Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Vol. 1
University of California Press, 2010
736 pp., $45.00
Allen C. Guelzo
Autobiography, Clemens told William Dean Howells in 1904, "consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth." He tried to persuade himself that "the remorseless truth is there," but it was to be found "between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell." Howells was not fooled. "I fancy you may tell the truth about yourself," wrote the novelist otherwise consigned by American canonists to the devil's-pit of gentility, "but all of it? … Even you won't tell the black-heart's truth." Clemens might be (as Howells put it) "nakeder than Adam and Eve put together, and truer than sin." Eventually, Clemens had to admit that Howells had been right. Not only had he "thought of fifteen hundred to two thousand incidents of my life which I am ashamed of" but which he had "not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper"; he believed "if I should put in all or any of these incidents I should be sure to strike them out when I came to revise this book." Leaving this continental mass unfinished and unpublished when he died in 1910 was the only way he could keep himself from turning it into a lie.
It is, I suppose, an acknowledgement of how much Clemens believed that even his autobiography would hover somewhere between fact and fiction that it finally appears with his pen-name, rather than his real name, in the title: Autobiography of Mark Twain. The sketches and chapters which Clemens piled up over the years were given, along with the bulk of his papers, to the Bancroft Library at the University of California (Berkeley) in 1962 after the death of Clemens' last surviving child, Clara Clemens Samossoud, and work on a massive editorial project to catalogue and publish them began in 1966. Over the long history of the Mark Twain Project, it has occasionally been the butt of more than a few jokes for its ponderously paced efforts to over-annotate even the tiniest scraps of Clemensiana. The first volume of Clemens' letters set a new record for scholarly myopia by attaching to a one-line telegram (sent by Clemens on June 21, 1858, announcing laconically: "Henry Died this morning leave tomorrow with the Corpse Saml. Clemens") a footnote of 27 lines, plus commentary in the volume's back-matter on the telegraph company's "terms and conditions" as printed on the blank form. But somehow the Project has endured both the jokes and the threats of impatient funders, and assuming that Twain's ban on publication until 2010 ever really had legal teeth, the Project can at last say that one part of its work has at last appeared on time.
The Autobiography is largely the editorial accomplishment of Harriet Elinor Smith, who was also the lead editor for the over-abundant Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1: 1853-1866 (1988) and the subsequent second, fifth, and sixth volumes of the Letters, plus two volumes of Clemens' Early Tales and Sketches (1979, 1981), and Roughing It (1993). Smith has Clemens in her blood, so to speak—her father, Henry Nash Smith, was the founding guru of American Studies and wrote three books on Clemens—and Harriet Smith herself has been a fixture of the Twain Project for 33 years. The Autobiography alone cost her six years, and this is, in fact, only volume one.
No one could have been more surprised, then, than Harriet Smith when the Autobiography leapt out from the publisher's gate like a certain well-known jumping frog, demanding a print run which had to be adjusted upwards from an initial 30,000 copies to 500,000; by January, it had crept onto bestseller lists from California to The New York Times. A hefty part of this unplanned-for bestsellerhood was the expectation that an autobiography which Clemens had wanted to conceal for a hundred years had to be teeming with scandal, either his own scandalous unbelief in all the available 19th-century pieties or the scandals of his peers which he slyly recorded from the inside. But Smith was adamant on this point: reports of Clemens' tell-all skills had been greatly exaggerated. "That's gotten exaggerated to the point where we're accused of false advertising," Smith said. After all, portions of the Autobiography had been available in the North American Review and the New York Tribune since Clemens published them there in 1906, and there was nothing particularly revealing even about the style. "To be honest," Smith added, "various editors didn't think it was his best work."
The real revelation of the Autobiography was an aspect of Clemens' personality which few suspected was there: guilt. "He did have a tendency to feel guilty that we find puzzling," Smith said. He blamed himself for the death of his year-and-half-old son Langdon in 1872 when the child caught cold after a carriage ride. He chided himself for his "lack of endurance" in watching over his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, before Langdon's death. The guilt even bobs up in Tom Sawyer: the drunken tramp who incinerates himself in the town jail was a real character who, in Clemens' dreams, accused him of giving him the matches he used to start the fire. And he bitterly regretted the "many crimes I committed against that gentle and patient and forgiving spirit," his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens. "I always told her that if she died first"—which she did—"the rest of my life would be made up of self-reproaches for the tears I had made her shed." She promptly and lovingly heightened his guilt by replying that "if I should pass from life first, she would never have to reproach herself without having loved me the less devotedly or the less constantly because of those tears." They had that exchange, Clemens added, a thousand times, the last "when the night of death was closing about her." The wonder is that he was able to live with himself for six years afterward.