My brilliant career

Coming 100 years after his death, Twain’s autobiography hopes to break new ground but guarantees old pleasures

(Mark Twain House and Museum)
By Laura Skandera Trombley
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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The old chestnut, “Enough about me, let’s talk about you . . . what do you think about me?’’ could be the subtitle of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain.’’ The first author in history to plan and actualize a new publication a century after his death, Mark Twain must be cackling with glee a few degrees south of Captain Stormfield’s heaven right now: Volume I of the work will be arriving in time for the anniversary of Twain’s 175th birthday on Nov. 30, with volumes II and III to follow over the next five years. The entire collection will total in excess of a half a million words and some 5,000 pages.

While it is clearly a product of the 19th century, the book anticipates the contemporary memoir in form and in its attitude toward objectivity. It eschews simple chronological order, opting instead to follow Twain’s own internal logic, and Twain makes clear that this book is a product of memory, not a history. Beyond all that, despite its daunting heft, the work provides distinct pleasures for even the casual Twain fan.

The production of the book spanned about half of Twain’s life. Twain wrote volume I’s first entry in 1870, the same year of his marriage to Olivia Langdon of Elmira, N.Y., when he was 35. At the time he was the author of just one book, one of his funniest, a travelogue called “The Innocents Abroad.’’ (His greatest work, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’’ would not be published in the United States until 1885.)

For the next 35 years Twain would complete over 30 entries, but could not sustain this rate of progress on the project beyond that point. Small wonder, considering his other endeavors at the time. Possessed with an almost otherworldly energy level, Twain wrote in excess of 50,000 letters, more than 3,000 newspaper and magazine articles, and more than 30 books.

With all this activity, it was not until December 1906, approximately three and a half years before his death at age 74, that he was finally ready to sit down long enough to reflect on his life and work and follow a regular daily schedule of dictations. By December 1909 when he completed the final chapter — a moving eulogy of his youngest daughter, Jean, a severe epileptic who died of heart failure — he had dictated more than 250 daily entries.

While Twain left specific instructions that no complete text of his “Autobiography’’ could be published until 100 years after his death, in 1906 he oversaw and approved excerpts that were published over 16 months in the North American Review. Over the decades, several edited versions of these excerpts have been produced, with the best being Michael Kiskis’ edition of “Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review.’’

Twain’s intention in the full edition of his “Autobiography,’’ which editor Harriet Smith has heroically fulfilled, was to present a record of his thoughts, in real time so to speak, without attempting to categorize them according to subject, theme, or chronology: “I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published, after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method — a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along.’’

Twain’s exhortation that his “Autobiography’’ should serve as a template for future generations of writers and that it be read centuries into the future, fit nicely into his ambition to be remembered not just as America’s greatest writer, but the greatest writer ever: “My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water.’’ To that end in 1909 he tried to knock out, in his view, his only real competition by publishing “Is Shakespeare Dead?’’

After wading through all 467 pages of volume I, not counting the appendixes, what then does the “Autobiography’’ hold for the interested reader? Simply put, some marvelous writing. Volume I begins with “The Tennessee Land,’’ where Twain discusses his father’s doomed legacy of 75 acres — “he laid the heavy curse of prospective wealth upon our shoulders’’ — and concludes with his March 30, 1900, diatribe about the 25th and 26th presidents — “the McKinleys and the Roosevelts . . . have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that.’’ The highlights include “The [General] Grant Dictations,’’ “Four Sketches About Vienna,’’ “Something About Doctors,’’ “My Autobiography [Random Extracts from It],’’ detailing his genealogy and his early years on the Quarles’s farm, his searing story about the death of his favorite daughter, Susy, and his warm recounting of her biography about him written at age 13.

But how do we judge the veracity of Twain’s accounts from this distance in time? Or is it even necessary? That’s where the fun begins. Twain was obviously legacy building here and decidedly uninterested in making any Rousseau “Confessions.’’ While the book’s editor recognizes that his “longstanding plan was to speak as truthfully as possible ‘from the grave,’ ’’ Twain made it clear to an interviewer in 1899 that a “man cannot tell the whole truth about himself, even if convinced that what he wrote would never be seen by others.’’ So it remains to the reader to determine Twain’s “dimensional difference between a fact and a surmise,’’ and comfortably seated in a good light with reading glasses adjusted, enjoy reading the prose of a unique and treasured American voice and one of the world’s greatest writers who is presenting himself in a manner that entertains as well as informs.

Laura Skandera Trombley is president of Pitzer College and author of the recently published “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years.’’ She can be reached at

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith
University of California, 736 pp. illustrated, $34.95