Over the last year, the relevance of Mark Twain’s writing to modern America has been thrown into sharp focus. The first volume of his Autobiography, anticipated for a century now (under his instructions, it has been officially published a hundred years after his death), became one of 2010’s best-selling books in the US.
Over the last month, a controversy erupted in the US over an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, prepared for American high school readers, that eliminated all instances of the racist slur “nigger” from the text. The question of whether children can—or should—be protected from a painful national history by rendering it invisible has neither died down, nor been resolved satisfactorily.
Sardonic: Twain’s memoirs read somewhat like a rambling monologue. Underwood & Underwood/Wikimedia Commons
The fiercely political Twain offers no definitive opinion on the matter as he “speaks from the grave” (his notion of his autobiography) in this first volume, a monumental academic effort from the Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. His wide-ranging liberalism is an undercurrent of this book, not its dominant motif— although it can be difficult to find a dominant motif in 736 pages of dense (if beautiful) type.
The editors’ work encompasses preliminary manuscripts, “scraps”, explanatory notes on the text and an index and catalogue of references in this doorstopper volume. Its meticulousness varies somewhat with the effect of the Autobiography— which takes up 268 pages of the entire volume and is essentially composed of Twain’s reminiscences, taken down in dictation by his range of amanuenses. It has the fragmented, somewhat rambling effect of an impromptu monologue.
Twain’s sardonism runs constantly through the text. On his first sweetheart: “I fell in love with her when she was eighteen and I was nine, but she scorned me, and I recognised that this was a cold world. I had not noticed that temperature before.” To a friend arranging for Twain to speak at Carnegie Hall: “Mark all the advertisements ‘Private and Confidential’, otherwise the people will never read them.”
On Grover Cleveland: “I do not call to mind any other President of the United States—there may have been one or two—perhaps one or two, who were not always and persistently presidents of the Republican party, but were now and then for a brief interval really Presidents of the United States.”
Twain’s life, as told here, was marked by both a deep domestic happiness, and the tragedy of outliving both his beloved wife Livy and his young daughter Susy. His friends and family numbered several, across the breadth of the US. As he memorializes them—and attacks his enemies with unforgiving and often hilarious rancour—it’s possible to see the great chronicler of the American South-West as a character in one of his own sprawling fictions, or the narrator of a serial that meanders back and forth from his present at an unsteady pace.
But the monologuist, though a great one, often speaks with no audience in mind—and who could successfully imagine an audience for a book reading it a hundred years after creation? The resultant ramble can frequently bore and alienate readers, particularly those who know of Twain only through his novels, which have very much the opposite effect.
It’s hard to ignore the flat notes in Twain’s foghorn call from the Beyond, but it may also be premature to consider them definitive problems. The whole may well assemble itself much more coherently once the final two-thirds of the book are published: Volume II comes later this year, and the last one in 2012.