Monday, January 25, 2016

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3

It’s an odd work, this autobiography Mark Twain undertook in the last few years of his life. And the third and final volume published by the University of California Press only compounds the oddity.

First, and most obvious, it is anything but a chronological account of Twain’s life. To be fair, Twain repeatedly says he is not writing the standard autobiography. He’s writing what he might call a more personally pleasurable account – some recounting of his life, observations about current events that may or may not have anything to do with his life, the inclusion of stories he likes to tell and ones told by others that he liked, notes of daily household activities, wholesale inclusion of his speeches, and occasional frank (often brutal) observations of some of his contemporaries and friends, coupled with an admonition that this wasn’t to be published until sometime well after his death.

Second, it resembles not so much an autobiography as it does one of Twain’s public speeches or performances. He wanders and meanders; he surprises; he takes you down a rabbit hole that may or may not have a point or a connection to a larger story, but the hole is always entertaining. He wanders in his memories of a lifetime, and issues and personalities of the time in which he is dictating this story (roughly 1906-1909).

Third is the ending. Long before he covers even the major events of his life, he suddenly announces on Christmas Eve 1909 that the autobiography is finished; he is done, And the reason is poignant. His adult daughter Jean, who had suffered from epilepsy, dies in 1909. His sole surviving child Clara has married, and his reason for the autobiography – to provide for his two remaining children – has disappeared.

But what stories he tells in the process!

Twain had announced he was finished with international travel. Then he receives a letter from Oxford University in 1907, saying he is to receive an honorary degree. He throws his decision not to travel out the window and hastens to England.

The day before he receives the degree (along with such other luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, Auguste Rodin and Camille Saint-Saens), he gives a speech in London, where he characteristically notes what the newspaper placards are proclaiming: “Mark Twain Arrives, Ascot Cup Stolen.” Tongue-in-cheek, he denies there’s any connection – and brings down the house in laughter. While he’s in England, he attends a garden party hosted by King Edward VII at Windsor Castle – the small-town boy from Hannibal, Missouri, has come a long way, indeed.

A rare photograph of Twain in color
He also recalls being in New York City in 1867 (I warned you the account wasn’t chronological) to visit with a former shipmate aboard the Quaker City when he traveled to the Mideast to write stories for a newspaper. The friend brings his sister with him, and together they attend a reading by Charles Dickens – the account of Steerforth’s death in David Copperfield. While the reading was dramatic (Dickens was famous for his overwhelming readings), Twain has nothing but the fondest memories – because the friend’s sister was Olivia Langdon, who would become his beloved wife of 34 years until her death in 1904.

He notes meetings with well-known politicians and industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and the deaths of close friends like Joel Chandler Harris. He seems to be dictating with a sense of inevitability; he is reaching the end of his life although Twain himself likely didn’t know how close it was, just a few months after his daughter Jean, on April 21, 1910.

Toward the end of this third volume, when he is closing down the work, he includes this line: “Night is closing down; the rim of the sun barely shows above the sky line of the hills.” It is a fitting sentiment for this uniquely American writer.


Top photograph: Mark Twain walking to receive his honorary degree at Oxford University.

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