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Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

by Mark Twain, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith

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Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1
© University of California Press
University of California Press, November 2010

The wait for Mark Twain's autobiography has been longer than the interval between the appearances of Haley's Comet that conveniently book-ended the life of Samuel Clemens. This first installment of three is well-worth the long wait. There are nuggets here that show the full force of Clemens's rapier like wit and acerbity. There are nuggets of great hilarity and moments of deep introspection.

A word of caution is in order before you undertake volume one. It contains two books. One is a more academic exposition that is intended for those who are serious in their pursuit of what makes Mark Twain tick. Well written though the first and last sections are, the casual lover of Mark Twain should remember they are written for more serious readers, and one should expect to be enlightened rather than entertained. The serious reader and the most dedicated researcher will find a wealth of information that will put Clemens into a broader and deeper context.
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Project, the first section contains an extensive introduction and facsimiles of pages from the autobiography, along with explications that place these writings in context. The final section of this volume contains explanatory notes and an extensive bibliography. The editors note, "This edition... offers the reader an unmodernized, critically constructed text, both of the preliminary manuscripts and dictations and of the final text that Clemens intended his "heirs and assigns" to publish after his death.

The middle section, the second "book," is Clemens in his own words. That is what the general public is looking for; indeed, has been waiting for all these years. This section and the essays it contains do not disappoint. The reader will find Clemens at his most honest, his most pointed. Clemens notes, "The chapters which immediately follow constitute a fragment of my many attempts... to put my life on paper... It starts out with good confidence," but is soon abandoned for other pursuits. It is "the plan that starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side-excursions permitted on the way. Whereas the side-excursions are the life of our life-voyage, and should be also, its history." It is these side-excursions that readers have been eagerly awaiting.
Clemens decreed that his publisher must wait until 100 years after his death had passed before publishing his autobiography. Clemens wanted to be sure that those about whom he wrote ("after I was in my forties") were definitely dead. This simple expedient gave him the freedom to let his mind roam free and candid. Some times he even stuck entirely to the truth; some times, he took that step to the side. The result is spectacular.

He mentions the early branches of the Clemens family, "stretching back to Noah's time." He writes about the dedication to Innocents Abroad and a meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson who was "most scantily furnished with flesh." He gives instructions to future editors about how to treat the numerous newspaper clippings he "shall scatter through this Autobiography... without end." His poignant entry on Friday, February 2, 1906 recounts the death of Susy Clemens, his beloved daughter, only 24 years old. On August 18, 1896, while in England, he received a telegram that said simply, "Susy was peacefully released to-day." The description of his reaction is one of his most eloquent and heart-rending pieces of writing.
The Autobiography was conceived and published by the Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. The Project contains the most comprehensive collection of Clemens' personal papers and things written about him. More than 35 volumes have been produced by the Project since 1967. All of the documents contained within this volume have been published elsewhere, but no venue has provided more scholarly elucidation than one finds here. This volume will stand the test of time.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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