23 February 2011

Autobiography of Mark Twain, volume 1

It was nine months ago that I wrote a post about the impending publication of Mark Twain's autobiography:
Twain had specified that his autobiography remain unpublished for a century after his death, to ensure that he felt free to speak his "whole frank mind", knowing that when his "Final (and Right) Plan" for relating the story of his life was eventually published, he would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent". The author passed away on 21 April 1910, and this November, the University of California Press will publish the first volume...

Running to half a million words, the trilogy of books will cover Twain's relationship with his secretary Isabel van Kleek Lyon, his religious doubts and his criticisms of Theodore Roosevelt, according to the Independent.
It took a long time to get to me through a long waiting list at the library, and now that I've read it, I have to say that I've been rather disappointed.

There is nothing "wrong" with the book.  On the contrary, it is an immensely detailed, scholarly compilation of Twain's written and dictated autobiography.  The editors clearly intended this to be the definitive academic publication on Twain's life.  To that end in Volume 1 they supplemented the several hundred pages of text with another several hundred pages of notes and prefaces to create a weighty and frankly cumbersome tome.  A good biographer selects material from the subject's life; this autobiography compiles everything, discarding nothing, and weighting everything equally.  The result is that the enjoyable bits are smothered under a profusion of trivia.

I did find one new word - "supposititious," as in this sentence about Joan of Arc: "They set several traps for her in a tentative form; that is to say, they placed supposititious propositions before her and cunningly tried to commit her to one end of the propositions...."  I guessed the meaning, but had to look up the word to confirm that it was real, and I didn't even have to dig into the OED.  It's in Merriam Webster, meaning "fraudently substituted, spurious, hypothetical", from the Latin suppositicius.  You'd think a 64-year-old former English major would have run into this word before - but I don't recall ever having seen it.

And this anecdote intrigued me:  "...the vast fireplace, piled high, on winter nights, with flaming hickory logs from whose ends a sugary sap bubbled out but did not go to waste, for we scraped it off and ate it..." (p. 212).  I've seen logs in the fireplace "bubble" like that when the wood was green; I had never thought about scraping the sap off to eat.  Perhaps I wouldn't have been as surprised had the wood been identified as maple - but hickory?

One other anecdote really struck me; I've written it up as a separate post below this one.  Other than that, I didn't find much from the book to share on this blog.  I have no doubt that this will be a milestone book and will be widely praised in academia for its comprehensive attention to detail, but for the reasons I've mentioned, I'm not adding it to this blog's list of recommended books, and I have doubts whether I will even bother tackling volumes 2 and 3.


  1. I tried, really, but this book beat me down.

    Twain was never big on narrative structure. His travel books are good examples of this. His plan for the Autobiography was to dispense with the usual chronological order of an autobiography and just write everything down as it occurred to him, continuity and relevance be damned.

    But he wrote it late in life, when he was worn out from personal and financial setbacks, so the no-plan plan might simply have been a rationalization for doing it the easiest way possible.

    As a result the Autobiography reads as if he had stacked the manuscript on his desk by an open window, a breeze blew the pages all over the room, and he published them in whatever order he picked them up.

    I'm on my third reading of Ron Powers's highly enjoyable biography of Twain. It's a delight. I'd recommend it to anyone before I'd suggest the Autobiography.

  2. I appreciate your comment, Jerry. I'm a compulsive reader, and when I start a book I want to finish it. As I look at last year's list of "books read" I see 49 titles, only 2 of which I reverted to skimming (e.e. cummings' The Enormous Room and Pears' The Dream of Scipio). This Autobiography I finally "slogged through" with one bookmark in the text page and another in the footnote section, flipping back and forth. But I kept asking myself "why am I doing this?" As a former English major specializing in American Lit in college, I felt I was "supposed to" read all of it, but it wasn't much fun. I do, however, have a greater appreciation now for professional biographers and the skills they must use to select their material.

  3. I had just heard of this syrup a few weeks ago, and thought you'd find it interesting in light of Mr Twain's Hickory anecdote. I'm looking forward to reading the book, but I am glad to know what to expect so I don't get disappointed early in. Thanks.

  4. I concur with you about volume 1 -- and I had really been looking forward to it. I was most struck by the poignant, ordinary things -- not unique to a great writer -- like Twain's grieving for one of his children, who died, he mistakenly thought, because he took him out inadequately dressed on a cold day.


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