Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (Vol. 1)

Thomas Powers writes:

The new book is a formidable block of materials, beginning with an account from 1870 of a huge tract of Tennessee wilderness purchased by his father, who died confident his children would ‘live to see these acres turn to silver and gold’; and ending with an account from 1906 of a visit from Helen Keller, who pleased Twain by agreeing that he was distinguished not only for his humour, but for his wisdom. Most of what appears in the Autobiography has been published before, but generally in fragments, or abridged, or reordered, or interspersed with other materials. The new book is a hodgepodge but it is pure Twain, and often vintage Twain, just as he left it. Some reviewers have been irritated by the book’s abundance, disorder and uneven quality, but in my view that is like complaining that a dictionary has too many words in it, including many boring words. ‘Autobiography’ was the word Twain used for this project. Several early attempts were quickly abandoned, but at last in Florence in 1904, where he had taken his failing wife in hope of recovery, he ‘hit upon the right way to do an autobiography’, which was not to write it at all, in the conventional sense, but to dictate it, following no particular plan, but speaking only of what interested him at the moment – stories from the deep past, anecdotes of friends, outrages discovered in the morning paper. ‘The right plan,’ he wrote, ‘makes my labour amusement … play, pastime, and wholly effortless.’ This and similar remarks suggest what a bubbling, cheerful stream Twain thought an autobiography ought to be. ‘No talent is required,’ he wrote. He planned to be honest, and include his ‘frankest and freest and privatest’ thoughts, just as they occurred to him. He would take no pains to spare anyone’s feelings because all would be dead before the book appeared.

(LRB 28 April 2011)

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