THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN
by Mark Twain
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
With the first of three volumes published to mark the centenary of Mark Twain's birth in 2010, the second volume of Mark Twain's rambling autobiography appeared in late 2013, including dictations made by the author in 1906 and 1907.
In this volume, Twain covers the period of his wife, Livy's, multi-year illness which resulted in her death in 1904, writing of it two years after the fact. The complex subterfuge that Twain, his daughter Clara, and various nurses and doctors employed to keep Livy's spirits up and hide her daughter Jean's illness from her. Jean, an epileptic, was also confined to the house for some time while Livy was ill and predeceased Twain, dying in 1909. These sections of Twain's dictation are among the most somber in the entire volume as he still appears to be coming to terms with his wife's death.
Twain famously exhorted his literary executors not to publish his autobiography until all of the individuals mentioned in it, as well as their children, had died. That request occurs often in the second volume as Twain attacks many of his business associates, including Harper and Brothers editor Frederick Duneka and, most vociferously, Charles L. Webster, his nephew who he placed in charge of his own publishing firm. Twain not only attacked both men, and others, on a personal level, but also disparaged their business acumen, which is interesting because Twain often noted that his own business acumen was quite weak and that he did best when he trusted men like H. H. Rogers, who could just as easily have taken advantage of Twain's nature as Duneka or Webster had been accused of doing.
Because Twain dictated his autobiography over several years, redundancy is to be expected and is quite evident when he is talking about his experience with Charles L. Webster & Co., and the books his company published, most notably, the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Twain covers much the same territory in Volume II as he did in Volume I, although here he uses the opportunity to attach his nephew. Twain's attacks on Webster, who died in 1891, were great enough, that his son, Samuel, published a book attacking Twain's business practices and defending his father, in 1946.
The other side effect of Twain dictating his autobiography is that there are times when it becomes very stream-of-conscious. Either he'll interrupt the story he's telling, sometimes, but not always, to return to it later, or he'll include entries which appear to be completely random, such as his discussion of the evils of the housefly, which took over his thoughts on September 4, 1906, an entry so intriguing, the editors couldn't find anything to annotate in it.
And the annotations, the scholarship in Autobiography of Mark Twain, provide insight into Twain's life and times that is lacking from Twain's own words. The editors explain who the people are when Twain took their existence for granted. When Twain lambastes men like Duneka, the annotations give Duneka's own background, allowing the reader to see him as a successful businessman. Similarly, the annotations provide fact checking. Twain's description of Captain Ned Wakeman turns out to be almost as fictional as anything he wrote about Huckleberry Finn, for in the end, even when Twain is telling his own story, he remains an unreliable narrator, willing to subjugate the whole truth for an interesting story.
That very unreliability adds to the enjoyment of the Autobiography. Twain's voice is constantly intruding on the events and people he is describing, forcing them into a narrative as entertaining as anything he published, from The Innocents Abroad to A Horse's Tale. The reader may assume any individual fact has a relationship with the truth, but must also assume that Twain has exaggerated the fact for comic effect.
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