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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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Actually, Clemens did not want to hear that there might be such an answer. There is no clue in the Autobiography of the root of Clemens' all-too-well-known scorn for Christianity, but he did admit, in an early sketch for the Autobiography, that "each boy has one or two sensitive spots, and if you can find out where they are located you have only to touch them and you can scorch him as with fire." Nothing pricked him more furiously than the suggestion that he was responsible for evil or suffering; nothing dogged him more vigorously than the suspicion that he was. He never forgot, or let others forget, that "mine was a trained Presbyterian conscience, and knew but the one duty—to hunt and harry its slave upon all pretexts and on all occasions; particularly when there was no sense nor reason in it." He hated his "Presbyterian" conscience like Ahab hated the White Whale, but he was no more able to escape it than Ahab was Moby-Dick. Which is why Clemens' railing against the Bible (of which there is much less in the Autobiography than might be supposed) was less a matter of denouncing, Tom Paine-like or Voltaire-like, the errors, miscalculations, misidentifications, and concluding unscientific postscripts they accused it of, than it is a burning resentment at being made to feel a guilt he was convinced he didn't deserve. Two of Clemens' most popular works—and the two which are not humor books, The Prince and the Pauper and The Tragedy of Puddn'head Wilson—are both about twins (or at least look-alikes) whose lives have been switched. In the hands of Gilbert and Sullivan, this was an occasion for comedy, but in the hands of America's greatest comedic writer, the switch was anything but funny. Each, like Clemens, had been saddled with an identity he was convinced he did not deserve. This is a resentful, perhaps even dishonest, way to live, since we cannot escape who we are. Paradise truly has been lost, and the blame for it rests inalterably on our shoulders, whether we are conscious of earning it or not. We do not return to innocence, or cling to it, or light out for the territories in pursuit of it; the only way out is redemption.

But Clemens did not want redemption, which is why his humor has such a stiletto edge to it, and why, in the end, he could not be as totally transparent as his autobiographical models demanded. What Clemens wanted was innocence, and he was enraged at having it stripped away. During a brief and barren spell, living in Buffalo, Clemens got to know David Gray, a local newspaper editor who had emigrated from Scotland. Gray's upbringing, Clemens wrote, had made him a Presbyterian "of the bluest, the most uncompromising and most unlovely shade." But being "doomed to grind out his living in a most uncongenial occupation," Gray soon abandoned his Presbyterianism and turned "a frank rationalist and pronounced unbeliever." Years later, Clemens learned that Gray had suffered a stroke and "that his brain was affected, as a result." But even though the stroke robbed him of his editor's job, Gray was "living quite privately and teaching a daily Bible Class …. His unbelief had passed away; his early Presbyterianism had taken its place." Now, when Clemens at last met Gray after thirty years, "the same sweet spirit of the earlier days looked out of his deep eyes … great, fine and blemishless in character, a creature to adore." Clemens could have smirked if he had been inclined: he returns to faith only after his brain has stopped working. Instead, what Clemens noticed was, with the return of faith, the return of innocence. In the volume's last entry, from 1906, Clemens included a letter from Helen Keller, "a young woman who has been stone deaf, dumb, and blind ever since she was eighteen months old," but who was nevertheless able to write Clemens a letter which he was confident "would pass into our literature as a classic and remain so." Innocence, he wanted to believe, must somehow triumph over sense. But the only evidence he could offer for it was a brain-wrecked Bible teacher and the most famous blind deaf-mute in America.

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