Mark Twain had a mouth on him, no doubt about it – and that is why it is still so much fun to read the man’s writing today. But even Twain knew that the world was not quite ready for the unexpurgated version of his thoughts that comprises the first two volumes (a third volume is yet to follow) of his autobiography, so he stipulated that the complete biography was not to be published until 100 years after his death – which occurred on April 21, 1910. For those of us lucky enough to be around for the unveiling of the uncensored version of the manuscripts, it was well worth the wait.
Close to half of the material contained in the autobiography has never been published before, and readers have the Mark Twain Project (of the University of California, Berkeley) to thank for making it available now. The previously published material has been published several times in the past, but always in an abridged form guaranteed not to offend. But even the unrestricted version of Twain’s manuscripts is not what readers have come to expect from an autobiography.
Rather than tell the story of his life in chronological order, Twain decided early on that he would dictate his thoughts to a stenographer as they occurred to him – regardless of where they might fit into the story of his life. And, because he wanted them published in the order that he dictated them, reading the two books is more like having a conversation with Twain than anything else. It is as if the man were sitting across the room and telling random stories from his life as they cross his mind.
And what stories they are! They range all the way from his thoughts on rather trivial newspaper stories that may have caught his eye over breakfast to wonderful remembrances of things that happened in the first decade or two of his life. We learn of the villains in Twain’s world, some of whom personally crippled him with huge financial losses and scams, and others who were simply the villains of their times, men like Jay Gould and Belgium’s King Leopold II. We learn much about his brother, a man full of dreams but without the ability to make any of them come true. And most touchingly, Twain shares his deep love for Susy, the daughter who was snatched from the family so suddenly, by quoting liberally from the biography she wrote about her father. (My own favorite sections of the book deal with Twain’s relationship with the U.S. Grant family and publication of the former president’s memoirs.)
Twain, though, never passes up the opportunity for a little personal vengeance. As he often reminds his readers, he is speaking from the grave now, so what does he care about offending anyone? He just wants to set the record straight – at least as he sees that record. So rather unfortunately, the reader will have to wade through what seems like countless pages about the copyright laws of the day and biting commentary about an Italian landlady who drove Twain nuts for several months.
Intimidating as the two books may first appear to be, the author’s charm and rascality make reading them a pleasure that Twain fans will not want to miss.