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Volume I

by Mark Twain

University of California Press


760pp/$34.95/November 2010

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In The Yeomen of the Guard, William S. Gilbert wrote “an accepted wit has but to say 'Pass the mustard,' and they roar their ribs out!” This sentiment certainly applies to Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Known for his exaggerations, much of what he presents in The Autobiography of Mark Twain must be taken with a liberal dose of salt, although it is hardly an autobiography in the sense the word is understood.

Twain struggled for years with the idea of writing his autobiography, beginning as early as 1877, when the concept was broached by his friend John Hay, one-time assistant secretary to Abraham Lincoln. Twain studied various autobiographies and determined that the only way for a person to write truthfully about himself was to arrange for publication long after his death, in this case, a century. Even then, Twain struggle with his autobiography, with this final version being comprised of essays, news clippings, sketches of his friends, and almost stream-of-consciousness dictation. What it completely lacks is a chronology or internal narrative.

Because Twain discussed ideas and memories as they occurred to him and because the final work, of which this volume is only the first third, is comprised of so many items and false starts, the autobiography suffers from some repetition, although this is often by design.

Where Twain does inflict an outline on his reminiscences, it is through the auspices of his daughter, Susy, who, as a child, wrote a biography of her father. Following Susy’s death in 1896 at age 24, he incorporated her biography into his autobiographical writings and dictations, using it to jog his memory and lead him to flesh out the incidents she described.

The primary reason the autobiography works is because it plays to Twain’s strengths as an author…a series of short sketches written with his customary humor and the cynicism he brought to so much of his work, and which is so frequently hidden under the veneer of his humor.

Because Twain’s reminiscences are achronal, the inclusion of a timelineof Clemens’s life is a necessity, and the editors have included one among the appendices, although both the timeline and the biographical sketches of Twain’s family may have been better placed as part of the introduction.  The editors also include copious notes detailing sources and support material to provide additional background to the many offhand comments Twain made, but which are opaque to readers more than a century after the dictations were originally transcribed.

An interesting thing about the autobiography is that while I enjoyed it and found many places that caused me to laugh out loud, when I asked my wife to read those same passages, she found herself lost by Twain’s language…until I simply began reading the passages to her, at which point she found the humor. For this reason, the audio version of the tome may be preferred by those otherwise daunted by the sheer size of the book.

With only a third of the autobiography published, the reader knows more about the various individuals Twain knew and interacted with than about the specific details of Twain’s life, but the individual who was Samuel Clemens comes across in these interactions, allowing the reader to know that individual man, if not the events or chronology of his life.  Volumes two and three are eagerly awaited, not for the expectation that they will provide more insight into Twain’s personal history, but merely for Twain’s view of the world around him and his cynical and humor outlook on events.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

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