One thing just about everybody knows about Mark Twain is that he had the pleasure of being able to say that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. But sure enough, the day arrived April 21, 1910 when those reports were right on the money. Or were they? Because here we are, a century later, and there's still enough life in the old boy to debut the first volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California Press; 744 pages) at the No. 2 spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Almost as good: he's right behind Earth (The Book), co-authored by Jon Stewart, whose mix of dry wit and genuine moral outrage comes right from the Twain playbook. Samuel L. Clemens may be dead, but Mark Twain is doing just fine.
Why is Volume I just now seeing the light of day? At his death, Twain stipulated that the manuscript of his memoir was not to be published in its entirety for 100 years. He was concerned that it was too full of Twain unchained acidic opinions and white-hot fulminations against the follies and wickedness of his time. Having seen his share of those including the institutionalized sadism of slavery, the gluttony of the Gilded Age and the imperialist misadventures of the Spanish-American War Twain had arrived at the not unreasonable but never popular conclusion that mankind "was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn't served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working his way up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably [a] matter of surprise and regret to the Creator."
He was also writing during a time of American military expeditions abroad and criminal malfeasance in the business world sound familiar? and his views on those matters were not designed to broaden his fan base. Twain was well known in his lifetime as an opponent of the Spanish-American War, but he was probably smart to think twice about going public too soon with a description of American soldiers in the Philippines as "uniformed assassins."
Twain did not rule out the publishing of parts of his manuscript before the 100-year mark, so long as "all sound and sane expressions of opinion are left out." In the decades after his death, three successive versions appeared that were variously sanitized, abridged and tidied up. But as the centenary approached, the Mark Twain Project, a scholarly effort housed at the University of California, Berkeley, got going on this definitive edition of the book. It will eventually run to three volumes, about half of whose material has never been published before.
Because of the unusual way Twain produced it, the editors, led by Harriet Elinor Smith, had their work cut out for them. After decades of aborted attempts at an autobiography, Twain had decided by early 1904 to dictate his recollections to a stenographer. He had also decided to plunge every day into whichever moment of his life he pleased to consider, with no regard for chronology. "Talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment" is how he describes his working method. "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."
This is just what he does, dipping into an item from his morning newspaper that leads him into a remembrance of a long-ago public lecture, which reminds him of a funny birthday party he once attended at times this book reads like the one we all expected Keith Richards to write. Yet it's a method that works a definite magic. It gives Twain's volume of mostly 19th century recollections a distinctly 20th century feel. It makes him something like the first American modernist, a writer almost Proustian in his free-associational reaches into the past no matter that Proust probably never had house cats named Plague and Pestilence, played a practical joke at the White House or spent an entire afternoon as a stumbling young huntsman being outwitted by a wild turkey.
The Bubbly Stream
Twain settled upon the idea of dictating his book while living in a rented villa near Florence, where he had gone with his wife Olivia in the hope of restoring her failing health (in vain she died there in June 1904, after which Twain could not bring himself to return to his work until 18 months later, in New York). The villa was owned by the book's first villain Countess Massiglia, an American divorcée whose second husband, an Italian aristocrat, was on a diplomatic mission in East Asia while she pursued an affair with her chief manservant. Twain's narrative languishes a bit while he reaches from the grave to defame, vilify and generally abominate the Countess the kind of woman who would deliberately disable the phone Twain installed to summon doctors for his wife. Even Twain, who can abominate with the best of them, gets tiresome when he does it for 30 pages or so.