Dr. Clemens & Mr. Twain; The autobiography of America's greatest humorist is more for reference than reading
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 November 2015)

Sam Clemens was a cantankerous old coot and it didn't much improve his spirits to know that he was beloved around the world as Mark Twain. There was a private Sam Clemens and a public Mark Twain, and both of them can be found in Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California Press). The third and final volume of which has appeared this year.

Privately, Sam Clemens saw himself as a radical. He held negative views about the rich. He thought American troops operating in Havana and the Philippines were "uniformed assassins." His view of the Bible was skeptical. He believed Theodore Roosevelt, the last American president of his life, was the worst disaster since the Civil War. Still, voters idolized him. "It sounds like a libel on the intelligence of the human race, but it isn't; there isn't any way to libel the intelligence of the human race."

He kept his angriest opinions to himself, lest they disturb his benign image. For the same reason he suppressed his pessimistic view of human progress. He assumed that everyone else did the same. "What a coward every man is," he wrote. "The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in the procession but carrying the banner."

He planned that his autobiography would reveal his true feelings, so he ordered that much of it could not appear until a century after his death. He died in 1910, and the series of three gargantuan books (each more than 700 pages) didn't begin appearing until 2010.

History has not been kind to Twain's judgment in literary matters. He was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. Half a dozen pages in Volume Three are devoted to that theory. He thought little of George Eliot or Henry James, two novelists still considered first-class, but he often praised the books of his friend William Dean Howells, who is now nearly forgotten.

Those who might have been offended by his comments, if printed during his lifetime, are now obscure. He was furious at the inventor of a typesetting machine that failed after Twain financially backed it. He was especially eager to malign an Italian countess whose Florence villa he rented in 1904. He recalled her as "malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene."

Many of his household servants were found to be wanting. He left a long piece, four months in the writing, that Twain scholars refer to as the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript. It details the events that led him to discharge, for malfeasance, his business manager and his secretary-housekeeper. It runs 120 book pages but never becomes even minimally coherent. From 1870 to his death he tried often to write his memoirs but usually quit before getting far. By 1905 he had polished three dozen drafts of chapters, which he published as excerpts in the North American Review.

In 1906, when he tried dictating chapters to a stenographer, he decided that spontaneity is the key to autobiography: "Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale." He found this technique so pleasant that by 1909 he had more than half a million words, written in the wandering, prolix style that dictation tends to encourage.

His 100-year rule gave him a high degree of freedom, as he told an interviewer: "In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons."

But on three occasions in the 20th century his orders about delaying publication were broken. In 1924 his literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, put together Mark Twain: A Biography, using many already published articles and some of the dictated material. A Victorian, Paine eliminated anything that didn't accord with his idea of propriety. In 1940 Bernard DeVoto, a distinguished historian and editor, brought out Mark Twain in Eruption, attempting to put the material in readable order. In 1959 Charles Neider, given permission from the Mark Twain Estate, used some 30,000 of the dictated words in a book he called The Autobiography of Mark Twain. He arranged the texts chronologically, like a traditional narrative. His text was also censored, since Neider excluded anything that Clara Clemens Samossoud (Mark Twain's daughter, by then in her eighties) did not consider appropriate.

At some point all of the manuscripts Twain produced came under the control of the Mark Twain Project, at the Bancroft Library in the University of California, Berkeley. The plan now is to produce a digital edition, fully annotated, of everything Mark Twain wrote. The three-volume Autobiography is an attempt to publish all of the text as nearly as possible as Mark Twain intended. The material has been "critically reconstructed," which means that a squad of scholars pondered it for years. They have published it without bias or censorship - and without anything we could call editing.

The dictated sections are arranged in the order Twain dictated them, since Twain never specified any order. What two editors and six associate editors have delivered is a book purely for the library, a kind of anthology of Twainian memories strung together and footnoted. (The third volume alone has 44 pages of footnotes.)

What they haven't given us is a book or books that non-scholars will want to read. In fact, it's a striking example of literary value defeated by the force and prestige of academic scholarship. Each volume is far too heavy to hold in the hand; it's a text you consult rather than read. No doubt it's a valuable reference work and will probably be useful to scholars as long as Mark Twain is read -- which should be at least another 100 years.

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