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The following review appeared 17 October 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 2 follows Volume 1 by three years. The public's interest in what Mark Twain had said and wanted to suppress until he had been dead one hundred years has continued unabated. As with Volume 1, the complete text of Volume 2, along with the additional commentary laying out the textual maze of editorial detective work required to establish this authoritative edition, is available free online at the Mark Twain Project website: www.marktwainproject.org.
The groundwork and background of Samuel Clemens's plans and early attempts at autobiography, were covered at length in the first volume. This second volume begins where Volume 1 left off, starting with the dictation of April 2, 1906 and continuing through February 28, 1907. There are a total of 104 sessions, twenty-six appearing in print for the first time; most of the others have seen only partial or heavily edited publication. Clemens dictated approximately two hours during each session, received typed transcripts of these texts, and edited them. Examinations of the textual apparatus for each day's dictation (available only online) show he made surprisingly few substantial revisions in wording--an indication that eloquence of speech came naturally to him. In only a handful of cases did he strike out comments he may have felt would be too volatile for print, even five hundred years after his death.
The hallmark of Clemens's autobiography is that he only discussed topics that caught his attention on any particular day. He took his topics from letters received, newspaper headlines regarding people whose lives intersected with his, and books and magazines he read. He occasionally ordered the insertion of incoming letters and previously unpublished manuscripts into the body of his dictation. He described this method:
This one is only a pleasure excursion, and it sidetracks itself anywhere that there is a circus, or a fresh excitement of any kind, and seldom waits until the show is over, but packs up and goes on again as soon as a fresher one is advertised (p. 229).
Topics are wide ranging and it is likely that whatever a reader's favorite interest is regarding Mark Twain, some discussion pertinent to that issue will be discussed during this eleven months of dictation--religion, Christianity, God, civilization, human nature, mankind, fortune-telling, the Clemens family, copyrights, democracy, monarchy, and crooked politicians. Clemens's comments are wide ranging, often controversial, and frequently as timely today as they were more than a century ago.
While previous editions of Mark Twain's autobiography have featured his temper unleashed against various family members, former colleagues, and business acquaintances, this edition enhances and adds to the list. For example, Clemens says of his nephew by marriage and former business partner, Charles Webster, who was accused by some people of being a Jew:
One of the prejudiced people said to me that he could not abide Webster because he was a Jew. It seemed to me an unkind feeling, and I explained to him that I was destitute of it, and tried to reason him into coming up and standing with me on my higher and nobler plane. I said I would always try to be just to any human being, in any circumstances, and be as prompt and interested in getting him out of the way as if I had a personal interest in accomplishing it (p. 69). I said if I had been at the Crucifixion ----. (p. 496).
Clemens hesitated to verbalize his thoughts on how he would have behaved if he had been at Christ's Crucifixion--one of several instances where, in spite of his claim of being able to speak his mind from the grave, he censored himself and struck out the unfinished sentence on the typescript. The editorial notes for the passage provide the deleted statement.
The previously unpublished dictation of July 17, 1906 finds Clemens venting his wrath on his publisher Harper and Brothers and the company's general manager Frederick Duneka. Clemens engaged in publishing disputes with Duneka over his books Christian Science (1907), A Horse's Tale (1906), a revamped multi volume edition of Mark Twain's Library of Humor (1906), and the unfinished manuscript that would be posthumously published and fraudulently advertised as Mark Twain's completed work The Mysterious Stranger (1916). Clemens said of Duneka, he
is a Roman Catholic, and anything like a criticism of that Church, or of an individual connected with it, gives Mr. Duneka the dry gripes (p. 145).
He further described Duneka's reaction to the unfinished manuscript that came to be known as The Mysterious Stranger:
in it he found a drunken and profane Catholic priest--a spectacle which was as common in Europe four hundred years ago as Dunekas are in hell to-day. Of course it made him shudder, and he wanted that priest reformed or left out. Mr. Duneka seems to do four-fifths of the editing of everything that comes to Harper and Brothers for publication, and he certainly has a good literary instinct and judgment as long as his religion does not get into his way (p. 146).
Editorial notes regarding Clemens's claims of Duneka's disapproval of anti-Catholic passages in his work confirm that the manuscript for A Horse's Tale contains a fragment of six sheets of anti-clerical remarks that were not published in the book.
Clemens also took pleasure in cursing unknown letter writers such as vaudeville agent B. Butler Boyle, who in August 1906 solicited Clemens to appear in a vaudeville tour. Taking delight in his own sense of superiority he said:
I have discarded all such degradations and have tried to make the world understand that I am now a stately person who has retired from all small things and sits upon a summit apart--a great and shining literary light who deals substantially with nothing on a lower plane than the sun and the constellations. And so when a letter such as came in this morning's mail reaches me, it drags me down from my summit and humiliates me. ... Damn him, why doesn't he propose a clog-dance and be done with it? I detest a man that makes me swear in public this way" (p. 213 and online textual commentary restored for 31 August 1906).
Clemens later deleted the curse from the printed transcript and its text is found only in the online textual commentaries.
Just as Clemens had the ability to vilify strongly, he also exhibited reverence for those he held dear. Regarding his wife Livy:
she and I were really one person and there were no secrets. Sometimes I was that person, sometimes she was that person. Sometimes it took both of us together to constitute that person (p. 28).
Clemens continually includes portions from his deceased daughter Susy's childhood biography of himself in his dictations. A sense of almost raw grief pervades the sentence he ended his dictation with on August 8, 1906, "If we only had Susy here to-night!" (p. 166).
Other personalities who Clemens singled out for praise include not only the family cats, but also James Redpath, Helen Keller, Henry H. Rogers, and Quarry Farm resident John T. Lewis. Clemens relates how Rogers gladly helped provide a pension for the elderly Lewis, based on Clemens's appeals. Lewis had been instrumental in saving family members from harm in a runaway carriage incident. An ongoing joke with Rogers was that Clemens concocted the story of the man's existence and heroism in order to take the pension money for himself. According to Clemens:
[Rogers] always disbelieved in John T. Lewis. I got myself spaciously photographed alongside of John T. Lewis, standing in front of the farm-house at Susy Crane's farm. It did not convince him; he merely looked sad, and framed it and hung it up in his private office at 26 Broadway, and labeled it 'The Imaginary John T. Lewis'--and there it hangs yet; hangs there looking so honest that it would convince any but an implacably prejudiced mind (p. 173).
Clemens took pleasure in reading letters from uneducated strangers that were written "with the eloquence which comes from the heart" (p. 413). In several instances he inserts complete texts of these letters into his autobiography as examples of what he deems the highest literature. His fondness for these types of letters was apparently known to his friends and colleagues who shared theirs with him. On February 1, 1907 Clemens inserts and comments on a reader's letter sent to Helen Keller regarding her autobiography The Story of My Life (1903). The letter was written by a Nevada cowboy who signed his name "B. B. Page." Page receives some of the greatest admiration Clemens heaped upon any unknown correspondent:
it came from a cowboy in the Far West, whose spelling, grammar, and construction do most engagingly set at easy and unembarrassed defiance all the laws that govern those artificialities; but the result is unqualifiedly satisfactory, just the same, and miles and miles above the reach of criticism; it comes out of a sound good heart, and out of a most wise and level head, and is literature--and not commonplace literature, but literature of a high class; the architect of it is a thinker, an observer, a philosopher, and has also a touch of poetry in him... (p. 413).
It is unfortunate that Page is not further identified or traceable in the current historical records. Clemens's comments about Page resonate as an author who created the character and voice of Huckleberry Finn.
Volume 2 is not without other mysteries and unanswered questions. Clemens claims to have met the German "venerable author" Heinrich Hoffmann who had written Der Struwwelpeter (1845). According to Clemens their meeting was "somewhere about 1888 or '89." Praising the German copyright laws, he stated that Hoffmann was able to support himself in his old age with income from a book that was still selling well after fifty years in print--something that would not have been possible under the current American copyright laws. In 1891 Clemens wrote an English version based on Hoffmann's book. Clemens's version, Slovenly Peter, was never published in his lifetime and scholars have long speculated that he was unable to arrange an agreement concerning the original copyright. Unfortunately the editors have not been able to confirm or establish a date for his meeting with Hoffmann.
Editorial notes located unobtrusively in the back section of the book alert the reader when Clemens is misremembering, forgetting, simply posturing, or perhaps even lying. These occurrences are frequent. To list a few: Clemens never encountered Confederate general Simon Bolivar Buckner at Mount McGregor shortly before General Ulysses Grant died; he falsely claimed that he only published one item between 1849 and 1862; he confused details of a literary auction conducted by Kate Douglas Wiggin Riggs and F. Hopkinson Smith; he also falsely claimed that he never delivered the "Long Clam" speech in 1889--"one of his rare failures as an after-dinner speaker" (p. 607); he told multiple versions of his 1892 dinner conversation offense when he dined with the German Emperor Wilhelm II in Berlin--a conversation which may have involved either potatoes or Civil War pensions or perhaps both; and he conflated and confused the history and usage of his first typewriter.
Volume 2 ends with a never before published day's dictation for February 28, 1907 concerning Clemens's true feelings for architect Stanford White, whom he had known casually for about twenty years. White was murdered in 1906 by Harry Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit, who had been seduced by White when she was a teenager. Regarding White, Clemens said:
New York has known for years that the highly educated and elaborately accomplished Stanford White was a shameless and pitiless wild beast disguised as a human being; and few, if any, have doubted that he ought to have been butchered long ago, by some kindly friend of the human race (p. 454).
Clemens appears torn on whether or not the public should learn all the "dreadful particulars" of Nesbit's seduction and states "I find myself unable to settle upon an opinion yet" (p. 455). In the absence of his own opinion he inserts editor George Harvey's opinion published in the form of a parable which Harper's Weekly, March 2, 1907 titled "The Man Who Ate Babies." The editorial notes inform the reader that Clemens will return to the topic of female seduction and the age of consent in his dictation for April 20, 1907. Thus, Volume 2 ends on a cliffhanger. The online textual notes indicate Clemens struck out the last line he dictated that day, "Isabella Beecher Hooker is dead." The final third volume of Mark Twain's autobiography is scheduled for release within two years.
Volume 2 is another masterpiece of scholarship. It renders
previous editions of Mark Twain's autobiography obsolete but otherwise useful
as historical sources which reveal the story of how his public image was both
protected and exposed.