Book Reviews

Mark Twain
University of California Press
$34.95

I recall Mary Miller. She was not my first sweetheart, but I think she was the first one that furnished me a broken heart. I fell in love with her when she was eighteen and I was nine, but she scorned me, and I recognized that this was a cold world … I soon transferred my worship to Artimisia Briggs, who was a year older than Mary Miller. When I revealed my passion to her she did not scoff. She did not make fun of me. She was very kind and gentle about it. But she was also firm, and said she did not want to be pestered by children. 
-- from Autobiography of Mark Twain

 

Mark Twain is Americans’ most beloved writer, whether they have read him or not. Ernest Hemingway famously pronounced The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be the Great American Novel, and there have been few other contenders for the title. Huck has become an icon of American culture.

Mark Twain, the pen name and alter ego of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, has himself become an icon, personifying America: humorous, bitter, wise, naïve, idealistic and mercenary, and shrewd. One senses Huck in his heart.

On the centenary of his death (1910), the University of California Press released Autobiography of Mark Twain, a mammoth 736-page book, and the first of three volumes.

The work sprawls as he talks about whatever interests him that moment, and we float along on his stream of consciousness in memory-mode. Here is the Twain who wrote the lyrical Tom Sawyer, full of boyhood adventures and promise; and here is the Twain who wrote the bitter Letters from the Earth, despairing of the human experiment which was “probably a matter of surprise and regret to the Creator.”

This is not for those who want an introduction to his life (See Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain or Ron Power’s Mark Twain: A Life for excellent biographies.) This is for admirers of this most American of American writers, those who are already familiar with his life and experience a quiver seeing drafts in his own handwriting. This “autobiography” fills in gaps and provides nuance and texture to the man’s life.

One is also struck how Twain speaks to our times, whether railing against Jay Gould and the other greed-meisters (“The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it”), or arguing against American imperialism. He finds it brings out the worst in us as a people. He opposed the Spanish-American War which had largely been orchestrated by the Administration and the press (sound familiar?), and he is outraged at the brutal atrocities and massacres committed by U.S. soldiers against the Filipinos in their fight for independence (“The enemy numbered six hundred, including women and children—and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother.”) One suspects that he would not have been shocked by My Lai or Abu Ghraib—but still outraged.

Perhaps it’s not that Twain speaks to our times; perhaps the times don’t really change all that much.

 

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.