Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Back Aboard the Twain

When last I mentioned Mark Twain, more than two years ago, I'd just finished Volume 1 of his autobiography. Having now begun Volume 2, it's time for me to revisit old Mr. Clemens.

Twain worked on his autobiography late in life and left orders that it not be released until a century after his death, which was in 1910. You have to really appreciate such incandescent audacity in the first place: assuming that anyone in the 21st Century would remember him at all, let alone care about his life story! But he was right. The first volume became a bestseller; I bought mine from a thousand-book pile at Costco.

Though I enjoyed Volume 1 very much, I also predicted that it would have the highest ratio of "copies bought to actually read" since Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time. It was tough mining, brightened (for me) by brilliant little gems every few pages that made the pickaxing worthwhile. It was the only book since college that I can recall marking up in pencil because there was just too much good stuff to let it get away.

Nevertheless, I don't expect to see Volume 2 hit the bestseller list. (Just checked so I wouldn't have to eat my words, and I don't see it on the New York Times list at any rate.)

After a few false starts throughout his life, Twain hit upon what he thought was the ideal method of writing his autobiography. Every day he sat down with his loyal stenographer, Josephine Hobby, and dictated. He made no attempt at chronology or organization. Rather, he let his mind wander, perhaps inspired by a childhood memory or an article in that day's newspaper. The result is a nearly stream-of-consciousness narrative in which meeting a stranger on the street might inspire a tale from his silver mining days in Nevada or a gripe about his layabout older brother Orion (what a great name!). In print, each day's dictation is short, perhaps three or four pages--a dense but manageable three or four pages.

The effect feels very much like sitting with the man himself, in all his charm, sentiment, and misanthropy. Sometimes Twain gnawed on a topic for a few days until he'd let it go. There's an intimate immediacy one wouldn't get from a standard recitation of dates and events. On the other hand, his dictations lack context. Any overarching perspective on how the man felt about life's great issues has to be inferred and assembled by readers themselves. He doesn't seem particularly self-reflective.

Consequently, for anyone taking on Twain's autobiography (and you may sense my ambivalence about recommending it), I'd suggest following each day's dictation by reading the editor's annotations in the back. These do provide context, remind the reader who the players are, and point out where Twain's recollections differ from other sources or the historical record. They differed frequently, and there's some satisfaction in reading Twain's version of an event then flipping to the notes to learn what really happened.

Evidently, Mark Twain was once young and unmoustached. Who knew?

When I read Volume 1, I found Twain's insults particularly wonderful. He had an arch, dry wit that could skewer its target before the poor sap saw it coming. No guarantees for Volume 2, but it's already looking promising.

Today's Mark Twain Insult of the Day (continuing from my previous list, this would be #9) concerns Orion Clemens, an unlucky fellow with great ambition but little lasting success who spent many years of his life surviving on an allowance from his kid sibling. I feel great sympathy for Orion; what must it have been like to go through life as Mark Twain's loser brother?

He began to raise chickens and he made a detailed monthly report to me, whereby it appeared that he was able to work off his chickens on the Keokuk people at a dollar and a quarter a pair. But it also appeared that it cost a dollar and sixty cents to raise the pair. This did not seem to discourage Orion . . .

Later, discussing Orion's death:

He had gone down to the kitchen in the early hours of a bitter December morning; he had built the fire, and had then sat down at a table to write something, and there he died, with the pencil in his hand and resting against the paper in the middle of an unfinished word--an indication that his release from the captivity of a long and troubled and pathetic and unprofitable life was mercifully swift and painless.


Elayne Wallis said...

After reading your blog, I just might have to pick up this book.

Brian Fies said...

No promises, but I love the old coot.