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Book Review

Mark Twain's Own Autobirography: Chapters from the North American Review, Second Edition

Mark Twain's Own Autobiography stands as the last of Twain's great yarns. Here he tells his story in his own way, freely expressing his joys and sorrows, his affections and hatreds, his rages and reverence— ending, as always, tongue-in-cheek: "Now, then, that is the tale. Some of it is true."

More than the story of a literary career, this memoir is anchored in the writer's relation to his family—what they meant to him as a husband, father, and artist. It also brims with many of Twain's best comic anecdotes about his rambunctious boyhood in Hannibal, his misadventures in the Nevada territory, his notorious Whittier birthday speech, his travels abroad, and more.

Twain published twenty-five "Chapters from My Autobiography" in the North American Review in 1906 and 1907. "I intend that this autobiography . . . shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method—form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along, like contact of flint with steel."

For this second edition, Michael Kiskis's introduction references a wealth of critical work done on Twain since the first edition in 1990. He also adds a discussion of literary domesticity, locating the autobiography within the history of Twain's literary work and within Twain's own understanding and experience of domestic concerns.

Parts of the autobiography are painful to read. Twain describes the death of Suzy, his favorite of his four children—“our wonder and our worship,” he called her, at age 24 from meningitis. He describes his loss, and anyone who has lost a loved one recognizes what he says as being exactly true. No one, not even Emily Dickinson, has equaled his portrayal of the way we gradually experience and understand the magnitude of the hole this makes in our life.

“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock, and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their full import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss—that is all. It will take mind and memory months, and possibly years, to gather together the details, and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss. A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he missed this, then that, then the other thing. And, when he casts about for it, he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential—there was but one of its kind. It cannot be replaced. It was in that house. It is irrevocably lost. He did not realize that it was an essential when he had it; he only discovers it now when he finds himself balked, hampered, by its absence. It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of the disaster.”

The loss of Suzy was such a terrible blow to him that it brought out one of his blackest moods. Here he echoes the sentiments of Macbeth in his “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy. “A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities; those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year; at length, ambition is dead, pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last—the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them—and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; there they have left no sign that they have existed—a world which will lament them for a day and forget them forever.”

But, not all of the entries in this book are as somber. Some are hilarious satirical sendups. In one Twain recalls a speech he made in Boston in 1877 at a dinner given by the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier’s 70th birthday. The room was filled with literary luminaries, including: Whittier, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The speech was intended to be an entertaining parody of three of the most celebrated guests. Twain told the august group how he happened on the cabin of an old miner in California who complained that Twain was “The fourth littery man that has been here in twenty-four hours.” The other three unwelcome visitors, he says, were “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson, and Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes—consound the lot!”

The miner explained that “They were a rough lot, but that’s nothing; everybody looks rough that travels afoot. Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap, red-headed. Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon; he weighed as much as three hundred, and had double chins all the way down to his stomach. Mr. Longfellow was built like a prize-fighter. His head was cropped and bristly, like as if he had a wig made of hair-brushes. He nose lay straight down his face, like a finger with the end joint tilted up. They had been drinking, I could see that. And what queer talk they used!”

Then Twain launched into a brilliant parody of the three. To his surprise and dismay, the audience did not respond as he had expected. As he later explained it, when he got to the part of the speech where the old miner complained about his unwelcome guests, he could see that “the expression of interest in the faces [of his listeners] turned to a sort of black frost. I wondered what the trouble was. I didn’t know. I went on, but with difficulty—I struggled along, and entered upon that miner’s fearful description of the bogus Emerson, the bogus Holmes, the bogus Longfellow, always hoping—but with a gradually perishing hope that somebody would laugh, or that somebody would at least smile, but nobody did. I didn’t know enough to give it up and sit down, I was too new to public speaking, and so I went on with this awful performance, and carried it lear through to the end, in front of a body of people who seemed turned to stone with horror….

“When I sat down it was with a heart which had long ceased to beat. I shall never be as dead again as I was then. I shall never be as miserable again as I was then. I speak now as one who doesn’t know that the condition of things may be in the next world, but in this one I shall never be as wretched again as I was then.”

Newspapers blasted Twain for the speech. The Boston Globe reprinted a story from the Cincinnati Commercial that said Twain lacked “the instincts of a gentleman.” Other papers followed suit. Twain wrote apologies to the writers he had lampooned and then left the country, perhaps to escape further embarrassment.

Years later he reread the speech and re-evaluated its worth. He wrote, “I have read it twice, and unless I am an idiot, it hasn’t a single defect in it from the first word to the last. It is just as good as good can be. It is smart; it is saturated with humor. There isn’t a suggestion of coarseness or vulgarity in it anywhere. What could have been the matter with that house. It is amazing, it is incredible that they didn’t shout with laughter, and those deities the loudest of them all.”

Anyone who has enjoyed Twain’s fiction will find delights in this volume. It is filled with personal information about the man, told in his own, inimitable voice.