A window onto the world of Mark Twain

Samuel L Clemens dictated hundreds of pages of autobiography that ranged from the nonexistence of God to postal-service vagaries

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2


Benjamin Griffin, Harriet Elinor Smith

University of California Press

Guideline Price:

Samuel L Clemens, better known after 1863 by his pseudonym, Mark Twain, made several attempts to write an autobiography. He discarded hundreds of pages but kept enough to show that he had failed. In 1904 he tried an almost new method, dictating his thoughts at length to his secretary. In January 1906, when he had crossed the frontier into his 70s, he started taking the method more seriously, dictating for a few hours nearly every day. He was pleased with the results. “I am tired of the pen,” he soon decided.

But he gave himself three concessions.

One: he ordained that the materials he produced must not be published in their entirety until 100 years after his death. (Born on November 30th, 1835, he died on April 21st, 1910.) “I am speaking from the grave,” he told himself with evident satisfaction. In the event, three of his biographers ignored this quaintness, especially as he published several pieces himself in the North American Review as soon as the ink of dictation was dry.

Two: he held himself free to talk about anything that came into his mind, regardless of order or sequence. Other autobiographies patiently and dutifully follow a planned and undivergent course through gardens and deserts and interesting cities and dreary solitudes . . . but this is not that kind of autobiography. This one is only a pleasure excursion, and it sidetracks itself anywhere that there is a circus, or a fresh excitement of any kind, and seldom waits until the show is over but packs up and goes on again as soon as a fresher one is advertised.

Three: he acknowledged no limit of wordage. Between January 9th, 1906, and the end of March he talked enough to fill 264 pages of the first volume – published by the University of California Press, with 267 pages of notes, in 2010, on the dot of the embargo. Between April 2nd, 1906, and February 28th, 1907, he dictated enough to fill 456 pages of the second volume, entailing 206 pages of notes. The notes in both volumes are fine – well worth the price.

Twain’s style in dictation was that of the lecturer, except that he permitted himself from the grave many freedoms of satire that he would not have offered from the podium. He was a celebrity of the platform even before the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 made him still more celebrated. After that he lectured all over the world and lived high in places of choice: France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, India, Ceylon and South Africa, returning from Bermuda to die at home in Redding, Connecticut. Everywhere, people paid good money to see him, hear him, and – the final touch – to shake his hand.

His style on the platform was colloquial but decorous, he limited himself to one laugh per lecture, and he rejected every temptation to sound like Huck or Jim or Tom Sawyer. He was also much in demand as an after-dinner speaker. He lived well, met everybody: the prince of Wales, Kipling, Henry James, Shaw, Henry Irving, Thomas Edison, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Robert Louis Stevenson – every big name you could think of. To be brief, he was a swell. But, as TS Eliot wrote of him: