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Master of the writing craft, Mark Twain dictated his own story

Mark Twain wasn't just the bestselling author of his day. Tuesday will be the 175th anniversary of his birth, and he's back at the top of the bestseller lists again.

You can almost hear him cackling with glee — just as you will if you read the book that put him there, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1.

That is, if you can lay hands on a copy.

Autobiography, published two weeks ago by the University of California Press and aimed mainly at a scholarly audience, has become a surprise smash hit — so much so that printed copies of it are on back order everywhere from Amazon to independent bookstores. (See article, below.)

Twain, a rock star in his own time (his lecture tours sold out around the globe) and a man never accused of suffering from insufficient ego, would no doubt be tickled by this salute to his enduring fame and literary status a century after his death.

The passage of that century is one reason the first volume of Autobiography has been released. Twain stipulated that a complete version of it should not be published until he had been dead 100 years, in part because he didn't want to offend living people he might "fry" in the book, and in part because he wanted to give himself the comfort to speak freely.

The current book is just the first of three planned volumes, and it is daunting at first glance, all 736 small-print pages of it.

But Twain fans should take courage. The first 60 pages or so are an introduction explaining in detail how the book was edited, the next 140 are some of Twain's preliminary stabs at writing his autobiography, and the last 267 are explanatory notes, references and index (all interesting stuff, but not essential for the nonscholar). Twain's autobiography itself, dictated by him beginning in 1906, occupies a brisk 266 pages.

Twain was an enormously prolific writer, and he wrote about his own experiences throughout his career — among his earliest successes were semi-autobiographical works like The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It.

But he struggled mightily with writing a full autobiography. He tried at least as early as 1870, and many times thereafter. The book gathers those attempts, ranging from a marvelously lyrical description of his uncle John Quarles' farm, which furnished him settings for both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to a hilarious reproduction of an edited manuscript of part of his book Joan of Arc, with Twain's tart responses to the editor's changes, which include "You ought never to edit except when awake."

But they all stalled until he hit upon two key ideas: not writing his autobiography down but dictating it, and not paying any attention to chronology.

He settled down to the task in earnest in 1906, when he was 70. He agreed to work for several hours a day with Albert Bigelow Paine, an editor and biographer, who would serve as his responsive audience, and a stenographer, Josephine Hobby. He would dictate at his townhouse on Fifth Avenue in New York; as it turned out, he usually dictated from his bed. "We will try this — see whether it is dull or interesting, or whether it will bore us and we will want to commit suicide," he said at the first session. By the time he finished in 1909, he had generated more than 5,000 typewritten pages.

The portion in Volume 1 hews to his desire to disregard a time line and simply talk about whatever struck him on the day he was dictating. That means we get many pages of Twain's reactions to news of the day — he was a voracious reader (and critic) of newspapers, having begun as a newspaperman himself.

Many of the events he tears into may be unfamiliar to 21st century readers in their specifics, but they're often startlingly relevant in their character: massive insurance frauds, foreign wars in which massacres of civilians are spun as military victories, robber barons like Jay Gould ("The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it.") and rabidly partisan politics: "I do not call to mind any other President of the United States — there may have been one or two — perhaps one or two, who were not always and persistently presidents of the Republican Party, but were now and then for a brief interval really Presidents of the United States."

Twain, often an angry man in the public sphere, happily hones his satirical knives on such subjects, although at times he does so for rather longer than might interest contemporary readers. But in some sections of Autobiography we see his other side: Within his family circle, he was a happy man who adored his wife, Olivia, and their daughters, Susy, Clara and Jean.

That domestic bliss did not continue into his old age. At the time he was dictating the book, he was contending with deep depression brought on by Susy's sudden death in 1896 (she was only 24) and Olivia's death, after almost two years of severe illness, in 1904. (The dictation would end with Jean's death in 1909.) Twain writes about his family with palpable love, and some of the sections are heartbreaking.

But not all. One of Twain's great strengths as a satirist was his willingness always to turn his steely eye on his own foolishness, and in Autobiography he does it in sweetly amusing fashion by quoting a biography of him that Susy undertook to write when she was 13:

"He doesn't like to go to church at all, why I never understood, until just now, he told us the other day that he couldn't bear to hear any one talk but himself, but that he could listen to himself talk for hours without getting tired, of course he said this in joke, but I've no dought it was founded on truth."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, Benjamin Griffin, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz and Leslie Diane Myrick

University of California Press, 736 pages, $34.95

Master of the writing craft, Mark Twain dictated his own story 11/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 26, 2010 6:30am]
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