Wednesday, November 20, 2013

If you've got an unread copy of Mark Twain's autobiography on your shelf, read it!

For decades, the title of Most Unread Book was held, with the blithe confidence of a late Romanov, by Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Of the approximately forty billion copies that book sold, I believe at last count twenty-nine had been read all the way through.

I suspect, however, that it may now have a rival. In the fall of 2010, the University of California Press pulled off a publishing coup capped by a publicity coup: the publication of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. By pitching the story of Twain's wish that the book be embargoed until a century after his death, a provision that, he argued, would free him to offer unvarnished accounts of his life and similarly honest opinions of those he knew, California landed an incredible amount of publicity--then sold a commensurate number of books.

Which, let's be clear, is a good thing. But it's also a trick worthy of Twain himself: most of the coverage emphasized Twain's embargo, while the fact that a not insubstantial portion of this material had already been published--a lot of it under that very same title, The Autobiography of Mark Twain--was missed. I don't think I'm an unreasonable example: I pay a lot of attention to books and publishing, and it wasn't until right before I got my copy that I learned that the embargo was more sizzle than steak. In a sense, Twain got to play one last joke on the American people, a century beyond the grave.

So something like half a million people got the book . . . and, wow. It's huge: 7-1/2" x 10-1/2", 760 pages, and nearly 5 pounds in weight. And it's daunting. Twain's text is buttressed by what Booklist, in a rave review, mildly called "substantial editorial apparatus": 20 pages of acknowledgments, a 60-page introduction, and 200 pages of notes at the back end. Once you wade through the prefatory material, you get to . . . a bunch of short, disconnected bits of memories and memoir, interspersed with clippings from newspapers, none of which at a glance seem to be taking anything like the form of an autobiography. So you flip through it, and, finally, on page 201, you get to a section called, straight up, The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Whew.

But even that starts out with fragments. "So much for the earlier days, and for the New England branch of the Clemenses." Autobiographies are not generally supposed to start in media res. So you flip ahead a few more pages, and what you find is more fragmentation: entries labeled with progressive days in 1906, tied to no obvious chronology or plan.

I suspect that's where a lot of people stopped reading. It just appears to be asking too much.

But if you're one of those people--as I was until last week--I urge you to try again. As the reviews from 2010 all tried to tell us, there's a great book hiding in there! Twain's method--to eschew chronology in favor of dictating stories from present and past as they came to mind--is the method of a man too old and unsystematic to write a proper autobiography, and that lack of system is responsible for a lot of the initial confusion you encounter on opening the book. Fragment of memory leads to current anecdote leads to reflections on old friends and so on, and at no point can you say, "Here is where I am in Twain's life."

The method may be suspect (and lazy?), but surprisingly it pays off: rather than run us through the by-now familiar paces of Twain's life story, the book instead ends up absolutely chock-full of stories, jokes, anecdotes, opinions, ephemera, and nonsense. Page after page after page simply glows with Twain's inimitable, indomitable personality and humor. I'm absolutely astonished at how much I enjoyed this book, and I'm so grateful to Maud Newton, whose long-ago praise for it lingered in my mind and kept me going back to my shelves every once in a while to give it a heft and consider diving in.

I've rambled long enough already, but I don't want to leave this post without giving you a taste of the pleasures of the book. So here is a passage, utterly inconsequential in the scheme of Twain's life, but wholly typical of the sort of wit, digressions, and character sketches the book offers on nearly every page. Twain is telling of a meeting of a discussion group he was once part of in Hartford, the Monday Night CLub, and of the speech of one Colonel Greene on the topic of dreams:
Colonel Greene discussed the Dream question in his usual way--that is to say, he began a sentence and went on and on, dropping a comma here and there at intervals of eighteen inches, never hesitating for a word, drifting straight along like a river at half bank with no reefs in it; the surface of his talk as smooth as a mirror; his construction perfect, and fit for print without correction, as he went along. And when the hammer fell, at the end of his ten minutes, he dumped in a period right where he was had stopped--and it was just as good there as it would have been anywhere else in that ten minutes' sentence. You could look back over that speech and you'd find it dimly milestoned along with those commas which he had put in and which could have been left out just as well, because they merely staked out the march, and nothing more. They could not call attention to the scenery, because there wasn't any. His speech was always like that--perfectly smooth, perfectly constructed; and when he had finished, no listener could go into court and tell what it was he had said. It was a curious style. It was impressive--you always thought, from one comma to another, that he was going to strike something presently, but he never did. But this time that I speak of, the burly and magnificent Rev. Dan Burton sat with his eyes fixed upon Greene from the beginning of the sentence until the end of it. He looked as the lookout on a whaleship might look who was watching where a whale had gone down and was waiting and watching for it to reappear; and no doubt that was the figure that was in Burton's mind, because when at last Greene finished, Burton threw up his hands and shouted, "There she blows!"
That "dimly milestoned"; the sense of appreciation, bordering on awe, for a rare skill; the precise and effective choices of words and images ("burly and magnificent," "dropping" a comma, "a river at half bank with no reefs in it," "staked out the march"); and the pleasure of the Reverend Burton's silly joke, preserved forever because it caught Twain's fancy. What fun this book is!

Now I can't wait to read the second volume, which arrived in stores last month. If Volume 1 is on your shelf keeping Hawking company, you could do a lot worse with your Thanksgiving than to take it down and chuckle over it while your relatives watch football.


  1. I read all of Hawking's book, and liked it, although some of it flew past me.

    The Twain book, which I also read, is an offense to the hard work of writing. Being reflective and selective, you know- editing, is the hard manual labor of writing.

    The Twain book is like Cosmo Kramer's stories of his life, laundry list included.

    I was given the Twain book by a Jehovah's Witness, when I was laid up after hip surgery. It made The Watchtower look like Shakespeare.

    Dana Dunnan
    (proof that anyone can write a memoir, but humility dictates editing)

  2. I would usually agree with you, Dana: working at a publishing house, I definitely believe in the value of editing. And I don't have the slightest doubt that Twain's professed belief in the superiority of the method was just his way of justifying laziness. But I enjoy Twain's voice, sensibility, and presence so much that I enjoyed it all despite--and now I wouldn't trade what we have for a well-shaped, structured, edited book. (I suspect we'll just have to disagree on this one . . .)