Mark Twain's long-awaited autobiography

Published a full century after its author's death, this memoir weds biting wit to a structure that is postmodern before its time.

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Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition – Volume 1
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith
University of California Press Dh147

In 1906, 30 years after the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and following many attempts to "put my life down on paper", the great American humourist Samuel Clemens went to a Player's Club dinner held in his honour. He sat opposite one Albert Bigelow Paine and by the end of the meal had enlisted him as a biographer. Despite the earlier false starts, it wasn't to be an onerous task. Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, lay in bed and dictated his memoirs to a stenographer. Paine was just there as his audience.

Paine describes the author, "clad in a handsome silk dressing gown of rich Persian pattern, propped against great snowy pillows". The narrative he unfolded was meandering by design. Twain rejected the pattern of a traditional life story, "the plan that starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted on the way". Instead he would focus on the tangents and digressions which are the real stuff of existence, mixing past with present, the worthy with the trivial. "Life does not consist mainly - or even largely - of facts and happenings," he insisted. "It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head."

Twain stipulated that the transcript of this storm should not be published until 100 years after his death ("a prospect which seemed to give him an especial gratification" Paine recalls). The condition was intended to let him speak his "whole frank mind" about politics, religion and his personal life. That deadline passed on April 21 this year; Volume One has now been issued and the second and third parts are expected within five years.

One effect of Twain's anti-chronological method is that it is hard to guess what may be left for those later instalments, aside from an acrimonious affair with his secretary in the last years of his life. Volume One touches on everything from the frontier-town experiences covered in Roughing It to the grand old man of letters Twain had become at the time of these interviews. That isn't the only sense in which the first volume presents a full picture of its author. In its freewheeling, associative blend of character studies, press cuttings, family history, letters and public speeches, it evokes Twain's personality with a near-hallucinatory clarity. "I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies," he announces, "a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face." Whether anyone else now imitates his example, it certainly performs as advertised.

Twain employs a light touch, never pausing too long on the same scene, never letting accuracy stand in the way of a good story, putting off academic rigour for the 300 pages of endnotes he probably knew someone would furnish. Flights of fancy inspire anecdotes and vice versa in inexhaustible succession. The author places his dealings with General Grant and Presidents Roosevelt and Cleveland on the same level as reminiscences about dropping a watermelon on his brother's head from a third-storey window, or the names of a succession of family cats. Florence is recalled by its annoying door handles then the ghastly Countess who chose them; Botticelli witheringly dismissed: "I wish I had time to make a few remarks about Botticelli - whose real name was probably Smith."

The author follows his own advice to his brother, Orion, when the latter thought about writing a memoir: "I had urged him to put to paper all the well remembered incidents of his life, and not to confine himself to those which he was proud of, but to put in also those which he was ashamed of. I said I did not suppose he could do it, because if anybody could do that thing it would have been done long ago." As a matter of fact, Twain makes a creditable attempt. From the outset he appears intent on presenting himself in the worst light possible. Irascible, snobbish, "deeply offended" by the achievements of others, a willing duellist and a terrible shot, he goes as far as to lament his own survival: "Dr Meredith removed to Hannibal, by and by, and was our family physician there, and saved my life several times. Still, he was a good man and meant well. Let it go."

Others come in for sharper barbs. Of a disappointment from the editor of the Daily Graphic, Twain remarks: "I could not really complain, because he had only given me his word of honor as security; I ought to have required of him something substantial." Few of his put-downs match the exquisite timing of a pages-long account of the efforts of a general at Gettysburg to perfect his deathbed speech. "I have forgotten what it was, now," Twain concludes, "but it was well chosen for its purpose."

Much has already been made of the light this book throws on Twain's non-conformist views on party politics, bankers, tax evasion and military intervention, as if these were not already fairly well known. If they were missing from earlier samples of the autobiography they were evident in outline in his other books. All the same, the contemporary resonance of these opinions is remarkable.

In 1906, the author says, he sent his publisher to the president to ask that Thanksgiving (which clashed with his birthday) be postponed for a year, "on the ground that nothing had happened during the previous twelvemonth except several vicious and inexcusable wars, and King Leopold of Belgium's usual annual slaughters and robberies in the Congo state, together with the Insurance revelations in New York, which seemed to establish the fact that if there was an honest man left in the whole United States, there was only one, and we wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday." Later he observes that the traders brought down by their own corruption might reasonably be supposed to have died of shame, when in fact "they are merely sick and sore because they have been exposed".

Twain advocates an individualist brand of patriotism which feels distinctively American. It is also a rare example of a patriotism which appeals across national boundaries. In 1866 his billiards partners are horrified that he will not vote for their favoured Republican candidate. Would he, they ask, refuse to go to war for his country? "Yes," he retorts, "that is my position. If I thought it an unrighteous war I would say so… If I refused to volunteer I should be called a traitor, I am well aware of that - but that would not make me a traitor… I should still be a patriot, and, in my opinion, the only one in the whole country."

Such iconoclasm won't surprise anyone who's read Twain's novels, let alone the travel writing and satires. Pudd'nhead Wilson, for instance, deals fearlessly with race relations in the pre-Civil War South through a plot that brings to mind Philip Roth's The Human Stain. Its sophistication isn't only political. I remembered it as something of a romp, but re-reading it I was struck by its anticipation of a freer attitude to genre: the titular character fading into the background; the picaresque adventures of the identical twins; the novel's transformation into a detective story. It would sit comfortably as contemporary literary fiction, intimate with the procedures of postmodernism. The same goes for the collage-like structure of the autobiography.

Around halfway through, Twain begins to include excerpts from his beloved daughter Susy's memoir of him, using her recollections as his inspiration for the day's dictation. Susy's writing is presented with her peculiar spelling intact: "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 bare to hear any one talk but himself… of course he said this in joke, but I've no dought it was founded in truth."

At the age of seven Susy asks: "Mamma, what is it all for?" Twain, his tone perhaps coloured by bitterness at his daughter's death from meningitis at 24, runs with this theme: "men are born; they labour and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other… It comes at last, the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them - and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence… Then another myriad takes their place, and copies all they did, and goes along the same profitless road…"

Susy's question recurs throughout the rest of the book. It is a little unsettling that a great raconteur, a man of such industry and curiosity, should also have entertained these nihilistic thoughts. But the contradiction is human. The volume concludes with a moving letter from the deaf and blind campaigner Helen Keller. "You told me once you were a pessimist, Mr Twain," she writes, "but great men are usually mistaken about themselves. You are an optimist."

Perhaps she was correct. Twain's embargo has allowed this postmodernist autobiography to arrive more or less on time. But if the author's politics and technique were ahead of his peers, there are aspects of his literary personality which seem unmistakably of the 19th century. Even allowing for Twain's astonishing fame during his life, there is a certain old-world complacency to the assumption that people would still be interested in his work 100 years later. History vindicated it, but it's hard to imagine a literary celebrity of today confidently counting on readers of any kind a century hence.

"I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies" is hubris, of course, but Twain's voice is as replete with hubris as it is with self-effacement, playfully suspicious of reputation and rejoicing in it, conducting an ambiguous relationship with posterity, as any good writer ought to do, especially one who had, in the end, every right to be certain of it.

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.