Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mark Twain at 175, uncensored at last

Samuel Clemens -- just as the pen name he created for himself suggests -- was a man split in half by his intellect and his emotion. Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote and wrote and wrote, and then hedged his bets on publication, knowing that the full force of his emotion would be difficult for a contemporary audience to countenance.

As a former rough-and-tumble newspaperman in the 1850s he learned that the glitter (and the gold) was in the honeyed words, not the acid truth. It was a philosophy he carried through to his very appearance and public demeanor until his death at the age of 74 in 1910.

One hundred years later we are about to discover what Twain really thought, and subsequently dictated to be written down, about the people and ideas of his age, with the author himself at the safe remove of the tree-shaded Langdon family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York.

A complete manuscript as Clemens dictated it, 500,00 words: call it Mark Twain, uncensored at last.

The July 9th edition of the New York Times carries excerpts and a brief description of the first volume of the Autobiography, to be published complete in three volumes this fall by the University of California Press. It is the first time the complete manuscript will be in print, a total of half-a-million words. As Times writer Larry Rohter reports, previous editions of the Autobiography were rearranged and expurgated by editors, by Twain himself, and at times at the request of Twain's daughter Clara to protect her father's image.

Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain's biographer who was in awe of Clemens, the man and the image both, was a less-than-judicious editor at times, often bowing to the presumed sensibilities of a more genteel age:

''Paine was a Victorian editor,' said Robert Hirst, curator and general editor of the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where Twain’s papers are housed. 'He has an exaggerated sense of how dangerous some of Twain’s statements are going to be, which can extend to anything: politics, sexuality, the Bible, anything that’s just a little too radical. This goes on for a good long time, a protective attitude that is very harmful.' ...

In a passage removed by Paine, Twain excoriates 'the iniquitous Cuban-Spanish War' and Gen. Leonard Wood’s 'mephitic record' as governor general in Havana. In writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as 'our uniformed assassins' and describes their killing of 'six hundred helpless and weaponless savages' 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.'”

Twain's soured view of Wall Street extends to personal distrust of many of its public figures, not unexpected for a writer whose finances were often precarious; there were a few Twain counted as personal friends, those who saved Clemens himself from bankruptcy. In contrast, the British magazine Granta will publish an extract next week titled The Farm, a sweetly-textured remembrance of Twain's bucolic childhood in Missouri. Mr. Rohter writes:

"In it Twain recalls childhood visits to his uncle’s Missouri farm, reflects on slavery and the slave who served as the model for Jim in 'Huckleberry Finn,' and offers an almost Proustian meditation on memory and remembrance, with watermelon and maple sap in place of Proust’s madeleine. 'I can see the farm yet, with perfect clearness,' he writes. 'I can see all its belongings, all its details.' Of slavery, he notes that 'color and condition interposed a subtle line' between him and his black playmates, but confesses: 'In my schoolboy days, I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware there was anything wrong about it.'”

Most of the the Autobiography's previously-unpublished material will be contained in subsequent volumes. Mr Hirst states that by the time all three books are published, “about half will not have ever been in print before.”

It's obvious that Clemens the man was always concerned with crafting the image of Twain the writer, and continued to do so even as he dictated the truth to be hidden for a hundred years. This November the truth comes out about the famous, the infamous, and the forgotten figures of America's Golden Age. It ought to be quite a read, and Twain will get the last bitter laugh on his contemporaries. If there are any objections Mr. Clemens, I'm sure, will let the injured parties speak for themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read what Clemens the man has to say in Nov.!!