Volume III

by Mark Twain

University of California Press


792pp/$45.00/October 2015

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The issues which plagued the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography continue in the third volume, possibly made worse just because by now despite their familiarity the issues still feel like a bug rather than a feature of Twain's stream of conscious dictation, although the same problems in volume one, while they were still new were more entertaining.

The third volume covers one of the highest honors Twain experienced in his life, notably his honorary doctorate from Oxford University (he had previously received an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri in 1902, upon which occasion he made his final trip to Missouri and Hannibal). One of the features of this period is that Twain was able to dictate his thoughts on his doctorate practically in real time, although it appears he waited until his return to the US before picking up the dictation. Despite this, Twain infuses his trip to Oxford with the same sorts of exaggeration which are to be found throughout the Autobiography. Despite this exaggeration, there are revelations about Twain's character. When discussing testimonial dinners, he makes it very clear that he'll only participate in the testimonials if he can avoid the dinner portion, even when he is the guest of honor. Given the numbers of banquets, luncheons, and dinners Twain was invited to and describes, it was probably an important policy for him.

Often, it is his comments on events that reveal more about Twain's way of thinking that when he is relating anything about his actual life. One of the more intriguing dictations took place on August 10, 1907, when the subject of censorship was brought to mind by the news that the Worcester, Massachusetts Public Library had banned the books of Horatio Alger. This gave Twain the opportunity to discuss his own response to the frequent banning of his own work, notably The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is still being banned, although Twain claimed that in his lifetime the main reason for the ban was Finn's lying, at least according to the librarian in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Twain's own penchant for exaggeration gets in the way of the reader completely accepting this explanation.

The legends surrounding Twain's Autobiography and the stipulation that it not be published until he has been dead and moldering in the grave for a century, leads to many ideas about what sort of libelous passages it contains. In truth, they are few an far between, most notably his attack on his nephew, Charles Webster, his opinion of whom was well known. In the third volume, Twain levels his vitriol at Marie Corelli a popular author of the period. Twain notes that he had previously met her and had a negative opinion of her. Nevertheless, he chose to accept her invitation to dine with her, only to regret it before he even arrived. His depiction of her as self-centered and implacable is only made worse by his physical description of her. Although this may have been one of the passages Twain was concerned about, others had a similar response to her and she is reported to have been the basis for Lucia in E. F. Benson's "Mapp and Lucia" stories. Other encounters with celebrities went better. Twain had met Winston Churchill on a previous visit to England and he relates a story about himself and Churchill which he only heard on his return, a short and clever smackdown of Churchill.

In the second volume, Twain included the fictitious tale of Ned Wakeman. In this volume, he has the incredibly convoluted story of Wapping Alice, who may, or may not, have been his transvestite servant. The tale takes up two entire days of dictation, on April 9 & 10, 1907. This isn't the only tale Twain has included in his autobiography, although it is more autobiographical that many of them. The story he tells of a con-man who sells cheap watches has no direct relationship to Twain's own experience. It is the type of story which may have formed the basis of one of Twain's own pieces of fiction, included here rather than written up and sold separately.

The third volume of Twain's Autobiography is the conclusion to a book that the public had to wait more than a century to read. Very few books can stand up to that sort of anticipation and the autobiography doesn't manage the task. It is an enjoyable book and quite often reads like the vintage Mark Twain that it is. Unfortunately, it also rambles, failing to maintain a focus on its topic. Twain was aware of this and didn't care, noting in the first volume that his vision of an autobiography was different from the traditional definition. In this, he was correct, his idea of an autobiography was different enough that calling this work an autobiography set up expectations for it that Twain would be unable to meet. Taken on its own, apart from those expectations, however, The Autobiography of Mark Twain is an interesting collection of thoughts, reminiscences, and stories from one of the greatest literary talents of the nineteenth century.

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