Thursday, March 31, 2011

Home, and To Two Twain

In keeping with my long-standing policy of not telling burglars that my home stands empty and waiting, I didn't want to blog about my latest vacation until I returned from it. Which I just did.

Karen, the girls and I are home from several days in New Mexico, mostly to visit my Dad at his former commune/spiritual retreat center (what, you thought I made up that part of Mom's Cancer?). That's family business so I probably won't say much about it, except that we all had a terrific time with him and touring the cities of Taos and Santa Fe. I may share some photos if any of them look particularly post-worthy (haven't downloaded them yet). We all look forward to rehydrating our skin and mucous membranes after returning to sea level from 7000-foot desert.

When we left northern California last weekend, it was frosty, rainy winter. We return to spring. Trees are budding, birds are chirruping, and the grass in my backyard has grown four inches. It's as if months passed in less than a week. Amazing.

* * *

I finished the Autobiography of Mark Twain last week, and had a few concluding thoughts on it. Bear in mind that this is Volume One of three, so subsequent books might address some of these points.

First, it's Twain, so it is thoroughly well-crafted and entertaining writing. I know of no one better at turning a phrase or subverting expectation, by which I mean starting a sentence one way and giving a twist that takes it somewhere else entirely. Twain easily clears my personal benchmark that defines good writers, which is that I enjoy their work no matter what the subject.

That's good, because Twain's subjects are not always inherently interesting. Reflections on then-current events long forgotten, petty dramas involving people I've never heard of, comings and goings of characters to whom I knew I'd been introduced and thought maybe I ought to go back and look up but then thought, "Oh, why bother?" However, other bits are exactly what you'd want and expect of a Twain autobiography: "you are there" reporting of fascinating people and events by a man who began his career as a journalist.

The latter part of this book, and I believe all of the next two, was written by a method Twain thought quite clever and even revolutionary. Despairing of sitting down and writing his life story as a chronicle from cradle to grave (which he had tried and failed), Twain hit on the idea of dictating to a stenographer and letting his mind wander. Sometimes it wandered back to his boyhood on the Mississippi, sometimes to a dinner guest from the night before. He often clipped articles from newspapers into his manuscript and used them to fuel that day's dictation. Twain was certain that this sort of stream-of-consciousness autobio would reveal more truth and insight about its author than any other method or structure. I think he was only partly right.

Reading the dictations certainly captures the feeling of sitting at Twain's side while he tells you stories. It brings the man to life. He is funny, charming, perceptive, biting, and everything you could want in a conversational companion. He tells great tales about the people he met, and freely shares his opinions (he worshipped Ulysses S. Grant, had a warm relationship with Grover Cleveland's family, thought Teddy Roosevelt was a dilettante distracted by shiny things, and was wowed by his young acquaintance Helen Keller). And for me, that is the book's flaw: it is pitched at the tone and level of a talk you might have with a good friend--if your friend were as interesting as Mark Twain--and not much deeper.

Twain's method promotes spontaneity at the expense of introspection. It makes it difficult to understand how Twain's philosophies and opinions developed through the years. Twain often tells us what he thinks but seldom why. Readers wanting Twain to declare his true opinions on race, religion, and so on may be disappointed. He never really tackles a big topic and says, "Here is what I think about that and why."

Did Twain believe in God? I don't know and he doesn't say. He's certainly irreverent, and writes things that a true believer might fear would keep him out of Heaven. But at other times--when writing sincerely about the deaths of his wife and daughter, for example--he sounds quite devout. I would have been interested in some reflections on his life as a writer: how his skills and style developed, how he learned what worked and what didn't, which works he considered successes and failures. That's mostly absent (though I very much appreciated his descriptions of the 19th century publishing industry and tidbits such as the fact that The Prince and the Pauper was a sales disappointment). I was interested to learn that Twain believed in precognitive dreams and telepathy, which he called "mental telegraphy," based on experiences he'd had (in fact, he speculated that Helen Keller employed mental telegraphy).

It's tempting to conclude that Twain's autobiography is like his beloved Mississippi River: a mile wide but only a few fathoms deep. On the other hand, Twain's dictations have a cumulative effect that he understood very well. He himself wrote that a person's autobiography is really two books: the book its subject writes, and the truth the reader perceives:

". . . an Autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell . . . the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences."

And I think there may be something revealed by the fact that Twain explicitly wrote his book in a way that encouraged engaging anecdotes and discouraged analytical reflection. Just maybe, that's the kind of man he was.

This authoritative edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain further confounds by providing endnotes--about half as voluminous as the autobiography itself--that check Twain's recall against historical fact and often find him falling short. It turns out that our Autobiographer is also that most useful of literary devices, an Unreliable Narrator! Twain was an old man, dictating from memory; of course he remembered some stories wrong. But others are so wrong that they smell of invention, as if crafted to provide the lesson desired. Whether Twain actually came to believe that his fictions were fact is impossible to say, and a question he briefly wrestles with.

A couple of final thoughts: I find the fact that the book consists of lightly edited oral dictations incredibly impressive. Typically, people write much better than they speak. If I were to transcribe a conversation between you and me, we would gibber with grammatical errors, glitches, fragments, run-ons, dropped thoughts, and incoherence. Not Twain. He was a professional orator, born when people made a living going from town to town giving entertaining multi-hour speeches that crowds turned out to watch, and Twain was a lecture-circuit star. While some of Twain's dictations clearly have the polish of stories he'd told many times before, even his extemporaneous dictations show astonishing clarity and complexity. A hundred years ago, even common folk with ordinary educations could recite long literary passages and poems. Today, skillful oration is so rare that we elect people just because they can talk good. It used to be routine. We've lost something.

Second concluding thought: hooray for modern medicine! Twain's autobiography documents a vale of medical superstition, quackery, ignorance and death. Child mortality was tremendous and treatment often worse than nothing. Two of Twain's three daughters died relatively young (ages 24 and 29), and his wife Olivia wasted away for years. People took ill or died from mysterious diseases that don't seem to have any modern counterparts and may have been non-existent. Grant's physicians reassured him that his throat cancer was due to stress and had nothing at all to do with the cigars he chain-smoked, then told everyone except Grant that he was dying. In some contexts, a century doesn't really seem that long. In other contexts, it's the difference between a witch doctor's poison and a neurosurgeon's MRI. I'm happy for the latter.

I read The Autobiography of Mark Twain with a pencil by my side and left very few pages untouched. I almost never mark up a book, but this one had too much good stuff to let escape. It was very enjoyable and worthwhile.

It was also, at times, a frustrating slog. Finishing Volume 1 did nothing to change the opinion I formed when I bought it: The Autobiography of Mark Twain will have an extremely high ratio of "copies bought to copies actually read," and Volumes 2 and 3 are unlikely to be the enormous runaway top-seller that Volume 1 was (but how cool was it to see Mark Twain atop the bestseller lists?). But I will buy them. On to Twain Two!


Jim O'Kane said...

Any man who names his pet cats Pestilence and Famine is assured his place in Heaven.

I will go to my own grave cursing the man for not finishing the story of Dr. I.I. Hayes. What on Earth did the "figure on stage" yell to interrupt the esteemed lecturer?

Brian Fies said...

I know! Of course, whatever we imagine is surely better than what actually happened, but it was rude of Twain to leave us hanging.

Mike said...

Just remember, when you get that second Twain, to keep one volume at the east end of your bookshelf and the other down at the west end of the shelf.

Brian Fies said...

I got that. Took me a minute, but I got it. Nice.

Sherwood Harrington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sherwood Harrington said...

I thought for sure that Mike would work hamburger in there somewhere, but I guess he didn't want to go homonymical.

(And, wouldn't you know it, my word verification is "halarres." Ain't that hilarious?)

(Previous comment deleted for typo editing purposes.)