Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Autobiography of Mark Twain," 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 for a reading public that admired his fiction, and then hedged his bets on publication of a complete autobiography, knowing that the full force of his emotion and real opinions would be difficult for a contemporary audience to countenance.

Reviewer Tim Adams writing recently in The Guardian (UK) notes dryly that by the end of Twain's life and writing, "the idea that he had been tight-lipped in his opinions up to that point would have come as news to both friends and enemies."

Tuesday was the author's 175th birthday. The first volume of an unedited version of the Autobiography of Mark Twain -- there have been many previous abridged editions published over the years -- has now been published a full one hundred years after his death in April 1910, as Twain himself promised.

The former rough-and-tumble newspaperman in the 1850s 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. Michael Shelden's Mark Twain: Man in White, published this year, portrays Twain in his final years as a public figure who crafted his own reputation as carefully as that of any of the fictional characters he created.

One hundred years later readers can discover what Twain really thought, and subsequently dictated to be written down, about the people and ideas of his age. The author himself is at the safe remove of the tree-shaded Langdon family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. Call it Mark Twain, uncensored at last.

Earlier this year, the
New York Times carried excerpts and a brief description of the first volume of the Autobiography, being published by the University of California Press. At a length of 760 pages, it is the first time this part of the complete manuscript of half-a-million words will be in print; two other volumes will follow. Times writer Larry Rohter reports that previous versions of the Autobiography were rearranged and expurgated by editors, sometimes by Twain himself, and at times at the request of Twain's daughter Clara to protect her father's image after his death.

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 has published an extract 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. Now 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.

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