Samuel Clemens' Secret
What Mark Twain's Autobiography doesn't reveal.
It should not be surprising that a book the author never really wanted to write doesn't add up to one. The Autobiography of Mark Twain is a collection of parts—many of them howlingly funny, a few of them touching and sad—that together form a whole so ad hoc and disjointed that it is hard to credit the notion that Twain had a plan for the work that rises to the level of being worthy of punctilious reconstruction. Let me restate that. I think it's fine for scholars to do the careful work that scholars do, and I think that the end result may give a very useful picture of the state of the manuscript at the end of his life. I just don't think that readers who don't happen to be working on a dissertation about something Twain-related urgently need to read the entire sprawling mess.
I did read it, though, so I can't help wondering: Why did Twain have such a hard time sitting down to write his memoirs? What made thinking about himself so intolerable? I'm not the first critic to sense Twain's acute reluctance to engage in acts of autobiography. In 1924, Leonard Woolf wrote of the first edition that its "peculiarity" lay in that "although you feel him to be quite frank and unreserved, he never takes you beyond the second compartment" of his psyche, "and never gives you a hint that there are, or that he is aware that there are, others behind it." Dwight Macdonald, writing in 1960 about the third edition, was harsher: "The promised record of a soul laid bare reads as impersonally as, and very much like, one of those after-dinner speeches Twain was so good at."
Macdonald is right. That is exactly what the book feels like, except that it reads like an anthology of speeches, rather than just one. That, too, should come as no surprise, because giving after-dinner speeches was one of Twain's chief professional activities. Public speaking earned him far more income than writing and kept him on the road for the better part of most years of his adult life. Hoary war stories from the lecture circuit make up a good one-third of the reminiscences in this volume. Macdonald was surprised that Twain recounted "the niceties of giving a lecture" with more gusto than he brought to writing about writing. It is clear from this Autobiography, however, that Twain experienced the ups and downs of his life as a orator much more viscerally than he did the joys and pains of authorship. By all accounts, including his own, he was an electrifying and hilarious public presence, a stand-up comedian before that title existed. He worked as hard on his lectures as he did on his published writing, if not harder, and he memorized every one, no matter how long. Having his jokes produce the desired effect on an audience brought him to a pitch of pure elation, while bombing on stage seemed nearly to kill him. Reading Twain talk about talking, you suddenly realize that all his writing, from a day's dictation to the longer novels, is influenced by the style of paid public discourse. Like the after-dinner speech, it's conversational, digressive, and larded with jokes.
Call it, anachronistically, shtick. Twain was America's greatest shtickmeister. The stuff just poured out of him, whether he was scribbling or dictating. So there are countless wonderful bits here. To keep our terminology sufficiently 19th-century, we'd have to call them tall tales, even though, according to the footnotes, some of them were true: tall tales of boyhood, of school friends and Missouri eccentrics and Twain's own misdeeds; tall tales of his days as a cub reporter in the Wild West; tall tales from his days as a steamboat captain; tall tales of dueling; of being cheated, repeatedly, by publishers; of his various business enterprises, all of them disastrous; and of encounters with great men, and sometimes women—all of them delivered in Twain's signature deadpan, ironical prose, with some brilliant comeuppance at the end.
What Twain was not comfortable with, and could not produce at will, was material lacking a punch line or comic target—the painful, nuanced stuff of private life that is unlikely to get a laugh from a paying audience. When he talks about his wife and children, he grows stiff, platitudinous, sentimental, wrapping himself protectively in Victorian clichés about women's angelic natures and children's sweet foibles. Being Twain, he can't help being charming and funny, but the humor lacks the anarchic ferocity that rips through his writing on public matters. Every so often, but far too rarely—usually when talking about Susy, his beloved oldest daughter who died at the age of 24—he allows himself to be genuinely sad, and then he is heartbreaking.
If we're going to understand why Twain had a hard time writing in a really personal way, we also have to remember that this work is billed as the autobiography of Mark Twain, a man who never existed, rather than that of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the actual author. Twain was not just Clemens' pseudonym. He was also Clemens' greatest creation, a full-blown persona whose identity more or less overlapped with Clemens' but diverged in one crucial way. Clemens adopted a pseudonym while still an aspiring young humor writer because that's what writers did in his day when publishing outrageous or fantastical humorous works and going out on the road with them. The slightly silly moniker (it was steamboat slang) told readers and audiences how to take him; it signaled his intention to bend the truth to comic ends.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.