Writing one’s autobiography should most likely be a daunting and befuddling task. How does one gain a properly editorialized perspective on experiences, relationships and past actions? What of all those elements most defines you? Could you be truly honest with yourself? Could this possibly be captivating to readers?
It seems rather impossible to wrap one’s head around. Such an undertaking is apparently so cerebrally challenging that Mark Twain — the “father of American literature” as proclaimed by William Faulkner — was overwhelmed with the process. Luckily for us — this literary genius eventually solved the riddle.
“It is a system which is a complete and purposed jumble — a course which begins nowhere, follows no specific route, and can never reach an end while I am alive …”
Our fascination with Twain appears interminable as well. Originally slated for a 7,500 print by editors at the University of California Press, the production run is up to 275,000 copies after a few short months. Frantic retailers, scramble as they may, cannot keep the 4-pound colossus on their shelves. Twain apparently always wanted to write an autobiography yet struggled mightily with the execution. He attuned his troubles to trying to follow a chronological calendar; a plan that, he wrote, “… starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted “.
The man born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens led a tumultuous life full of mental anguish, family dysfunction, illness and financial turmoil. His pen name borrowed from riverboat life during his days on the Mississippi River (“mark twain!” is an exclamation indicating a safe water depth of two fathoms for the boats). As a fascinating perhaps non-coincidence, Halley’s Comet was visible in the sky above on both the day of his birth and day of his passing.
As adept as Twain was with the written word, he was surpassingly marvelous as a storyteller. He fascinated his contemporaries with an ability to translate complex ideologies into spontaneous speech. Not coincidentally, he remains one of the most oft-quoted literary talents. He was complicated and contradictory in his political and social commentaries that were founded in anti-imperialism, abolitionism and emancipation. He was critical of organized religion and Christianity while calling American soldiers “uniformed assassins”. His “Votes for Women” speech in 1901 was a critical spark plug for the realization of Women’s Suffrage.
“I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55.”
So Twain hit upon the right way to do his autobiography — dictating his experiences to his stenographer while propped up against a mound of regal pillows, clad in a silk dressing gown of exotic Persian patterns. This brilliant satirist had a hard time figuring what rules to break as he struggled to account for himself during the last few years of his life. Amidst the nearly 2,000 pages of dictation were searing accounts of venomous and inflammatory relationships with many walks of life. Candid and unfiltered were these resentment-laden tales from disharmonies that most never knew existed.
” … she was excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward.”
The completely non-linear orations from Twain have always been an irascible handful for editors. Biographers were unsure how to structure the passages and his daughter guarded the passages, believing much of the text to be excessively scalding and visceral. It was his strict wish that his story not be released until 100 years after his death on April 21, 1910. It was not only a protective gesture towards his loved ones, but also a stroke of marketing genius. Despite efforts to safeguard the material over the years, parts of the autobiography surfaced, only increasing the thirst for the rancorous humor and rich social commentaries that framed his work.
“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”
The hunger for the first volume of his autobiography (volumes 2 and 3 are on rumored to be on the way in all of their unabashed glory) from new generations of readers has left Twain as one of the very few authors to have published new best-selling books in each of the last three centuries.
Ernest Hemingway stated that “all modern American literature comes from a book by Mark Twain called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. He changed the rules of fiction when he let a redneck kid tell his story in his own dialect. He seemed to flow a classic combination of wit and insight that seemed particularly American and belied his iconic image clad in the benign white suit and bowtie.
It seems to us that he truly was a master showman of his time — yet ahead of his time — and ultimately cool. His new autobiography finally gives us, out of all the chaos, a story about Mark Twain, as told exactly by Mark Twain released precisely when he wanted. It is undeniably relevant and fascinating right now.