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We Like to Think We Know Him

This is the autobiography of "Mark Twain," not the self-revelations of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the real man who used that riverboat pseudonym.

By From the March 2011 issue

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The Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al.
(University of California Press, 743 pages, $34.95)

There's something curiously unsatisfying about Mark Twain, something strangely incomplete about nearly all his books. We seem to end up enjoying him as a writer more than we actually enjoy any particular thing he wrote.

Take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for an obvious example. There's no denying it contains scenes as great as any in American fiction: Huck's incompetent impersonation of a girl, Jim's sorrow when he thinks the boy is dead, Colonel Sherburn's sneer as he faces down the lynch mob. But the ending of the novel is thrown away in a retread of Twain's earlier Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was itself a book with some classic scenes of American comedy but not much of what ordinary folks would call logic. Hemingway's oft-quoted line that Huck Finn is where "all modern American literature comes from" suggests one of the enduring problems with American literature: we don't know how to bring things to a conclusion.

Or take A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court -- a book with a single idea. It's a pretty funny idea, to be sure, but only one pot-boiling device moves the whole story: the transporting of an enlightened American back to benighted times, the setting of a modern Yankee in the middle of the Middle Ages. And even then, the story can't find its way to a coherent ending: After 200 pages of mocking medieval superstition, Twain suddenly allows Merlin's debunked magic to work, so Hank Morgan can return to his proper time in Connecticut.

For that matter, Twain's eccentric book-length essays -- Concerning the Jews, Christian Science, Is Shakespeare Dead? -- are occasionally mentioned, although no one seems to praise them much anymore. His travel writings -- Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Following the Equator -- do still receive regular genuflections, but am I wrong to suggest they're more often applauded than actually read, these days? Twain has any number of genius moments in his prose, all those nearly perfect set pieces and rolling descriptions, but almost nothing he did was complete, satisfying from beginning to end.

Oh, the short stories. It does always come back to them, when we find ourselves defending our admiration of Twain: "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," "The $30,000 Bequest," "Eve's Diary." And yet, more often than not, what we mean when we mention such stories is the perfection of their overarching ideas, joined to a marvelous scene or two while Twain was fleshing an idea out into a published piece.

The pithy irony of his trademark prose remains as well, of course. "There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy's life that he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure." Or "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man." So many great lines, in fact, that Mark Twain has become one of those iconic figures -- Winston Churchill and Yogi Berra are others -- who have stray bits of bastard wit fathered upon them: It doesn't much matter whether they truly coined the comic line; their names are mostly signals that something funny is coming, and modern conversational convention allows us the useful verbal gesture of As Mark Twain once said to indicate we're looking for a laugh from what we're about to say.

STILL, EVEN THE PARTICULARITIES of Twain's prose style, the endless hours he put into polishing up his aphorisms, aren't exactly what makes him seem so clear a figure in our minds. The Prince and the Pauper, for example, doesn't possess a single one of those trademarked Twainian phrases, but it's never been out of print -- mostly, I suspect, because of its author. There were dozens of people writing that kind of story toward the end of the 19th century. The humorist Frank Stockton's best-known tale, "The Griffin and the Minor Canon," appeared just a few years later, and all it lacks to be an American classic is Mark Twain's name on the cover.

But lack that name, it does. And the difference lies in the real genius of Twain. Yes, he had the gift of creating memorable characters, if not quite at the stratospheric level that Charles Dickens reached. And yes, he had the gift of composing aphoristic lines, if not quite with the nasty precision that Ambrose Bierce revealed. But from the lightheartedness of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in 1865, his first national success, all the way down to the bitterness of "The Mysterious Stranger," the story he was working on when he died in 1910, Twain somehow always possessed the power to make us feel we knew him. He had the gift of personality in prose, the ability to put the author himself before us -- and convince us that we rather like and admire the personality of that author.

Plenty of writers are missing that touch. Jane Austen had it, but her stepchild Henry James didn't. G. K. Chesterton worked it to the bone, but writers as great as Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot always stay a step back from us, hidden by their words. In fact, there's often something a little pathetic about it all -- a too-naked plea to be liked by readers, an over-sweetened presentation of the anxious author -- and the ones who do it best usually leaven the whole thing with generous comic dollops of irony and self-deprecation.

As Mark Twain did, which is what has made the recent publication of the first volume of his autobiography such an event. We think we know the man, we imagine that we've lived with him for a more than a century, and now we get to hear him talk about himself. Various portions appeared in 1924, 1940, and 1959, but Twain left instructions that the work as a whole was not to be issued until 100 years after his death. Now that we've arrived, at last, at that point, the University of California Press has begun to bring out the text, complete with an overwhelming scholarly apparatus (only 270 of the 736 pages in this first of three volumes are Twain's actual text; the rest is notes, introductions, prefaces, and appendices).

MAYBE THE THING TO REMEMBER, however, is that this is the autobiography of "Mark Twain," not the self-revelations of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the real man who used that riverboat pseudonym. Clemens invented "Twain," cobbled him up as a public persona -- and the man we think we know, the man who wrote this autobiography, is still a literary construction. Even when, in The Autobiography of Mark Twain, he allows us to visit some of the back rooms of his life, he keeps more than a few doors tightly sealed against intruders. He demanded a century's embargo on the book so he could be "frank and free and unembarrassed" while he dictated the rambling narrative. But only Twain is frank and free in the text. Clemens remains more than a little embarrassed.

Twain began the project in 1877 at age 42, "but the resolve," he explained, "melted away and disappeared in a week and I threw my beginning away. Since then, about every three or four years I have made other beginnings and thrown them away." Finally, in 1904, he "hit upon the right way to do an autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime."

All of which makes the Autobiography sound like fun. Which it is. Kind of. But you don't get connected narrative out of this style of writing, and the book has an underlying tone of resentment that fights against the humor of the tall tales, as though -- and I think this the best way to understand Mark Twain -- the youthful prose style wanted to do comedy, while the old man writing that prose wanted to do tragedy.

The Autobiography drags in a few places: The material on General Grant, for instance, needed an edit that he never gave it. But, for the most part, his gift of timing in prose and his power of aphorism remained with him till the end. He describes a business partner as "a great fat good-natured, kind-hearted, chicken-livered slave; with no more pride than a tramp, no more sand than a rabbit, no more moral sense than a wax figure, and no more sex than a tape-worm."

He once spoke of the loss of his wife, Livi, in a single terse and powerful line: "In all my (nearly) seventy-four years I have seen only one person whom I would marry, & I have lost her." But in the Autobiography he prefaces a brief acknowledgement of her illness with 20 pages of comic vituperation against his landlady, the owner of the Italian villa in which Livi spent her last days: an "American countess" who was a "reptile with a filthy soul" -- not to mention "excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward."

Part of the fun of Twain, part of what we appreciate in his persona, is the interplay of it all: the bleakness of his declared view of life, somehow tangled up with the joy of his sense of comedy. This was a man who could readily denounce the whole of existence. "I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices," he once noted. "All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse." Or, in pithier form, "Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat." At the same time he was a man who could indulge such gooey thoughts as "Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live."

For that matter, he was the man who could write the perfect comedy of "It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October.… The sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God" -- an entire paragraph of pseudo-Victorian sentiment deployed for the sole purpose of setting up the deliberate misuse of the word esophagus.

Ah, well. That's why we love him. At least 90 percent of The Autobiography of Mark Twain had already been published in the earlier, expurgated editions, and this first third of the complete text adds little to our actual knowledge of the events and emotions of the man's life. But for our grasp of Mark Twain -- for our belief, ever since he burst on the scene in 1865, that we know him through his prose -- the book is a gift and a treasure. 

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About the Author

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.