What Mark Twain's Autobiography doesn't reveal.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 23 2010 11:54 AM

Samuel Clemens' Secret

What Mark Twain's Autobiography doesn't reveal.

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But Twain's meteoric success meant that the pseudonym stuck even when Clemens turned his hand to more serious writing and finally to the autobiography. Mark Twain was his brand, and Clemens was too much of a businessman to tinker with it. And yet when you think about it, it's a strange thing to do, to try to be "frank and free and unembarrassed" about yourself while writing under an identity that promises readers a consistent diet of subversion and belly laughs. Who among us could remain unrelentingly witty while revealing in all candor details of his childhood, adolescence, unrequited loves, professional setbacks, and failings as a parent?

Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, for one, could not, but he could not or would not drop the mask, either. For this reason this volume is punctuated by uncomic riffs—I believe they are meant to be funny—that quickly degenerate into furious rants, usually about former business partners who had grievously cheated Twain. The unvarnished truth about Twain/Clemens turns out to be his unvarnished rage. Clemens actually had a lot to be bitter about—a cold and distant father, a penurious childhood, a total lack of formal education, a genteel literary culture that may have welcomed him but still tried to tone him down whenever possible, bankruptcy, a dead wife and daughter. But those are not the things that Mark Twain rants about. It was his failure to get rich that he was never able to forgive himself for, and that had to be blamed whenever possible on the real or imagined misdeeds of others. You may have a hard time not cringing when Twain reveals the angry old crank who lurked beneath the dapper wit in the white suit. But you will, at least, have smelled the poop.

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Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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