Autobiography of Mark Twain (7 page)

BOOK: Autobiography of Mark Twain

A similar tension occurs in the two manuscripts with chapter numbers written in 1903 but revised in 1906 after Clemens had settled on discursiveness as the principle for the whole autobiography: both were inserted into the dictations for 1, 2, and 3 December 1906. In 1903 he titled the first one “Scraps from My Autobiography. From Chapter IV,” and began it with a marginal date (“1849–51”). It concerns his youthful encounters with mesmerism in Hannibal. The second 1903 manuscript, paginated separately but probably written at the same time (they share the same ink and paper), brought this story to its conclusion. It is another story about mesmerism, in which a haughty aristocrat is embarrassed by being hypnotized and ordered to undress, in retaliation for his incredulity. Clemens originally titled it “From Chapter XVII.” But when he decided to use the manuscripts in the December dictations, he removed all reference to chapter numbers. So the first mesmerism story was originally assigned to Chapter IV, and its natural conclusion to Chapter XVII, separated by some twelve putative chapters. Their revision shows that in 1903 Clemens was still wrestling with the compulsion to maintain some semblance of his life’s chronology, while in 1906, when he made the manuscripts into one continuous narrative, he had clearly shed that compulsion.

On 15 October 1900 the family arrived in New York City, where they soon rented a house at 14 West 10th Street. “Jean is learning to type-write,” Clemens wrote a friend, “& presently I’ll dictate & thereby save some scraps of time.”
Jean’s new skill may have prompted Clemens
to think again of dictating, rather than writing, the autobiography. There were other temptations as well. The president of Harper and Brothers, George Harvey, was clearly interested in the prestige that would flow from having the rights to publish the autobiography, even though it would not actually appear until long after both men had died. On 17 October 1900 Harvey proposed to Rogers (who was acting as Clemens’s agent) to “publish the memoirs in the year 2000” and suggested that Clemens “insert a clause in his will to the effect that the memoirs shall be sealed without reading by his executors, and deposited with a trust company.”

The agreement would, of course, provide for publication in whatever modes should then be prevalent, that is, by printing as at present, or by use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical method, or by any other mode which may then be in use, any number of which would doubtless occur to his vivid imagination, and would form an interesting clause in the agreement.

Harvey was in fact eager to make Harper and Brothers into Clemens’s exclusive American publisher, and on 14 November, after much discussion, he proposed a rate of twenty cents a word for the exclusive serial rights to anything he might write in the next year, as well as the exclusive right to publish all of his books in the same period. One week later Clemens wrote to Harvey, “Let us add the 100-year book to the arrangements again, & make it definite; for I am going to dictate that book to my daughter, with the certainty that as I go along I shall grind out chapters which will be good for magazine & book to-day, & not need to wait a century.” Nothing dictated to Jean at this time has been found, but Clemens soon agreed to Harvey’s “proposal regarding the publication of my memoirs 100 years hence,” although no formal contract for the autobiography was signed at this time.

In August 1902, Olivia’s health grew alarmingly worse. Despite temporary improvements, it continued to decline, and in 1903, on the recommendation of her doctors, Clemens decided to take the family to Italy. In early November they settled into the Villa di Quarto near Florence. In addition to Clemens himself, the travelers included Olivia, Clara, and Jean. Three employees were also with them: longtime family servant Katy Leary, a nurse for Olivia, and Isabel V. Lyon, who had been hired in 1902 as Olivia’s secretary but had since assumed more general duties.

The Florentine Dictations (1904)

During his eight-month stay in Florence Clemens made unusual progress on the autobiography, in large part because of a renewed enthusiasm for dictation as a method of composition. He had experimented with mechanical methods of transferring words to paper ever since the
dictations to Redpath in 1885. In 1888 he tried (and failed) to get access to one of Thomas Edison’s recording phonographs.
Then in 1891 he suffered an attack of rheumatism in his right arm and, compelled by the necessity of working on his current book
(The American Claimant)
, he did briefly experiment with the phonograph. “I feel sure I can dictate the book into a phonograph if I don’t have to yell. I write 2,000 words a day; I think I can dictate twice as many,” he wrote to Howells on 28 February. But by 4 April he had concluded that the machine “is good enough for mere letter-writing” but

you can’t write literature with it, because it hasn’t any ideas & it hasn’t any gift for elaboration, or smartness of talk, or vigor of action, or felicity of expression, but is just matter-of-fact, compressive, unornamental, & as grave & unsmiling as the devil. I filled four dozen cylinders in two sittings, then found I could have said about as much with the pen & said it a deal better. Then I resigned. I believe it could teach one to dictate literature to a phonographer—& some time I will experiment in that line.

His expectation in December 1900 of relying on Jean to type up dictated autobiography at last became a reality in January 1904, when he tried dictating once more, but not to a machine. According to Isabel Lyon,

About January 14, Mr. Clemens began to dictate to me. His idea of
an autobiography had never proved successful, for to his mind autobiography is like narrative & should be spoken. At Mrs. Clemens’s suggestion we tried, and Mr. Clemens found that he could do it to a charm. In fact he loves the work. But we have had to stop for he has been ill, Mrs. Clemens has been very ill, & I too have taken a weary turn in bed.

Lyon did not know shorthand and so took down Clemens’s words in full, then gave Jean her record to be typed. Shortly after he had begun to dictate, Clemens wrote to Howells on 16 January:

I’ve struck it! And I will give it away—to you. You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography; then you will realize, with a pang, that you might have been doing it all your life if you had only had the luck to think of it. And you will be astonished (& charmed) to see how like
it is, & how real it sounds, & how well & compactly & sequentially it constructs itself, & what a dewy & breezy & woodsy freshness it has, & what a darling & worshipful absence of the signs of starch, & flatiron, & labor & fuss & the other artificialities! Mrs. Clemens is an exacting
critic, but I have not talked a sentence yet that she has wanted altered. There are little slips here & there, little inexactnesses, & many desertions of a thought before the end of it has been reached, but these are not blemishes, they are merits, their removal would take away the naturalness of the flow & banish the very thing—the nameless something—which differentiates real narrative from artificial narrative & makes the one so vastly better than the other—the subtle something which makes good talk so much better than the best imitation of it that can be done with a pen.

It seems that he recognized Lyon’s lack of shorthand as an advantage, for he went on to urge Howells to try this method, but “with a long-hand scribe, not with a stenographer. At least not at first. Not until you get your hand in, I should say. There’s a good deal of waiting, of course, but that is no matter; soon you do not mind it.” More important even than the leisurely pace was the scribe’s role as audience: “Miss Lyons does the scribing, & is an inspiration, because she takes so much interest in it. I dictate from 10. 30 till noon. The result is about 1500 words. Then I am a free man & can read & smoke the rest of the day, for there’s not a correction to be made.”

Dictation proved so congenial, in fact, that his opinion of the drafts and experiments he had written over the years now began to change. He continued to Howells:

I’ve a good many chapters of Auto—written with a pen from time to time & laid away in envelops—but I expect that when I come to examine them I shall throw them away & do them over again with my mouth, for I feel sure that my quondam satisfaction in them will have vanished & that they will seem poor & artificial & lacking in color. . . .
One would expect dictated stuff to read like an impromptu speech—brokenly, catchily, repetitiously, & marred by absence of coherence, fluent movement, & the happy things that didn’t come till the speech was done—but it isn’t so.

Howells replied to this letter on 14 February, shrewdly raising a familiar issue (clearly not for the first time)—the difficulty of telling the whole truth:

I’d like immensely to read your autobiography. You always rather bewildered me by your veracity, and I fancy you may tell the truth about yourself. But
of it? The black truth, which we all know of ourselves in our hearts, or only the whity-brown truth of the pericardium, or the nice, whitened truth of the shirtfront? Even
wont tell the black heart’s-truth. The man who could do it would be famed to the last day the sun shone upon.

Clemens had of course already reached the same skeptical conclusion. He answered Howells:

Yes, I set up the safeguards, in the first day’s dictating—taking this position: that an Autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth
there, between the lines, where
the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell (though I didn’t use that figure)—the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.

What those “safeguards” were remains unknown, since no copy of the “first day’s dictating” has survived. The most one can say is that Clemens seems to have moved on from his despair at not being able to tell “the black heart’s-truth,” rationalizing that that truth would emerge anyway, in spite of all his attempts to suppress it. In a dictation made in late January 1904 he hinted at the disinhibiting nature of talk:

Within the last eight or ten years I have made several attempts to do the autobiography in one way or another with a pen, but the result was not satisfactory, it was too literary. . . .
With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gait and style and movement are not suited to narrative.

Two years later, in mid-June 1906, he would look back on this time in 1904 as the moment he discovered free-wheeling, spoken narrative as “the right way to do an Autobiography.”

Only six Florentine Dictations are known to survive. Three of them are portraits of friends or acquaintances—“John Hay,” “Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Bailey Aldrich,” and “Henry H. Rogers”—presumably products of the “portrait gallery” concept. Two are reminiscences: “Notes on ‘Innocents Abroad’ ” and a sketch (untitled) recalling his first use of the typewriter. The sixth is a complaint about the Villa di Quarto, the family’s current residence near Florence.
It is the longest and the least polished, an extended diatribe about the rented villa and especially its hated owner, the Countess Massiglia. Clemens concluded it by inserting an 1892 manuscript about the Villa Viviani, where the Clemenses had lived during an earlier, more enjoyable stay in Florence. Despite that moderating addition, the 1904 dictation is replete with fiery insults to the countess—so much so that when, in May and June 1906, Clemens considered publishing selections of autobiography with S. S. McClure, he marked in blue pencil the offending passages on Jean’s typescript and wrote (on the verso of page 2), “Leave out that blue-penciled
blue-penciled passages
in the
edition,” and added, “Restore them in later editions.”

It is clear that there were Florentine Dictations that have not survived, at least not as originally dictated. In August 1906 Clemens said that he had created more than a dozen “little biographies,” of which we have almost none.

By my count, estimating from the time when I began these dictations two years ago, in Italy, I have been in the right mood for competently and exhaustively feeding fat my ancient grudges in the cases of only thirteen deserving persons—one woman and twelve men. It makes good reading. Whenever I go back and re-read those little biographies and characterizations it cheers me up, and I feel that I have not lived in vain. The work was well done. The art of it is masterly. I admire it more and more every time I examine it. I do believe I have flayed and mangled and mutilated those people beyond the dreams of avarice.

Only one such Florentine Dictation is known to survive: Clemens certainly “flayed” the Countess Massiglia in “Villa di Quarto.” We can only guess who the “deserving” men were by considering other evidence. For example, in a letter of 29 January 1904 Clemens vented his anger toward Henry A. Butters, head of the American Plasmon Company, whom he held responsible for his investment losses: “As soon as I get back we will pull Butters into Court, & I guess we can jail him. . . .
He occupies space enough in my Autobiography to pay back all he & his pimp have robbed me of.

But no such text from 1904 or earlier survives, and Butters is mentioned only in passing in the later Autobiographical Dictations. (On 31 October 1908, for example, Clemens described him as “easily the meanest white man, and the most degraded in spirit and contemptible in character I have ever known.”) There are others who might have received harsh treatment in now-lost dictations from 1904 whose portraits were then “done over” between January and August 1906. Clemens scattered a few sarcastic remarks about Charles L. Webster in the early 1906 dictations, then excoriated him at length in the one for 29 May 1906. Other candidates include Daniel Whitford, Clemens’s attorney; James W. Paige, inventor of the failed typesetter; and of course Bret Harte.

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