Mar 10, 2014
Mark Twain’s ‘Hundred-Year Book’
Posted on Dec 23, 2010
“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 complete fusion impossible . . . . In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it.”
It would be wrong to ask of these two versions of memories: how do you know which is the right one? Instead of quantifying and trumpeting the new, as editors and publishers must, readers might be encouraged to recognize that they can read something for the first time only once, so that they need to operate differently. We need to recognize the value and pleasure of rereading, in which Mark Twain himself indulged so often. What will ultimately be three volumes of autobiographical dictations reflect a lifetime’s habit of recycling, producing a pastiche that combines the dictations done in the last four years of his life, together with his own earlier writings, parts and whole pieces, as well as inserted newspaper clippings and other documents. Rather than resembling a nineteenth-century blog, the “Autobiography” fits even better with our culture of remixing, as Twain’s own “methodless method” of wandering at will over the present and the past allows for self citation, not only going back over earlier events but also rereading the writings that recorded and represented the events.
The “Autobiography” is an experiment in talking rather than writing a life and as such it prefers rereading, repetition and recombination to newness. One memorable entry from the preliminary material (entitled “My Autobiography [Random Extracts from It]”) begins as a history of Twain’s paternal and maternal relatives and ancestors, moves into an anecdote about an incident in Berlin in 1891, and ends with the lyrical description of the author’s idyllic summers on his uncle’s farm near Florida, Missouri. Mark Twain was searching for a way to organize the whole without linear chronology but not without time, rather with an alternative sense of temporality. The search for a non-chronological but nonetheless time-conscious structure is what stamps Mark Twain’s “one-hundred year book” as “time-sensitive.”
Twain’s “talking book” resists the chronological fixity of autobiography, whether a life in letters or any other conventional mode of writing a life. Concerned about the estate he would leave to his two surviving daughters, he thought of extending the lives of his books through new copyright schemes, and wrote about expanding the bulk or “fat” of his book by “dumping in” bits of “little old books” of his. He also kept returning to posthumous publication as a way of allowing himself full frankness (and rancor). So the question of endings – completing, conclusion and closure – is complicated. All texts must come to an end, but other than in the formal sense, they can remain overtly or covertly open-ended, uncompleted, unresolved. You can close the book without closure. In just this way, Twain fixed the beginning (the Quarles Farm section) and end (“Closing Words of My Autobiography,” on the death of his youngest daughter Jean) of his hundred-year book, but left the middle to be expanded or contracted as need be: he gives us the bookends but between them the middle matter is fluid.
The “Autobiography of Mark Twain” may have a beginning (multiple beginnings, if we count all the false starts) and an ending, but it exhibits another kind of problem ending, one that has continued to plague Twain studies. Ernest Hemingway diagnosed it most famously in “Green Hills of Africa” (1934): “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”
But Twain’s sense of a missing ending to his own Southern boyhood, where both slavery and race are concerned, reflects more than authorial cheating. The missing sense of an ending is especially acute in Twain’s novels of slavery, written during the early years of Jim Crow’s strange career but set in the pre-emancipation South, as though the problem of slavery persisted into the age of freedom – or what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the second slavery.” Historians have shown that the date when race-slavery began is as difficult to fix as the moment of its ending. Despite all the years of U.S. civil rights legislation, followed by the brief era of affirmative action, most would agree that we have not yet entered a post-race world – and many would argue that the lightning rod of the Fourteenth Amendment, once again in the limelight as it was after the Civil War, indicates that redress for slavery and segregation is still an unfinished revolution. Mark Twain’s struggles for and against endings are our own.
Susan Gillman teaches world literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the co-editor, with Russ Castronovo, of “States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies” (2009). She is researching her next book, “Our Mediterranean: American Adaptations, 1890–1975.”
Previous item: I’m Dreaming of a Right Christmas
Next item: Jon Stewart: Shades of Edward R. Murrow?
New and Improved Comments