Samuel Clemens' Secret
What Mark Twain's Autobiography doesn't reveal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.