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.

Autobiography of Mark Twain.

Quick hype check: Mark Twain said he'd be so "frank and free and unembarrassed" in writing his memoirs that he'd be forced to suppress them until he'd been dead for 100 years. That anniversary arrived last year, but don't expect much in the first volume of the first unexpurgated edition of his autobiography to be shocking or new. On the contrary, The Autobiography of Mark Twain—95 percent of which has been published elsewhere, most of it in three previous editions of the work—is tame, unfrank, and highly embarrassed. Twain is not about to join Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin on the "Rhetoric of the Self" syllabus. Or maybe he would, if the amorphous mass of anecdotes and memories ushered into this doorstopper of a book were shaped into something smaller and more pungent. The claim to uniqueness made by the editors of this edition, however, is that they have included absolutely everything, either in the body of the Autobiography or else in a section called "Preliminary Manuscripts," in the order in which they think Twain meant for it to appear.

I don't know how they know. Well, that's not quite true. Having read the voluminous scholarly apparatus that envelops the book like billowy scaffolding (of the book's 736 pages, only 264 belong to the Autobiography proper), I know that Clemens made notes and had assistants organize and reorganize the documents just so, adding to the file until the year before his death. I also know that Clemens, an emotionally volatile man, thought, when he was on the upside of a mood swing, that his autobiography was pretty grand, "one of the most memorable literary inventions of the ages," ranking with "the steam engine, the printing press & the electric telegraph." His amazing innovation, he explained to a friend, the novelist William Dean Howells, was that he had figured out how to wiggle free of the corset of storytelling, which deforms reality, and capture the fleeting truth. He would just talk his autobiography out so that it had the flow of speech, "a dewy & breezy & woodsy freshness … a darling & worshipful absence of the signs of starch, & flatiron, & labor & fuss & the other artificialities." He would follow the ambling course of his thoughts, so that, as in the effluvia of psychoanalysis (an analogy he doesn't make), the "remorseless truth" would emerge willy-nilly from "between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust on it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell … the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences."

Part of the beauty of Twain's nonsystematic system, for Twain at least, was that he didn't have to do the unpleasant work of reviving old memories or decoding old notes: "The thing uppermost in a person's mind is the thing to talk about," he explains. But as any therapist will tell you, top-of-mind free-association doesn't yield usable truths without a great deal of additional mental labor; it's full of trivia and dross and usually tells us more about a person's skill at avoiding things than about his true preoccupations. The "author-cat" wanted to be known by the smell of his "diligences"? I take that line crudely as meaning that Twain wanted us to sift through the poop ourselves, like patient veterinarians, while he glided felinelike to the next subject.

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Why did he leave it to us to deduce the "remorseless truth" about him, rather than taking control of the story, as every successful memoirist must, to the degree that he can? Well, one thing we can deduce from the complaints that pop up every so often like asides from an increasingly desperate master of ceremonies is that Twain simply hated writing his autobiography. He had no problem with the kind of travel writing in which he comically exaggerated his own experiences, a form he perfected in The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, or with fiction that drew on people he had known and places he had been, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What he loathed, apparently, was dealing with the plain, old, not-necessarily-funny truth about himself.

He started trying to write the book when he was 42, in 1877, prompted by a friend who told him that a man had to start writing his autobiography at the age of 40. "I did begin it," he writes, "but the resolve melted away and disappeared in a week and I threw my beginning away. Since then, about every three or four years I have made other beginnings and thrown them away." The whole enterprise was just too yucky: "You cannot lay bare your private soul and look at it. You are much too ashamed of yourself. It is too disgusting." Instead, he decided, he would write little profiles of people he had known—President Ulysses S. Grant, newspaper editor Horace Greeley, an odd and obscure journalist named Ralph Keeler. He did some of these, then reverted to autobiography. And then, after 30 or 40 false starts, he came up with the idea of dictating his daily thoughts and reminiscences to a stenographer, which yielded enough material that the editors of this edition have included only a portion of it, reserving the rest for future volumes.

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