling truth, loved truth more than he ever cared to admit, and got less of it than he wanted; but this made him see his star-struck admirers as tempters who wanted to make him into a "polite liar," and in his heart he hated them for that. He was no easier, however, on legitimate acquaintances from his school-days in Hannibal, Missouri. He had known John Garth and Helen Kercheval in those years, but now expressed only an arid nostalgia: "They grew up and married. He became a prosperous banker and a prominent and valued citizen; and a few years ago he died, rich and honored. He died. It is what I have to say about so many of those boys and girls." This is not a reminiscence; it is a statement of contempt for two nice people who had never, unlike the great Samuel Langhorne Clemens, escaped the rut of niceness. But it was also a contempt mingled with guilt, as if he was startled at feeling so little in common with them. And after the guilt, despair. "These tiresome and monotonous repetitions of the human life—where is their value?" Clemens asked out loud. "There was nobody then who could answer it; there is nobody yet."

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