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The following review appeared 29 April 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2010 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Michael Kiskis has returned to the one organized collection of
autobiographical sketches that Mark Twain compiled for public evaluation providing
a second edition of material originally published in the North American
Review. It has been twenty years since the first edition of Kiskis's Mark
Twain's Own Autobiography was published, and while this second edition
remains similar to the first in many respects, it is time to take a look at
the valuable work that this new edition represents.
"If I should make a list, now, of persons whom I know in America and abroad -- say to the number of even an entire thousand -- it is quite unlikely that I could reproduce five of them in my mind's eye" (189). Mark Twain's agile mind, however, reinvents most of the memorable figures in his life with the deliberate ramblings reproduced in this new edition. Twain always did know how to tell a high, blameless, and aesthetic lie, writing at the end of the Review's chapters, "Some of it is true." Granted, Twain is referring to a slight anecdote about scamming three dollars from two strangers he claims he met in Washington, D.C., a friend named William Clinton persuading him that the Lord will somehow provide the money. But the comment remains a key to Twain's recovery of his past, a talisman that Michael Kiskis uses to describe the nature of the musings in this edition. Kiskis writes in the introduction that "the material is unified by Clemens' singular voice as it vibrates between rage and reverence, affection and hatred, joy and sorrow. It is held together by a voice at once truthful and fraudulent, but always genuine" (xix).
Deception plays a large role in many of Twain's works, particularly when lying allows Huck to save Jim, when Roxy switches children in their cradles, and when Hank Morgan begins to lose his control over his empire after a stock swindle. Lying is a high art sometimes used by Twain to create a more interesting truth than the reality that the falsehood changes. From the many falsehoods no doubt contained in these autobiographical chapters of the Kiskis edition many truths are revealed, though they may be reinventions, distortions, and reproductions, all the productions of a fertile refashioning of whatever it means to be real. Kiskis discusses this thread of deception in his article, "Dead Man Talking: Mark Twain's Autobiographical Deception," American Literary Realism, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Winter 2008): 95-113. Kiskis writes, "he is able to play without boundaries and no longer has to work in good faith to build a lasting relationship with a reader or community. This freedom to create story without the confines of conventional conversation presents a clear opportunity to Clemens who tied himself to an unconventional practice that assured him occasions to pile up language and stories with no responsibility, no commitment to his audience" (99). This article also reveals many of the editorial concerns of grappling with an enormously complicated task of making Twain's autobiography a real text of some kind.
Kiskis's introduction sketches out the life of Twain; discusses the haphazard collection of material that loosely comprises the autobiography; gives the issues of editing the material from Twain's intentions; evaluates the differing approaches of a number of previous editors; recasts Twain's writings within the perspective of autobiographical elaborations and the happy accident of using dictation as a principle method of writing; reviews the issues of improvisational strategies of writing about one's life; and examines the context of Twain's family relationships, particularly in terms of guilt, loss, and conscience. This introduction serves as a summary of critical perspectives on the nature of Twain's autobiographies. It also begins to unravel the thorny issues of Twain's poses and narrative structures that comprise the autobiographical project, one that Twain seemingly never completed.
The North American Review chapters remain the one authorized version of Mark Twain's own autobiography. Kiskis chooses to retain the original order presented by Twain and the editor of the North American Review, Colonel George Harvey. This, for a number of safe and sound editorial reasons, is a good choice. Twain composed these chapters (dictating most of them) at various times, but indicated the order in which he wished them to appear. Harvey and Twain collaborated on substantive editing decisions.
When there are facts that can be checked, Kiskis provides useful endnotes that explain and clarify. For example, in chapter 26, Henry's eventual place of burial is noted after Twain describes his death, recalling a vivid dream that foretells his lying in the casket. There's no point in disputing the memory. Kiskis shrugs, of course, when the memory contradicts the history. Twain claims that an overdose of morphine is fatal to his injured brother, Henry. Kiskis simply states that the contemporary letter Twain wrote to his sister Mollie Clemens does not mention the overdose. Chapter 26 itself is an essay on the way a fact becomes an embellished story: "But I am used to having my statements discounted. . . Yet all through my life my facts have had a substratum of truth. . . Any person who is familiar with me knows how to strike my average, and therefore knows how to get at the jewel of any fact of mine and dig it out of its blue-clay matrix" (143).
Good biographies have been produced of late, notably Jerome
Loving's Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens (University
of California Press, 2010) and Ron Powers's Mark Twain: A Life (Free
Press, 2005). These biographers, however, do not have the kind of detail that
only Twain can provide, including the conversational memory of his mother's
wariness of her son's deceptive nature. Henry, his younger brother, breaks
a treasured sugar bowl, but their mother blames Sam, even after he tells her
the truth: "It's all right. It isn't any matter. You deserve it for something
you've done that I didn't know about; and if you haven't done it, why then
you deserve it for something that you are going to do, that I sha'n't hear
about" (52). This level of detail may be entirely fictional yet potentially
genuine. Kiskis does explore family relationships and the sense of domesticity
in his introduction, a topic he has explored before, and promises to cover
in depth in a forthcoming book, and perhaps he will again address the notion
of authenticity of voice, particularly comparing what we might define as verifiable
truth with the web of half-truths that Twain constructs with the material
loosely described as his autobiography. Biographers can only guess at Twain's
inner life, the one he pretends to reveal with the chapters in the North
Kiskis includes a number of useful appendices. Appendix A, "The Death of Jean," helps to contextualize the genuine nostalgia, regret, sorrow, and loneliness that Twain feels during his last remaining years. Appendix B, "Mark Twain's Experiments in Autobiography," shows the chronology of materials that can be loosely termed autobiographical, constructed or written from 1870 to 1909. Appendix C, "The Editions and the Chronology of Composition," attempts to corral the differing four editions of the autobiography into a coherent table. Appendix D, which was not included in Kiskis's first edition, is titled "A Sample of Letters," which shows "the immediacy and authenticity of Clemens' reactions to events and the emotion with which he struggled" (259). Appendix D might well also show how the body of Twain's letters serves as a more truthful autobiography, though Kiskis refrains from offering that kind of editorial comment; the nine letters provide a range of voices, from inexperienced to mature.
The endnotes are informative, terse, and suggestive, suggestive in showing some of the implications of historical references. The "Selected Bibliography" seems fairly comprehensive, covering primary and secondary sources of information. The index works as it should, though some numbers are a bit off; for example, the very last item on Jennifer Zaccara is indexed as appearing on "272n28," when it really appears in endnote 26. This is a minor quibble, of course.
On occasion a parenthetical date appears on the left margin of the text, an apparent method of dating the text. This ought to be explained somewhere as an editorial practice. The Foreword to this second edition, by Sheila Leary, Director of the University of Wisconsin Press, provides a history of Katy Leary and her influence on the Leary family after Twain's death. It is interesting that the publishing world has benefited so directly from Twain. Katy Leary is the great-great-aunt of Sheila Leary, and this abbreviated family history is a personal family perspective, though one could suggest that it belongs in some other kind of reference work; it doesn't really address the nature of Twain's autobiographical materials.
In summation, the remarks by Kiskis in the introduction are particularly provocative and enlightening. Comments on the narrative persona, on family relationships, and on the nature of imaginative deception are especially welcome. The truth of Twain's autobiography is out there, but best interpreted by the reader, a truth that Twain sought to conceal. As Kiskis writes, "Clemens' subjectivity allowed him to dance around facts" (xliii). These facts are refashioned to define a public persona that Twain wished to reflect. Kiskis writes, "Clemens was certainly straining to develop a public image of the intersection of his creativity and home life through telling of a tale of an innocent time, of a time immersed in the calm and hope that only a firm grip on family life allowed" (liii). This focus on the family is a useful trend in scholarship, uncovering some of the pain and frustration that Twain expresses throughout the meandering materials of his larger autobiography. Susy, Livy, Henry, Langdon, Jean: each of these departed souls changes Twain's perspectives on his own work, and our task as editors and scholars might well be to measure that impact, and perhaps, it seems, to evaluate our own responses to Twain's reflective memories, particularly when these memories are tailored to disguise what we may define as the truth of a lifetime of experience.