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Mark Twain reading in bed
Mark Twain reading in bed

Review: Autobiography

A century later, Mark Twain stripped bare Add to ...

Before modernists invented stream of consciousness; before John Dos Passos came up with the idea of making a novel out of four narrative modes - including "newsreel" montages of press clippings and "camera eye" sequences of autobiographical free association; before postmodernists eschewed linear narrative progression in favour of experimentation, chance, irony, collage and self-reflexivity; before bloggers filled the blogosphere with of-the-moment short personal timely takes on the news; before Jon Stewart broadcast sharp satirical riffs on the day's events, there was Mark Twain, doing all of the above and more in a book meant to be published only after he had been dead 100 years.

Twain hit upon a unique method for writing an autobiography: He dictated to a stenographer whatever was on his mind at the moment, sometimes responding to the morning's paper or the morning's mail, sometimes following seemingly random trains of thought wherever they led him, often interleaving relevant newspaper clippings along the way.

Editor Harriet Elinor Smith, her associate editors and Robert H. Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project, deserve our gratitude for understanding that Twain actually meant all this material to be published in the specific plan that he laid out for it and for undertaking the painstaking challenge of reconstructing the details of that plan and presenting the material to us in the way that Twain wanted us to encounter it.

Previous editors had no such compunctions. Albert Bigelow Paine, under the watchful eye of Twain's daughter, Clara, omitted things that he thought might tarnish Twain's reputation. Bernard DeVoto ordered the fragments topically and cut anything he found "uninteresting." Charles Neider imposed a chronological order on it all. All of them missed the point: Twain knew what he was doing; they didn't.

Twain's form was simple: "Wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment …" He knew that any preconceived plan was a recipe for boredom. His method might be summarized by a line from 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: "Respond to every call that excites your spirit."

Twain recognized that some of the most inspired insights and analogies surface unexpectedly, sparked by an apparently unrelated topic. One line that previous editors cut (in italics in the following quotation) gives us a taste of what we've missed:

"The prior engagement which I spoke of to Tchaykoffsky was an engagement to act as Chairman at the first meeting of the Association which was formed five months ago in the interest of the adult blind. Joseph H. Choate and I had a very good time there, and I came away with the conviction that that excellent enterprise is going to flourish, and will bear abundant fruit. It will do for the adult blind what Congress and the several legislatures do so faithfully and with such enthusiasm for our lawless railway corporations, our rotten beef trusts, our vast robber dens of insurance magnates; in a word, for each and all of our multimillionaires and their industries - protect them, take watchful care of them, preserve them from harm like a Providence, and secure their prosperity, and increase it. The State of New York contains six thousand listed blind persons …"

It's as if the words of an old friend turn out to have been "bleeped" for the past hundred years. Twain's scathing critique of plutocracy and the power of corporations is, alas, as timely as ever. A dimwitted editor's efforts to "improve" Twain's prose prompted Twain to pen a memorable point-by-point justification of his original wording (included in this book). A sample: "There is your empty 'however' again. I cannot think what makes you so flatulent." One winces at the words Twain would have had for the multiple editors who blithely cut that entire sentence quoted above from earlier editions of his autobiography.

Years ago, I took Twain's novel Joan of Arc with me on a long train ride. It was so interminable that it was with considerable dismay that I read the final words of the last chapter: "End of Volume One." The dismay I felt when I came to page 469 of Autobiography of Mark Twain and read the words "Explanatory Notes" was even greater - but for a different reason: Those two words meant that this first instalment of Twain's own narrative had ended - and after 468 riveting pages, I was frustrated that it didn't go on for a few hundred pages more. The adjectives Twain uses to describe Helen Keller's writing describe his own: "simple, direct, unadorned, unaffected, unpretentious … moving and beautiful and eloquent." Stay tuned for Volumes Two and Three.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is director of American studies, Stanford University. She is the author or editor of many books on Mark Twain, including the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain.

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