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Summer 2014
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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
The Master of Narrative, Invective, and Foresight
Mark Twain’s much-awaited autobiography
10 December 2010

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, edited by Harriet E. Smith, et al. (University of California Press, 760 pp., $34.95)

In his opinion all biographies, even those told in the first person, were “but the clothes and buttons of the man.” This was not his standard skeptical growl; he had tried to tell his own life story some 30 times, only to abandon the effort after a chapter or two. Even these earnest efforts, he concluded, were only the wardrobe of Mark Twain, rather than the essence of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Nevertheless, he kept tackling the chore the way Tom Sawyer whitewashed the fence, working intensely for a short time, then growing distracted, then enlisting others to finish the job. In the end, Mark got what he wanted, just as Tom did. The others have turned out to be historians and researchers, operating 100 years after Twain’s death. Harriet E. Smith, Benjamin Griffith, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz, and Leslie Diane Myrick are not exactly household names, but they’re key figures in this reconstruction.

The team has done an admirable job—perhaps too admirable for the reader who doesn’t need 250 pages of annotations, footnotes, and academic minutiae. Moreover, Volume One is not as unique as it might appear from the surrounding hype. Most of the beguiling contents have been published before, notably in the Autobiography of Mark Twain (1924), edited by his literary executor Albert Bigelow Paine, and in Mark Twain in Eruption (1940), edited by critic Bernard DeVoto.

Volumes Two and Three will add many hitherto unpublished passages. But they’re unlikely to offer fresh revelations about the character and life of Samuel Clemens. Despite Twain’s unwillingness to publish certain segments until he was gone for a century, the author resembles the ailing man in one of his classic anecdotes. At bedside, Twain inquired whether the patient drank. No, came the reply. Well then, did he smoke? No. Did he chase women? Negative. Ah, Twain concluded, there was the trouble. His friend had no ballast to throw overboard.

Twain’s own ballast consisted of a lifelong addiction to tobacco: “As an example to others, not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke while asleep, and never to refrain from smoking when awake.” Save for that venial sin, he was an exemplar of good behavior. His alcoholic intake was small, he was devoted to his wife and four children, two of whom predeceased him, and he paid his debts even when they strained his budget to the breaking point.

Nevertheless, Volume One is well worth acquiring. For if the book provides few surprises, it also serves to remind us of Twain’s remarkable virtuosity. In a few paragraphs, the master of narrative summons up his antebellum Missouri childhood: “All the Negroes were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades. I say in effect, using the phrase as a modification. We were comrades and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and which rendered fusion impossible. . . .

“I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”

This sense of social injustice sometimes led him to bend the truth: like Dickens, Twain knew that audiences have an insatiable appetite for happy endings. Huckleberry Finn, the author claims, was based on a youth named Tom Blankenship. He “was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed, but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. I heard, four years ago, that he was Justice of the Peace in a remote village in Montana, and was a good citizen and greatly respected.” The facts are not so pleasing. Blankenship, the scholars note, remained a malefactor familiar to the police of Hannibal, Missouri, who arrested him on numerous occasions. Impoverished and directionless, he died of cholera in 1880, five years before the first publication of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain was also a master of invective. Assessing the United States’s 1899 adventure in the Philippines, he fulminates: “We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make these people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. . . . I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” In a lighter vein, he calls reviewers contemptible: “I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value.” However, he adds, “let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden.”

And, surprisingly for someone who made so many bad investments, he was a master of foresight. After dictating the last parts of his free-ranging, free-ranting autobiography, Twain ordered his publishers to keep much of it from the public. “From the first, second, third and fourth editions,” he proclaimed, “all expressions of opinion must be left out. There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see.”

They waited, and 100 years later, they see. This month, Amazon lists The Autobiography of Mark Twain as Number Three on its Christmas bestseller list.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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