Mark Twain’s ‘Hundred-Year Book’
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.””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 / The Times Literary Supplement / nisyndication.com
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.”Wait, before you go…
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