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Literature

Book Review: An American ramble with Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s autobiography is wildly uneven, but essential

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Back from the grave: As per his instructions, Mark Twain’s autobiography is being released 100 years after his death.
AP
Chuck Twardy

On March 12, 1906, Mark Twain was furious.

He had planned to sit down and unspool more of his life for a stenographer: memories of Huckleberry Finn, the boy from whom Twain had drawn the character, and the (recently deceased) man that boy had become. But the day’s news nudged all of that aside. No fan of his nation’s rule in the Philippines, or of its fight with native resisters, Samuel Langhorne Clemens instead fumed over the Battle of Mt. Dajo, in which U.S. troops killed hundreds of resistance fighters, women and children in the crater of a volcano. “This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by Christian soldiers of the United States,” Clemens railed.

The suppression of the Moro Rebellion was an early test of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics. You have to wonder how Clemens, who intended his narration to see print a century after his death, would have reacted to learning that a century after he spoke those words, his nation would be ensnared in two insurgent wars elsewhere. He might not have been surprised.

The Details

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
four stars
Harriet Elinor Smith, editor.
The Mark Twain Project. University of California Press. 736 pages. $34.95.

Clemens died in 1910, but his instructions were not followed, exactly. “Chapters from My Autobiography” had appeared in the North American Review, and then in newspapers, while Clemens was still alive, in 1906 and 1907. After his death, editors published selections over the years, including the two-volume Mark Twain’s Autobiography in 1926. So the 736-page first volume of memoirs just published by The Mark Twain Project and the University of California Press is not entirely a freshly retrieved trove; much of the unseen material will appear in the final two volumes. But it is a welcome breath of sagacity for a century-hence nation choking on lies and stupidity.

Clemens tormented himself with autobiography for the final 40 of his 75 years, occasionally turning out reminiscences and prescribing their placement in the final product, experimenting with and finally settling upon dictation as the most efficient method of unburdening himself. Some of the writing is uncharacteristically wooden—for instance his account of helping the ailing, broke and dying Ulysses Grant publish his own autobiography.

Other stories are wittier and testier, but the written texts reflect Clemens’ unease about autobiography. He doubted his ability to render the truth in writing. “With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish,” Clemens declared in the “Florentine Dictations” of 1904. He abandoned chronology, too, in the interest of honesty.

Elsewhere, Clemens tells of silver mining and newspaper reporting in Virginia City. His sojourn in Nevada, where he first started using the pseudonym “Mark Twain” is a part of what makes Clemens essentially American. He rambled the land both before and after he became famous, and he had an intuitive grasp of what plagued it and what made it great.

Rambling with him is a timely idea.

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