Dec 9, 2013
Mark Twain’s ‘Hundred-Year Book’
Posted on Dec 23, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
Twain 2010 shows no signs of coming to an end. Nov. 15 saw the release, simultaneously in print and online, for “the first time ever,” of Volume 1 of the three-volume “complete, authoritative, and uncensored” “Autobiography of Mark Twain.” That description comes from the University of California Press’s publicity department, but Twain, always his own best publicist, set the terms himself. In his preface “An Early Attempt” (the first of four prefaces he wrote), he tells the reader that his autobiography will not be written according to “the old, old, old inflexible plan” that “starts at the cradle” and “drives straight for the grave.”
His autobiography will not be written at all but rather spoken, dictated to a stenographer. “Finally, in Florence, in 1904,” according to his second preface, “The Latest Attempt,” “I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography”: “Start it at no particular time of your life . . . talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.” The second preface was followed by “The Final (and Right) Plan,” and finally “Preface As from the Grave,” in which he explains that the book will not appear until after his death so he can “speak thence freely” with “his whole frank mind.”
Almost immediately, Twain published excerpts from the autobiography in the North American Review, and before too long, his “editors, heirs and assigns,” who had been enjoined to leave out of the first edition anything that might be offensive to the living, were following suit. So, although there have been various autobiographies of Mark Twain, assembled by various editors (up to, most recently, this year’s reissue of Michael J. Kiskis’s tellingly titled “Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography” of 1990, itself a reprint of extracts serialized in the North American Review), only the University of California Press “Autobiography of Mark Twain” is stamped with the editorial assurance that whatever is in it represents as nearly as possible what the author “intended” to be published after his death.
The question of authorial intention is always tricky, and in this case Mark Twain composed things he said were “for the autobiography” over a period of more than thirty years before hitting on “The Final (and Right) Plan.”
The story of Twain’s great mass of autobiographical manuscripts and typescripts, the clues as to what he wanted put in and left out that are hidden within an estimated 10-foot file of documents, is told by Harriet Elinor Smith in the introduction to this volume. It is a compelling tale, made more so by the editors’ decision to include all the many “false starts” and “scraps” of things composed “for the autobiography” (some of which encompass his most lyrical writing on his boyhood). The result is itself a massive 700-page book; the entire sequence of prefatory material, all in Twain’s handwriting, in the Mark Twain Papers, is reproduced in facsimile, and there is a set of remarkable photographs of key figures and events in the autobiography. Even more appropriately, for an author who loved technology of all kinds and who enthusiastically embraced any mode of publication (whether “by printing, as at present,” his publisher Colonel Harvey wrote, “or by use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical method”), the electronic version of this edition will go further than the print version in approximating and imagining the form in which Mark Twain “wanted it done.”
It is the purpose of a critical edition not simply to offer the best text, by choosing among variant readings, but also to feature the other readings so that alternative ways of constructing the text are made available. But the list of variants is huge – too big to print. The internet met this challenge: Mark Twain Project Online (MTPO) is where all of the textual apparatus – revisions, choices among variants, etc – is accessible. The aim to produce a digital critical edition that offers “unfettered intuitive access” to everything Mark Twain wrote sounds just like him and his fantasy of completeness.
As might be expected from Twain, who was his own best trend-setter, the question of firsts and lasts, beginnings and endings, of quantifying what’s new and what’s not, was first taken up by him. In the “Preface As from the Grave,” he promises: “To be precise – nineteen-twentieths of the book will not see print until after my death.” Oddly reminiscent of the minute fractions he uses in “Pudd’nhead Wilson” to mock the fictitious purity of racial identity (the protagonist is “one-sixteenth black” and her child “thirty-one parts white; both are slaves and “by a fiction of law and custom a negro”), his computation sets the stage for all the statistics we have been given in the event of publication of the “Autobiography.”
To take one example: in July 2010, Granta magazine proclaimed a “scoop” in publishing, “for the first time,” a hundred years after the author’s death, after the end of the hundred-year ban on publishing the memoirs, and in advance of the November release of the “Autobiography,” an extract that (supposedly) brought to light a formerly suppressed account of Twain’s childhood.
This was a wonderfully evocative extract from Twain’s memories of his Uncle John Quarles’s farm. While few readers will be aware that this piece had been first published over a hundred years ago in the North American Review (as part of the one-twentieth of the autobiography that was seen into print), for many, it represents Twain’s memories of childhood familiar from “Huckleberry Finn.” In the melancholy opening of the last third of the novel, just after Huck has decided to “go to hell,” rather than turn Jim in as a runaway slave, he arrives at the Phelps farm, one of those little “one-horse cotton plantations” in Arkansas, where Jim is imprisoned by Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally Phelps (characters probably based on Twain’s own uncle and aunt), and Tom Sawyer takes over the direction of the novel. The long dictated section which comes near the beginning of the “Autobiography” extends and deepens the sense of loneliness that oppresses Huck, the sense of dead spirits whispering and talking. But in contrast to the novel, the version in the autobiographical dictations also complicates the gloomy substratum of Huck’s personality with the adult author’s nostalgic longing for the foodstuff and dense texture of that “heavenly place for a boy.”
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