Editor: Harriet Elinor Smith
Publisher: University of California Press
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was born in Florida Missouri on the 30th of November, 1835, which he describes in his autobiography as "an almost invisible village." He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri which would provide him for the settings for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
For over thirty-five years between 1870 and 1905 this brilliant American author and humorist had repeatedly endeavored to write his autobiography, however, as we learn from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, nothing much came of these attempts.
It was in 1906 when he really began in earnest to write his autobiography with his daily dictations to his stenographer, Josephine S. Hobby, and he decided that these "Autobiographical Dictations" would form the bulk of what he would call Autobiography of Mark Twain. He believed that he had found the right way to dictate an autobiography and as he states: "to start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime." Twain believed that biographies are "but the clothes and buttons of man-the biography of the man himself cannot be written." There was to be, however, one important stipulation and that was that the autobiography was not to be published in its entirety until a lapse of one hundred years after his death. Twain died on the twenty-first of April, 1910 and he completed his last chapter of his autobiography in December of 1909.
2010 marked the one hundredth anniversary of Twain's death and to celebrate this important milestone the University of California Press published Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, which is to be the first of a projected three-volume edition of the complete, uncensored autobiography. As mentioned in the introduction, it is the goal of the present edition to publish the complete text as nearly as possible in the way Mark Twain intended it to be published after his death.
When I picked up a copy of this captivating tome, I felt as if I was having a private conversation with one of America's most brilliant authors and humorists, whom William Faulkner described as "the father of American Literature," as he spouted out pearls of wisdom and tendered his unabashed opinions concerning religion, politics, the human race and many other topics. Moreover, it also provided me with a window into what Twain and his times said about each other, in a way that can even speak to us today, even though much is quite controversial. As Twain asserts: "we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned," which was probably one of the reasons why he wanted to defer the publication of his autobiography. To exemplify, Twain believed that in the "matter of slavish imitation, man is the monkey's superior all the time. The average man is destitute of independence of opinion. He is not interested in contriving an opinion of his own, by study and reflection, but is only anxious to find out what his neighbor's opinion is and slavishly adopt it." Strong words, but very true. Another is Twain's opinion of the trade of critic in literature, music, and drama, which he considered to be the most degraded of all trades, that has no real value-"certainly no large value."
The autobiography also provides the reader with fascinating information narrated by Twain as to how he entered the lecture circuit, his experiences as a public speaker and journalist, the society he mingled with, his famous friends including presidents, artists, industrialists, European royalty, travels, unsuccessful business ventures, and his hefty earnings. His reflections and ruminations are presented largely without apology yet, when you read and savor them, you can't help nodding your head and agreeing with them, as they are frank and honest-something that is lacking today in the media. In addition, Twain devotes considerable ink to his daughter Susy's writings, her diary and her favorable opinions concerning her father. Unfortunately, Susy died when she was only twenty-four.
Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 was a pleasure to read, insightful, thought-provoking and wonderfully delicious. There was not an opinion or fulmination that was not packed with admirable concision and careful attention to detail, as well as irreverent humor and biting social satire. Thanks to the publishers with affording us with the opportunity to experience a vivid glimpse and fresh perspective of an American literary icon who will long be remembered.