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Mark Twain’s ‘Hundred-Year Book’

Posted on Dec 23, 2010

By Susan Gillman

(Page 2)

“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.”


book cover


Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1


By Mark Twain


University of California Press, 760 pages


Buy the book

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 / The Times Literary Supplement /

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.”

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, December 27, 2010 at 4:53 pm Link to this comment


How unfortunate, indeed, that a once pristine landscape is filled with toxic wate dumps and toxic anti-intellecthual gringos.

Chipilones, all of them, too.

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brewerstroupe's avatar

By brewerstroupe, December 27, 2010 at 3:39 pm Link to this comment

“Susan Gillman teaches world literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz”

How unfortunate.

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, December 26, 2010 at 8:11 pm Link to this comment

Those are the same lamebrains that believe Gulliver’s Travels is a book for kids.

Just realized that Swift and Twain are both November 30th folks.

Two days after this poster—who shares that day with William Blake and Engels….

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, December 26, 2010 at 8:10 pm Link to this comment

Those are the same lamebrains that believe Gulliver’s Travels is a book for kids.

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By BrunoDiderot, December 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm Link to this comment

moonraven:  I remember some RWers in my early years who thought that Twain
was some sort of “conservative”, based on TOM SAWYER (I’m afraid i didn’t follow
that argument too well.)

I found his political writings years later and wonder if those folks were even aware
that he had this particular “side” to him.  He was quite eloquent in his A-IL days.

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, December 26, 2010 at 7:19 pm Link to this comment

Well, Bruno, it happens that I knew all that—and more.

Being a major fan of Twain’s POLITICAL thinking, I have also paid a few visits to the house where he lived in Hartford.

Maybe he’ll end up being banned by the genocidal gringos that thought Huckleberry Finn was a comic book about Al Jolson.

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By BrunoDiderot, December 26, 2010 at 10:06 am Link to this comment

Some of those who admire Twain ... have no idea that he opposed the
transformation of the US into a global power (or the makings of same) in 1898
brought on by the Spanish-American War and its aftermath, and that he was
among the founding members of the Anti-Imperialist League.

AND he was a tremendous writer, among the best the US has produced.

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By oktomoro, December 25, 2010 at 8:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As time goes by and can be made to appear again, the
immortality that well known people are believed to
seek, and sometimes find, is present in many ways as
the theory of time and motion combine in the world of
visual media. While Mark Twain was a voice and
recording it was possible, his other movements
recorded on film also make a statement for him of
1909 and being in the presence of Thomas Edison.
These 12 frames/sec pictures are worthwhile to media

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By gerard, December 24, 2010 at 7:23 pm Link to this comment

Could it be that Mark Twain did it all in “Huckleberry Finn” and the rest is silence, more or less?  Even so, he contributed far more to life and literature than most of us ever accomplish.

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By Jonas Murphy, December 24, 2010 at 9:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve seen a number of reader comments on complaining about the small type used in this book.  What is Susan Gillman’s take on that—not a trivial point if it makes the book difficult to read?

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