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The following review appeared 21 November 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Over the past few weeks the Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 has risen into the top ranks of the best sellers lists of The New York Times and online bookstores such as Amazon and is on its way to becoming one of the most outstanding successes ever published by University of California Press. The book has been reviewed worldwide by some of the most prestigious publications as well as some of the most obscure and has been the subject of online blogs.
Coming in at well over 700 pages, the volume is the first of three to be released over the next five years. Much of the success for Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 is due to the previous work of Lin Salamo, an editor now retired from the Mark Twain Papers. Salamo's study of the manuscripts provided a key to understanding Mark Twain's intent for their assemblage after numerous former editors such as Albert Bigelow Paine (1924), Bernard De Voto (1940), and Charles Neider (1959) had each rearranged and edited the material to suit their purposes at the time.
Volume 1 lays the groundwork for understanding Mark Twain's early efforts to produce an autobiography, his preliminary manuscripts, early attempts at dictating his life's story, and his desire not to publish it in full until a century after his death. End material provides a key to which segments in Volume 1 have been never been published as well as segments that previously appeared in earlier versions of the autobiography. Over 180 pages are devoted to "Explanatory Notes" of the depth and breadth scholars have come to expect from the editors of the Mark Twain Papers. People Mark Twain wrote about or discussed are identified when possible; their dates of birth and death are provided as well as thumbnail biographies of who they were and how they fit into the history of the era. Topics and events Mark Twain discussed get the same in-depth treatment. This editorial analysis is a key to understanding numerous off-hand remarks, commentary, and newspaper clippings he inserted into the work. In addition, when Mark Twain makes a mistake of fact in name, date or otherwise (and he often does), an explanatory note gives a correction. Mark Twain's mistakes are allowed to stand -- another key to insight into his thought processes while the reader is advised of the inaccuracy of his statements. A genealogy chart of the manuscripts is also provided for segments of the autobiography published in the North American Review in 1906-1907 -- the only version of the autobiography published in Mark Twain's lifetime and sanctioned by him. Mark Twain used the money from the North American Review publication to build his Stormfield home, which he originally called "Autobiography House."
Reading Autobiography of Mark Twain, in the order Mark Twain intended, provides unprecedented access into the inner workings of his creativity. The portions of his life's story written in his early attempts are full of reverie and description such as his lengthy description of life on his Uncle John Quarles's farm in a segment titled "My Autobiography [Random Extracts from It]." He prefaced this segment by explaining that this method "suffers the fate of its brethren -- it is presently abandoned for some other and newer interest" (p. 203). Mark Twain could not find the spontaneity to tell his life's story the way he wanted to if he was limited to using a pen.
Mark Twain first experimented with dictating his autobiography in 1885 with his lecture agent James Redpath serving as his stenographer. In Italy in 1904, he again took up dictating his life's history but his interest evaporated after his wife's death in June 1904. These early attempts are featured in a section titled "Preliminary Manuscripts and Dictations." In January 1906, with the encouragement of his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, he took up the experiment again -- a rambling, talking, conversational experiment -- discussing whatever came to mind each day, which was often based on news reports and current events. By March 26, 1906 he was satisfied with his progress and declared:
I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published, after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method--a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along like contact of flint with steel. Moreover, this autobiography of mine does not select from my life its showy episodes, but deals merely in the common experiences which go to make up the life of the average human being ... (p. 441).
Some segments of this new edition of the autobiography that have been previously published are yet worthy of mention and will be a delight to newcomers to Mark Twain studies. One of these includes the account of Mark Twain's visit to the home of Civil War General Dan Sickles. Mark Twain did not include this segment in the North American Review publication but it was included in Albert Bigelow Paine's 1924 edition. Regarding Sickles's home:
You couldn't put out a hand anywhere without laying it upon a velvety, exquisite tiger skin or leopard skin, and so on -- oh, well, all the kinds of skins were there; it was as if a menagerie had undressed in the place. Then there was a most decided and rather unpleasant odor, which proceeded from disinfectants and preservatives and things such as you have to sprinkle on skins in order to discourage the moths -- so it was not altogether a pleasant place, on that account (p. 289).
For choice previously unpublished material "[Something About Doctors]" heads the list. This essay written in 1903 and designated for inclusion in the autobiography takes to task doctors and especially Elmira doctor Theron A. Wales and his attempts to treat Mark Twain's carbuncle:
He began to treat it. And also began to talk. To let him tell it, the carbuncle had always been the master of the human race until by God's mercy he became a member of it. Then he sang the long list of his victories, carbuncle by carbuncle, naming the proprietor in each case and the place on him where the carbuncle roosted, and the illustrious methods whereby he had conducted those carbuncles to a happy and spectacular finish. This was a very dull man, by nature and acquirement, but he was an old friend of the kinship, and I had to endure him, though I give you my word that as between his society and the carbuncle's, I would have selected the carbuncle's every time. ... He did not cure my carbuncle. He watched over it forty-five days like a tender and ignorant carbuncle-angel, then I started across the country with my family (p. 189-90).
Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 ends with the dictation for March 30, 1906. But the good news is that two more volumes are forthcoming and they will contain a wealth of previously unpublished material. The book is unique in several regards. The price of a volume of this size and magnitude has placed it well within most book buyers' budgets. In addition, the book is available free of charge online at the Mark Twain Project's website <http://www.marktwainproject.org> in a text searchable version. Also online at this site, (and not available in the print edition) are the textual commentaries for each essay and day's dictations. These textual commentaries provide additional insight into Mark Twain's creative process and the editing of his own work by indicating which words were struck out and which were replaced by different words in the attempt to find just the "right" word even as he was reading the typescripts of his own dictation. A separate website for more information on the book itself has also been established by the University of California Press at <http://www.thisismarktwain.com>.
Congratulations are in order for editors Harriet Elinor Smith,
Benjamin Griffin, Victor Fisher, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz, Leslie
Diane Myrick, and the University of California Press in making Autobiography
of Mark Twain, Volume 1 an unimpeachable success.