Is Mark Twain the most beloved of all American writers? It would be hard to say for sure, but one measure of readers’ abiding affection for Samuel L. Clemens is the astounding success of the first volume of his autobiography. Published in 2010, 100 years after his death as he stipulated, it leapt immediately onto bestseller lists—an impressive achievement for a weighty tome from a university press with nearly as many pages of explanatory notes as primary source material.
Now, volume two of “The Complete and Authoritative Edition” of the Autobiography of Mark Twain has been compiled by the Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, the world’s largest archive of materials by the iconic writer. While the first covered a broader range of years—1870 to 1905—this book is more narrowly circumscribed between April 1906 and February 1907. Clemens had made many false starts at an autobiography through the years, but in January of ’06 he began almost daily dictations to stenographer Josephine S. Hobby with an eye toward preserving his story for posterity. As one might expect, these dictations do not comprise a straightforward, chronological account of the writer’s life, but are marked by the circuitous digressions, laced with sardonic humor, that make Clemens, well, Twain.
There is plenty of reminiscence, to be sure, but there is an equal amount of commentary about political and social trends of the day. News events, such as the San Francisco earthquake, spark memories of Clemens’ colorful past (he was in the City by the Bay during an earlier trembler in 1865), and he writes of encounters with famous contemporaries from Bret Harte (“Harte owed me fifteen hundred dollars at that time; later he owed me three thousand. He offered me his note, but I was not keeping a museum, and did not take it.”) to Helen Keller (“the eighth wonder of the world”). He delights in knowing that a letter of General Grant’s sold at auction for “something short of eighteen dollars,” while one of his own sold for $43.
The riches are manifold. Who but Twain, for instance, could write a few thousand words on the supremacy of the housefly? On reporting an outbreak of simplified spelling in ancient Egypt, he claims, “The Simplifiers had risen in revolt against the hieroglyphics.” He spoofs such fads as phrenology and palm reading, and discourses on more serious subjects, too, such as the need for international copyright. In an entry near the close of this volume he declares, “Last week I started a club. The membership is limited to four men; its name is The Human Race. . . . Whenever the human race assembles to a number exceeding four, it cannot stand free speech.”
This is vintage Twain—timeless, and still germane. And here he is “uncensored,” too, for he withheld the right to publish this material for a century precisely so that he could write unfettered. He was confident enough in his own genius (or at least his own opinions) to know that people would still want to read him 100 years on. (How many writers can hope for that?) Perhaps Mr. Clemens was being a bit disingenuous when he wrote, “From the beginning of time, philosophers of all breeds and shades have been beguiled by the persuasions of man’s bulkiest attribute, vanity, into believing that a human being can originate a thought in his own head. I suppose I am the only person who knows he can’t.” For there is no arguing that this American master originated many a thought that still reverberates today. And that’s why we still find him on the bestseller lists.