Monday, January 18, 2016

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2

It’s a good thing that Mark Twain explains how he dictated and composed his autobiography, as noted in the first volume of The Autobiography of Mark Twain published by the University of California Press: “…start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale; and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.”

Otherwise, you would find yourself getting lost. This becomes even more true in the second volume of the autobiography. From what I can tell, the third and final volume is much the same. This is no standard autobiography, but then again, Twain probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.

In fact, I’d say this is indeed a writer’s autobiography, throwing aside writing convention. He dictates (the entire work was originally dictated to a typist) as he thinks. He’s following on stream – talking about his brother, Orion Clemons, for example, and how Twain accompanied him to the Nevada Territory in the 1860s. Orion had a job – secretary to the governor. Twain did not, so he became a reporter. But he gets deep into the discussion about Nevada when he describes the just reported 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and then we’re soon reminiscing with him about his work on the newspaper there.

This works fine if you have an editor to straighten it all up after you. The editors of this mammoth publishing project wisely decided not to do that, so that what you see is indeed what you get – vintage Mark Twain, storyteller par excellence, not above embroidering a little if it makes a better story.

So he describes his work as a reporter at the San Francisco Morning Call and his friendship with a fellow reporter, Bret Harte (there was a time when high school students read Harte’s short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” in English class, but I rather doubt it’s taught any more). He sounds affectionate, until many pages later, when he returns to Harte, and he is not affectionate at all.

So in between descriptions of his life, you find yourself suddenly confronted with his musings on the character of god and the Bible, his absolute passion for international copyright laws, and even a chapter-length discussion on the supremacy of the house-fly. This is Twain, and in some strange way, it all works.

He quotes liberally from his daughter’s Suzy biography of him that she had been writing – in the 1880s. And he notes the last entry she made, which ends with an incomplete sentence. Suzy died sometime later. And he includes an extensive discussion of how his daughter Clara kept the news of his daughter Jean’s illness from his wife, Olivia, who herself was declining and would soon die.

Olivia and Clara Clemons, 1895
These are not asides. Twain was profoundly affected by the death of three of his children and his wife. Clara would be the only child to outlive him, in fact. And yet he plays more the reporter in these cases; he simply states fact, omitting the emotion and the huge grief he felt.

Like the first volume, this volume, too, is filled with the names of famous of the time. Twain traveled in rather privileged circles; he was America’s most famous writer and doors everywhere were open to him (this volume also includes a rant about President Theodore Roosevelt, and if you’re familiar with Twain at all, you know one of his rants could be downright venomous).

By the time he was dictating this biography, most of the people he had grown up with, had been friends with, and whom he knew intimately as friends were gone. And one has that sense of the elder statesman, looking back, looking forward and looking at the here-and-now, and knowing he is the last of a particular breed. He himself would probably have rejected the elder statesman title and said it was simply a matter of outliving everyone else.

One volume to go.


Top photograph: Mark Twain in the Nevada Territory in the late 1860s.

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