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A Storied Autobiography From Mark Twain

Final Three-Volume Opus Is Refreshingly Frank And Accessible, And A Special Treat For Connecticut Readers

Carole Goldberg

October 10, 2010

It is a 736-page treasure trove for scholars, years in the making and replete with footnotes, vintage photos and a detailed introduction that explains just how complex was the process of creating this book.

But you don't have to be an academic to appreciate "The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. I" ( University of California Press, $34.95), which will be published Nov. 15. Blending personal adventures, political opinions, nostalgia for bygone times and beloved family and friends and, most of all, Twain's inimitable humor it is both historically valuable and remarkably fresh. Twain's writing is topical yet universal, Victorian in style yet contemporary in feeling and, above all, delightfully conversational.

Though the material is more than a century old, Twain's contempt for greedy bankers and shady businessmen mirrors today's political turmoil, and his furious condemnation of American forces behaving like "uniformed assassins" in the Philippines uncomfortably echoes the horrors of My Lai and Abu Ghraib. He tells the story of his ill-fated investments in the typesetting machine invented by James W. Paige, calling him "a most extraordinary compound of business thrift and commercial insanity" and concluding:

"Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms; and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel-trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died."

It was this kind of brutal frankness that led Twain to decree that no full and uncensored autobiography be published until at least 100 years after his death, lest it hurt his reputation and family, although he did allow about 10 percent of it to see print before he died.

This book is the first of three volumes, brilliantly edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and other members of the Mark Twain Project and Papers at Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley, and overseen by Robert Hirst, general editor of the project. Hirst will be the keynote speaker at a symposium titled "Mark Twain at 175: An American Icon Reconsidered" at St. Joseph College, West Hartford, on Nov. 13. (See accompanying story.)

The introduction to Twain's autobiography describes the master storyteller's repeated and largely unsuccessful attempts at telling his own story, at first in writing and later through dictation, from 1870 to shortly before his death at 74 in 1910. After decades of false starts ( it seems even the man who was arguably America's greatest author was not immune to writer's block), Twain began dictating his recollections in 1906. For nearly four years he poured forth his life's story.

The book also contains material he wrote earlier, including an account of the days spent on his uncle's farm in Missouri, which inspired characters and events in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Here he writes lyrically about the bounty of the farm and wistfully of his close friendships with the family's slaves.

"In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery," he admits. "I was not aware there was anything wrong about it."

But he goes on to tell a story about a bereft child that shows that even as a boy, Twain was beginning to realize the horror of slavery.

The book also contains much about his work on Mississippi riverboats and as a journalist and miner in the West. Here also are his years in Hartford, Europe and New York as a literary lion of international fame, a world traveler and friend of presidents.

Having a live audience, albeit a stenographer, was stimulating for this accomplished talker and sought-after lecturer. He saw that trying to compress his overflowing reminiscences into a strict chronological timeline was folly. So he allowed himself the freedom of digressing, linking present and past in a rich, conversational style that makes readers feel Twain is speaking personally to them. He stated often and confidently that this stream-of-consciousness method was the only right way to present his story.

The irony of what followed would not have been lost on Twain. The editors of the first three versions of his abridged autobiography, published between 1924 and 1959, were overwhelmed by the thousands of pages of manuscripts and memorabilia they had to organize and chose to return his story to chronological form, sapping its energy.

One of the chief glories of this complete and authoritative version is that it follows Twain's wishes, letting his recollections illuminate connections and conclusions that might otherwise never have been made.

Connecticut readers will find much to enjoy here. There are charming stories of life at the mansion on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, to which the Twain family moved in 1871. He writes with affectionate teasing of such Hartford figures as the Rev. Joseph H. Twichell and Courant editor Charles Dudley Warner, who co-wrote "The Gilded Age" with Twain. He also writes tenderly of family servants, such as Patrick McAleer. Twain tells anecdotes about the Monday Evening Club, a group of intellectuals, writers and clergy that met to present and discuss papers on important issues (and it still exists today.) His writings on Hartford illuminate a city at its peak of wealth and influence, a sharp contrast to conditions here today.

Readers need not be daunted by the size and scope of this monumental autobiography. It is not meant to be read all at once or in haste, and it can be enjoyed without perusing the footnotes, although they provide important information about Twain's life and times.

Just open the book, and let Twain tell you his stories and take you into his world.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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