Authors: Mark Twain
Autobiography of Mark Twain
proper begins on p. 201 in this volume, starting with the several prefaces Clemens created in June 1906 to frame the early manuscripts and dictations he had selected as opening texts, followed by his almost daily Autobiographical Dictations from 9 January through the end of March 1906—all that will fit into this volume. The dictations are arranged in the chronological order of their creation because that is how Clemens instructed his editors to publish them. The remaining volumes in this edition will include all the dictations he created between April 1906 and October 1909, likewise arranged chronologically, the whole concluding with the “Closing Words of My Autobiography,” a manuscript about the death of his youngest daughter, Jean.
Autobiography as a literary form had a special fascination for Mark Twain. Long before he had given serious thought to writing his own, he had published both journalism and fiction that were, in the most straightforward way, autobiographical. From the earliest juvenilia in his brother’s Hannibal, Missouri, newspaper (1851–53) to his personal brand of journalism in Nevada and California (1862–66), he played endlessly with putting himself at the center of
what he wrote. Twenty years and nine books later, in October 1886, he acknowledged (and oversimplified) the result: “Yes, the truth is, my books are simply autobiographies. I do not know that there is an incident in them which sets itself forth as having occurred in my personal experience which did not so occur. If the incidents were dated, they could be strung together in their due order, & the result would be an autobiography.”
He was thinking of his travel books and personal narratives—
The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad
Life on the Mississippi
—the only books up to that point in which he set forth anything “as having occurred” in his own experience. To be sure he also made extensive fictional use of that experience. The factual basis of characters and situations in works like
The Gilded Age, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
has been thoroughly documented, and the autobiographical content is obvious in dozens of shorter works like “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” and “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It,” even when they are not entirely factual.
More germane to Clemens’s thinking about his own autobiography is his interest in fictional autobiography—that is, fictions in the shape and form of an autobiography.
Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography
was written in late 1870 and published in pamphlet form in March 1871. Mark Twain tells us that his own parents were “neither very poor nor conspicuously honest,” and that almost all of his ancestors were born to be hanged—and for the most part
hanged. An even briefer “burlesque” called simply “An Autobiography” appeared in the
magazine in April 1871: “I was born November 30th, 1835. I continue to live, just the same.”
The whole sketch takes fewer than two hundred words and pointedly leaves the reader as ignorant of the facts as before.
Burlesque implies familiarity with genuine autobiographies, despite what Clemens told William Dean Howells in 1877 (“I didn’t know there
any but old Franklin’s & Benvenuto Cellini’s”). Benjamin Franklin’s didactic bent made him a lifelong target of Mark Twain’s ridicule. But he thought Cellini’s autobiography the “most entertaining of books,” and he admired the daring frankness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s
and Giovanni Giacomo Casanova’s
, as well as Samuel Pepys’s
, which Paine said was the book Clemens “read and quoted most.”
In 1871 he proposed writing “an Autobiography of Old Parr, the gentleman who lived to be 153 years old,” but apparently he never did so.
In the summer of 1876 he wrote four hundred pages of a work he was then calling “Huck Finn’s Autobiography.” And in March 1877, he told Howells he was writing such a work about his own older brother: “I began Orion’s autobiography yesterday & am charmed with the work. I have started him at 18,
printer’s apprentice, soft & sappy, full of fine intentions & shifting religions & not aware that he is a shining ass.” He assigned various real incidents of Orion’s life and aspects of his character to an apprentice named Bolivar, and wrote more than a hundred pages before abandoning the project.
In 1880, Orion’s decision to write a real autobiography prompted Clemens to suggest that he instead “write two books which it has long been my purpose to write, but I judge they are so far down on my docket that I shan’t get to them in this life. I think the subjects are perfectly new. One is ‘The Autobiography of a Coward,’ & the other ‘Confessions of a Life that was a Failure.’ ” The object here was not burlesque, but rather a kind of thought experiment to test the difficulty of telling the whole truth in an autobiographical narrative—in this case, by shielding it behind a deliberate fiction.
My plan was simple—to take the absolute facts of my own life & tell them simply & without ornament or flourish, exactly as they occurred, with this difference, that I would turn every courageous action (if I ever performed one) into a cowardly one, & every success into a failure. You can do this, but only in one way; you must
all idea of an audience—for
can straitly & squarely confess shameful things to others—you must tell your story
, & to no other; you must not use your own name, for
would keep you from telling shameful things, too.
Another version of this scheme Clemens said was more difficult, to “tell the story of an abject coward who is
that he is a coward,” and to do the same for “an unsuccessful man.”
In these cases the titles I have suggested would not be used. This latter plan is the one I should use. I should
actual experiences (to invent would be to fail) & I would name everybody’s actual name & locality & describe his character & actions unsparingly, then
these names & localities
after the book was finished
. To use fictitious names, & localities while writing is a befogging & confusing thing.
The inspiration for both of these ideas was obviously two autobiographies that Clemens admired.
The supremest charm in Casanova’s Memoires (they are not printed in English) is, that he frankly, flowingly, & felicitously tells the dirtiest & vilest & most contemptible things on himself, without ever suspecting that they are other than things which the reader will admire & applaud. . . . Rousseau confesses to masturbation, theft, lying, shameful treachery, & attempts made upon his person by Sodomites. But he tells it as a man who is
of the shameful nature of these things, whereas your coward & your Failure should be happy & sweet & unconscious
of their own contemptibility.17
Clemens himself seems not to have attempted what he urged Orion to try, but it is obvious he was thinking about the challenge of writing with the perfect frankness he admired in these writers. The question of how fully he could tell the truth about himself, and especially to what extent he could confess what he regarded as his own shameful behavior, occupied him off and on throughout work on the
Clemens’s plan to write his own autobiography is more or less distinct from these fictional uses of the form. The first indication that he had such a plan survives only in the report of a conversation that took place when he was forty. Mrs. James T. Fields and her husband were visiting the Clemenses in Hartford. She recorded in her diary that at lunch, on 28 April 1876, Clemens
proceeded to speak of his Autobiography which he intends to write as fully and sincerely as possible to leave behind him—His wife laughingly said, she should look it over and leave out objectionable passages—No, he said very earnestly almost sternly,
are not to edit it—it is to appear as it is written with the whole tale told as truly as I can tell it—I shall take out passages from it and publish as I go along, in the Atlantic and elsewhere, but I shall not limit myself as to space and at whatever ever age I am writing about even if I am an infant and an idea comes to me about myself when I am forty I shall put that in. Every man feels that his experience is unlike that of anybody else and therefore he should write it down—he finds also that everybody else has thought and felt on some points precisely as he has done, and therefore he should write it down.
This remarkable statement shows that Clemens was already committed to several ideas that would govern the autobiography he worked on over the next thirty-five years. The notion is already present that publication must be posthumous, a requirement linked to the ambition to have “the whole tale told as truly as I can tell it,” without censoring himself or allowing others to do it for him. He also plans to publish selections from the narrative while still alive, withholding the rest “to leave behind him.” He will not limit himself “as to space,” but will be as digressive and discursive as he likes, even ignoring chronology when it suits him. These cardinal points are clearly interrelated: absolute truth telling would be made easier by knowing that his own death would precede publication, and discursiveness (quite apart from his natural preference for it) would help to disarm his own impulse toward self-censorship. But it would take another thirty years to actually apply these various ideas to a real autobiography.
Just a year or so later, sometime in 1877, Clemens seems actually to have begun writing, prompted (as he recalled in 1904) by a conversation with his good friend John Milton Hay. Hay “asked if I had begun to write my autobiography, and I said I hadn’t. He said that I ought to begin at once” (since the time to begin was at age forty, and Clemens was already forty-two).
I had lost two years, but I resolved to make up that loss. I resolved to begin my autobiography at once. I did begin it, but the resolve melted away and disappeared in a week and
I threw my beginning away. Since then, about every three or four years I have made other beginnings and thrown them away. Once I tried the experiment of a diary, intending to inflate that into an autobiography when its accumulation should furnish enough material, but that experiment lasted only a week; it took me half of every night to set down the history of the day, and at the week’s end I did not like the result.
In late November 1877 Clemens listed “My Autobiography” among other projects in his notebook, reminding himself to “Publish scraps from my Autobiography occasionally.” He did indeed write an eleven-page manuscript at this time which he intended as the first chapter of an autobiography—very likely the “beginning” that in 1904 he remembered having thrown away. He titled it merely “Chapter 1,” but it is commonly known as “Early Years in Florida, Missouri,” the title Paine assigned it.
It begins, “I was born the 30th of November, 1835”—the same way Clemens began his
burlesque in 1871—and it goes on to reminisce briefly about his early memories of childhood in that “almost invisible village of Florida, Monroe county, Missouri.” Like “The Tennessee Land” (the only extant autobiographical fragment that was written earlier, in 1870) it ends somewhat abruptly, exactly as if the author’s interest had “melted away and disappeared.”
If Clemens did, as he says, make successive attempts to write the autobiography “every three or four years” after 1877, few are known to survive.
What we have instead are such things as his advice in 1880 to Orion about
autobiography: “Keep in mind what I told you—when you recollect something which belonged in an earlier chapter, do not go back, but jam it in
where you are
. Discursiveness does not hurt an autobiography in the least.”
Clemens took between three and seven years to complete almost all of his major books. He required that much time chiefly because he always encountered stretches during which he was unable to proceed, and composition came to a complete halt. Since at least 1871 he had found it necessary, when his “tank had run dry” in this way, to “pigeonhole” his manuscripts. And he learned to resume work on them only after the “tank” had been refilled by “unconscious and profitable cerebration.”
But the time he spent on his earlier books is brief compared with the nearly four decades it took him to finish his autobiography. Its construction was certainly punctuated by long interruptions as well, but for somewhat different reasons. Until January
1906, the tank seemed to “run dry” after relatively brief stints of writing, or dictating, because he grew dissatisfied with his method of composing the work, or with its overall plan, or both.