Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol 3: Twain’s final days, in his own words
The great American novelist reveals the penury of his experience in his later years
Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 3
Edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith
University of California Press
The first half of this book consists of fragments of autobiography that Mark Twain dictated to his secretary from March 1st, 1907, to December 26th, 1909, this latter date being two days after his daughter Jean died. He brought the autobiography to an end with her death. There was no merit in keeping it going. Twain had the notion, which sounds daft to me, that he could extend the copyright of his books by many years by having each of them reprinted along with maybe 100 pages of autobiography. That way the royalties would accrue to support his surviving daughters at the time, Jean and Clara.
With Jean dead and Clara self-sufficient, the scheme was redundant, although later Clara became sole heir to her father’s estate. He died on April 21st, 1910. There are many gaps among the fragments. Twain liked to write in the summer and to evade the severity of a New England winter by taking a slow boat to Bermuda, “that happy little paradise”.
When he dictated he uttered anything that came into his head. Since the death of his wife, on June 5th, 1904, nothing much had come into his head. He was in great demand as an after-dinner speaker, “washing about on a forlorn sea of banquets and speech-making in high and holy causes”, as he called it.
He became a celebrity, sporting the famous white suit, the mop of hair, the cigar, the gift of the gab. But little happened beyond the fuss of those evenings. What mainly emerges from this third volume of his autobiography is the penury of his experience in the last years. He made an extended trip to England to receive an honorary D Litt from Oxford on June 25th, 1907, and to be dined and wined in high company before and after.
When he got back he dictated several pages of detail, including a vicious attack on Marie Corelli, a sneering account of Andrew Carnegie and his customary rant on President Theodore Roosevelt, the great white hunter.
Then there is the matter of the girls: “As for me, I collect pets: young girls from 10 to 16 years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent – dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears. My collection consists of gems of the first water.”
He met some of these pets in Bermuda – “angel-fish”, he called them – and devoted the dictating session of April 17th, 1908, to their worship: Dorothy Butes, “14-years-old, who wanted to come and look at me”; Frances Nunnally, “schoolgirl of Atlanta, Georgia”; Dorothy Quick, “10 years and ten-twelfths of a year old when I captured her at sea last summer on the return-voyage from England”; Margaret Blackmer, “12-years-old last New Year’s”; Irene Gerkin, “of 12 summers”; Hellen Martin, “ a slim and bright and sweet little creature aged 10½”; Jean Spurr, “aged 13 the 14th of last March, and of such is the kingdom of Heaven”. And three more. His relations to the pets was entirely picturesque and colloquial. I have not heard otherwise.
The second part of the book is the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript, as it is called. Twain became dissatisfied with dictation: there was always someone else in the room; you couldn’t let yourself rip. So he devised the idea of writing letters to someone who wouldn’t mind the odd obscenity; writing the letters but not sending them.
So he wrote the entire Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript to William Dean Howells, without mailing it. I haven’t spotted any obscenities, but the style is loose, rough and ready, often bad.
It is like the speech that a gentleman, after a few drinks too many, might commit in the mens’ room of his club. But the point of it all was serious.
Twain had the services of Isabel Lyon for seven years, at first as home help, later as housekeeper, secretary, hostess, almost a member of the family. Ralph Ashcroft came into the family as business secretary but soon became indispensable as Twain’s business manager.
In March 1909 Isabel and Ralph married. Things rested so until Clara became convinced that the Ashcrofts were guilty of malfeasance, having stolen money from Twain’s account. She persuaded her father to sack them.
It was an embarrassment, in the legal imbroglio that followed, that Twain was, in certain respects – let me say – an idiot. He never saw a document that he didn’t want to sign, usually sight unseen. So the archives include his tributes to the honesty of both Ashcrofts.
“I was hypnotised,” he explained. The manuscript was never meant for publication: it was Twain’s means of sounding off, free of control. On April 17th, 1909, he described it to Howells: “I like to see my mind perform according to the law which I have laid down in ‘What Is Man?’: the law that the mind works automatically, & plans & perfects many a project without its owner suspecting what it is about; the mind being merely a machine, & not in even the slightest degree under the control of its owner or subject to his influence.”
After 433 pages of handwritten prose, illustrating the absurdity of this law, Twain ended the manuscript with a memorandum, a piece of nonsense about the discovery of the North Pole.
Dr Cook announced that he had discovered it on April 21st, 1908. Commander Peary, “from up amongst the icebergs”, sent a telegram saying that he had discovered it a year later than Cook, according to the dates.
Twain comments: “Apparently Dr Cook sat down among the icebergs to waste a year – in writing about the discovery? If he really was so foolish as all that, he deserves to take second place – along with Adams, who didn’t push his discovery of Neptune, but let Leverrier get in ahead of him & take first place for good & all.”
The editors correct this in nearly every detail. The National Geographic Society, having examined the evidence, awarded the honour to Peary.
Cook’s claim was rejected and he was denounced as a fraud. The English astronomer John Couch Adams (1819-92) and the French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier (1811-77) both calculated the position of Neptune, but Le Verrier was the first to announce his prediction, which was confirmed in 1846. Both men are now credited with the discovery. Twain’s Memorandum was apropos of nothing. It was merely stuff that came into his head.
Denis Donoghue is university emeritus and Henry James professor of English and American letters at New York University. His most recent book is Metaphor (Harvard University Press)