Starred Review. Mark Twain is his own greatest character in this brilliant self-portrait, the first of three volumes collected by the Mark Twain Project on the centenary of the author's death. It is published complete and unexpurgated for the first time. … see full wiki
First, while Mark Twain made a couple of different starts on an autobiography, he never finished or published one. Each time he got part way through a standard chronological account t of his history, he got bored and quit, and assumed his readers would too. Then Twain made a "discovery"--that "news is history in its first and best form, its vivid and fascinating form, and that history is the pale and tranquil reflection of it." Autobiography, as history, in Twain's eyes was a bore, but if he could write it like a newspaper reporter talking about whatever had captured his mind that day, it would come to life.
And second, while Twain did say that he wanted his autobiography to be sealed for a century, it was not for any bombshells hidden within it, but for the simple truth that he never finished it, a side effect of his discovery. Bored by his written notes on his previous starts, Twain hit on the idea of dictating his ideas not in any chronological order but on the principal that "the thing uppermost in a person's mind is the thing to talk about or write about." He hired a stenographer to take down his notes and assemble his references to current new paper articles and letters and writings from his past. While he passed away before this mass of material was assembled into a finished book, other editors were given permission to mine it for material, resulting in those autobiographies you found on amazon.com. These were highly selective and re-edited into forms Twain would never have approved.
So with the passing of the century mark since Twain's death, the Mark Twain Project of The Bancroft Library undertook to publish all of the source material of the classic autobiography that Mark Twain never wrote. Editor Harriet Elinor Smith and a host of associate editors assembled what Testing had written and dictated, organized it into the sequences that Twain wrote or dictated it, and footnoted its many contemporary characters and events that are not known today. The 700-plus pages of the current volume are just the first of three planned to encompass this amazing effort obviously undertaken with love and care (but beware the paperback edition which is not complete, and thus risks the limitations of those past efforts to edit Twain).
When you read this book, then, you are reading a book that Twain never wrote, the complete session recordings of your favorite band, if you will. It is full of the irreverent and cynical sharpness of Twain, which stripped of any editorial gloss and those named names of legend, can veer toward bitterness that rankles. There is no holding back for propriety's sake here, and in that respect this Twain reads surprisingly modern at times. But where this first volume comes alive is when he talks during the dictation sessions about his wife Olivia and daughter Suzy who had tragically passed away. Here you can hear the voice of a man speaking honestly and tenderly about people and events he truly loved and remembered fondly. Stripped of the protective covering of the professional comic, you hear the man born Samuel Clemens speaking to you as if you were sitting next to the bed where he liked to lounge while dictating his notes.
In the end, that is the reason to invest the time it takes to work through this volume. And in retrospect,Twain was right, this is a better way to do autobiography. Because it isn't a chronological recitation of facts, but rambles from present to past in Twain's free flowing conversation, it is easy to read in the daily dictation chunks of three to four pages each (with a second bookmark for the explanatory notes you'll want to track as well). You'll want to check in and spend a few minutes with Mr.Twain for your daily dose of straight talk.
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