Mark Twain’s memoirs: Still scathing after all these years

By Andy Rice 19 July 2010

This year marks a century since Mark Twain’s death, and in November, according to his wishes, the first volume of his autobiography will finally be published. Seems the author of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book many have called the greatest American novel ever, hasn’t lost any of his relevance.  

The first question is this: why should anyone care that Mark Twain’s memoirs are finally being published, a full hundred years after his death? Some of the answers would appeal only to literary critics, historians and other sundry practitioners of the arcane arts – because we can now begin to understand how the life affected the work, because through the book we can glean valuable detail about the American condition at the turn of the 20th century, because it’s important that such artifacts be preserved for future generations. But there’s an answer whose sweep is a lot wider, and it comes from the mouth of Ernest Hemingway, who believed that all American fiction began and ended with the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “It’s the best book we’ve had. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Hemingway wasn’t known as Papa for nothing. In his lifetime he was the Big Daddy of American fiction, the man whose minimalist style and lifelong quest to write “one true sentence” shaped the careers of authors from Norman Mailer and Raymond Carver to Richard Ford, and so his opinions of what was great in literature tended to count. It was also said of Hemingway that he only praised writers when he thought such praise would enhance his own legacy, but if true he chose well. There have been other opinion-makers with a Twain fetish.

The obituary of Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain was Clemens’s most famous pen-name) that ran in the New York Times of 22 April 1910 contained the following in the opening paragraph: “It is certain that his contemporary fame abroad was equal to his fame at home. All Europe recognized his genius, the English people appreciated him at his own worth, and the University of Oxford honored him with a degree. His writings commanded a higher price in the market than those of any other contemporary whose career was solely devoted to literature. His ‘public’ was of enormous extent. From The Jumping Frog to the Diary of Adam everything that came from his pen was eagerly read and heartily enjoyed by multitudes.”

The story of Twain’s life matters, in other words, because nobody better understood the American superpower that was then being shaped, and nobody was able to deliver that understanding to a larger audience. 

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, will be published by the University of California Press in November this year; each of the three installments will reportedly run to around 600 pages. At the time of his death – the one that wasn’t greatly exaggerated – Twain had amassed 5,000 pages of unedited memoirs, and had left strict instructions in his will that they weren’t to be unleashed on the public for at least a hundred years. “From the first, second, third, and fourth editions,” he wrote, “all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be removed. There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now.”

What, exactly, were his problems with publishing the autobiography sooner? And more to the point, why would he care if he were already dead? Commentators have offered two possible answers. The first is that the autobiography contains a tabloid sensibility that would fit right in with contemporary popular culture. Twain trashes his lawyers, publishers, critics, business partners and even an Italian landlady from whom he once rented a house, describing her as “excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward.” The theory goes that he didn’t want to offend these people or their children while they were still alive.

Then there’s the second theory, which holds that Twain wanted to write freely about religion, business and politics, and that the America of the day wasn’t ready for his forthright opinions. According to the New York Times, he had nothing but contempt for the Wall Street fat-cats of his era, who he thought were responsible for imbuing a once purer country with the values of selfishness and greed. “The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars,” Twain writes. “He pays taxes on two million and a half.”

When writing about American military intervention, Twain is even more venomous. There was during the author’s latter years an attack by United States troops on a tribal group in the Philippines, in which six hundred unarmed villagers were killed. He refers to the soldiers responsible as “our uniformed assassins” and describes their sojourn as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

The observation would not have been out of place if Twain were making it about Vietnam in the 1970s, or Iraq a few years ago. Which is where his enduring significance lies. On most topics that the writer tackled he saw through the shiny façade to the hypocrisies that lay beneath, and he saw deep enough to be relevant a century later. 

By Kevin Bloom

Read more: Mark Twain’s obituary in the New York Times, Boing Boing, The Independent, New York Times


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