Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
University of California Press, 2010
736 pp., 45.00
Allen C. Guelzo
Samuel Langhorne Clemens had only just achieved national literary notice with the publication of his short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and his account of spiritual tourism in the Holy Land, The Innocents Abroad (1869), when his mind began to turn toward autobiography. He wrote Mark Twain's (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance toward the end of 1870 and published it (all of eighteen pages) the following year with a title page featuring a gallows labeled "Our Family Tree." After that would come the procession of lampoons, satires, parodies, and picaresques which make up The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). But in truth, all of these were really exercises of his itch for self-narration. "My books are simply autobiographies," he commented in 1886; "I do not know that there is an incident in them which sets itself forth as having occurred in my personal experience which did not so occur." Of course, exploration of the self had been the favorite American genre from the day the first white-bibbed Puritan produced the first relation of grace to join the first visibly purified New England congregation. But Clemens made it into a non-stop industry. Huckleberry Finn began life as "Huck Finn's Autobiography," and Clemens was the principal broker in bringing to print the most surprisingly elegant American autobiography of the 19th century, Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs. And in the long perspective, much of Clemens' literary life was devoted to dethroning that loathsome monument to smugness and self-promotion, the supreme American personal narrative, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.
Yet, Clemens never actually managed to bring together all the pieces of his own self-absorption into one manuscript in his lifetime. He made his first serious attempt as early as 1876, and kept coming back to it "every three or four years." He completed several unconnected sketches in 1897 and 1898, and actually worked up a table of contents in 1900 which showed the outline of an autobiography in 17 chapters. But by 1904, he was so dissatisfied with the slow pace of his writing that he turned to an Edison phonograph and then a professional stenographer to dictate chunks of memoir aloud. He managed to publish a few portions as "Chapters from My Autobiography" in the unbearably proper North American Review, and was so disappointed at the dull response that he arranged for them to be reprinted, with illustrations, in the New York Tribune's Sunday supplement. But the death of his wife in 1904 and of his daughter (who had become almost a partner in the enterprise of the autobiography) in 1908 sapped Clemens' creativity. He had, over the years, written or dictated over 250,000 words of autobiography. But in these last months, he simply lost interest. He had long before concluded that his memoirs—such as they were—were too sizzling to publish in his lifetime, and when he died in 1910, the autobiography was only a mass of unconnected reminiscences, essays, and sketches. Even then, he stipulated that any attempt to edit and publish the material as an "autobiography" must wait until a century after his death.
What defeated him in the end was not fear of revealing too much, but fear of revealing too little. What he had long admired as "the supremest charm" in autobiographies by Cellini, Rousseau, and Casanova was the uninhibited hilarity with which each "tells the dirtiest and vilest and most contemptible things on himself, without ever suspecting that they are other than things which the reader will admire and applaud." He could not resist a posthumous poke at the expense of his brother Orion, who (he said) had set out to write a perfectly truthless autobiography himself and was more or less killed by it: "He had gone down to the kitchen in the early hours of a bitter December morning; he had built the fire, and had then sat down at a table to write something; and there he died, with the pencil in his hand and resting against the paper in the middle of an unfinished word—an indication that his release from the captivity of a long and troubled and pathetic and unprofitable life was mercifully swift and painless." But Clemens, for all his ribald sarcasm of Franklinesque self-compliment, could not bring himself up to his own mark. "The man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself," Clemens complained in 1899, and so autobiography, although "always interesting," has to be taken with "a great deal of allowance." What he really meant was that he could not quite bring himself to admit that he was Samuel Clemens.