Mark Twain: Not an American But the American

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He was so famous
that fan letters addressed to "Mark Twain, God knows where"
and "Mark Twain. Somewhere (Try Satan)" found their way
to him; the White House accommodatingly forwarded something addressed
to "Mark Twain, c/o President Roosevelt". Like Charles
Dickens, Twain achieved immense success with his first book, became
his nation’s most famous and best-loved author, and has remained
a national treasure ever since – America’s most archetypal
writer, an instantly recognisable, white-haired, white-suited, folksy,
cantankerous icon. Since his death on 21 April 1910, Twain’s writings
have reportedly inspired more commentary than those of any other
American author and have been translated into at least 72 languages.
Despite being dead for a century, Twain is not only as celebrated
as ever, he is also, apparently, just as productive: the first volume
of his unexpurgated three-volume autobiography has appeared for
the first time this month, a hundred years after his death.

Like the premature
news of his death, however, reports that his autobiography has been
embargoed for a century in honour of the author’s wishes are somewhat
exaggerated. He did indeed decree that it should be withheld for
100 years after his death, but various heavily edited versions have
appeared since then, controlled by Twain’s surviving daughter, Clara,
his first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, and subsequent editors,
all of whom cut anything they deemed offensive or problematic, standardised
Twain’s idiosyncratic punctuation, and reordered the narrative to
create precisely the conventional cradle-to-grave structure he explicitly
rejected.

Twain would
have been apoplectic at the presumption: one of the letters he included
in his drafts, reprinted in the autobiography’s first volume, is
a rebuke to an editor who dared to alter the great man’s diction
in his
essay on Joan of Arc
. Twain responded with an outraged rant
restoring each correction with an explanation of his original choice
and demanding: "Have you no sense of shades of meaning, in
words?"

If the mot
juste was always a priority – "I suppose we all have
our foibles. I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and
here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness"
– structure was always a problem for Twain. As readers have
noted since its publication, the plot of Huckleberry
Finn
, for example, deteriorates markedly at the end; Ernest
Hemingway dismissed the story’s resolution as a "cheat".
Despite having been thinking about an autobiography since at least
1876, it wasn’t until 1906 that the writer almost as famous for
his lectures as for his books – he has been called America’s
first stand-up comic – found a method he liked. He simply hired
a stenographer to follow him around and record his stories, while
he talked and talked. He had decided by then not to publish for
a century, in order that he might speak freely, without considering
reputation or others’ feelings. "From the first, second, third
and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must
be left out," he decreed. "There may be a market for that
kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see."
The spirit of this wish was followed mostly by accident, because
the unfinished and multifarious drafts he left when he died made
it extremely difficult for scholars to reconstruct.

Twain’s eventual
solution to the problem of autobiographical structure was characteristic:
he ignored it, deciding instead to "start it at no particular
time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life;
talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop
it the moment its interest threatens to pale," and move on
to the next subject. This is exactly what he does, confident that
his "combined Autobiography and Diary" would be "admired
a good many centuries" as inventing a form "whereby the
past and the present are constantly brought face to face".
The result runs to 500,000 peripatetic words across 2,000 pages,
the first 700 of which comprise the first volume.

Twain famously
announces at the start of Huckleberry Finn that "persons
attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted;
persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons
attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." A similar –
if less threatening – caveat could be offered to readers of
the autobiography. Those in search of the story of Twain’s life
should turn to any of a dozen biographies, by a roll-call of eminent
American critics; those in search of explosive secrets should read
the more controversial revisionist histories. Twain was by no means
free of Victorian inhibitions, and he was vain; consequently there
is much he would never reveal. Instead of cupboards and skeletons,
the unexpurgated autobiography offers the "storm of thoughts
that is forever blowing through one’s head"; not the "facts
and happenings" of Twain’s life, but his voice. Fortunately
for us, perhaps more than any other writer Twain was his voice;
the result, for all its frustrations, is a revelation.

Born Samuel
Langhorne Clemens in 1835, Twain spent his childhood in the backwater
of Hannibal, Missouri in the decades before the US civil war. After
apprenticing as a printer, he worked briefly as a journalist before
training as a steamboat pilot, a career interrupted by the outbreak
of war in 1861. He served fleetingly as a Confederate soldier before
deserting ("his career as a soldier was brief and inglorious,"
said the New York Times obituary; in the autobiography Twain includes
a sympathetic account of deserting soldiers being shot, without
revealing the reason for his sense of identification). As would
Huck Finn, the young Clemens "lit out for the territory"
of the west, where Confederate forces were unlikely to pursue him,
and sought his fortune in silver-mining. When that failed he returned
to reporting, and adopted his pseudonym, a name derived from the
call for safe water from riverboat pilots.

His journalism
began to establish his reputation; he started lecturing and published
his first book, The
Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches

in 1867. Two years later, The
Innocents Abroad
, the story of Twain’s trip with a group
of other Americans through Europe and the Holy Land (its subtitle
was The
New Pilgrims’ Progress
) was a bestseller, selling 100,000
copies within two years. He followed it in 1872 with Roughing It,
another successful travelogue, and for the next 20 years, Twain
produced instant classics, including not only The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
, but perennial favorites
such as The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer
, A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
and The
Prince and the Pauper
, works of social criticism such as
The
Gilded Age
and Following
the Equator
(an early indictment of imperialist racism that
deserves rediscovery), Life on the Mississippi, blending autobiography
and social history, and The
Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson
, a novel using the device of
babies switched at birth to expose the malignant senselessness of
American racism.

Across their
disparate subjects and audiences, what unites Twain’s works is his
quintessential Americanness. In Twain’s obituary, the San Francisco
Examiner wrote that he was "curiously and intimately American
. . . He was our very own". Twain went further. Living in Europe
in the 1890s, he wrote in his notebook: "Are you an American?
No, I am not an American. I am the American."
He was arrogant, but he wasn’t wrong. It isn’t just that Twain’s
books remain as popular as they are critically esteemed, or that
his themes – the individual and society, free-market capitalism
and social justice, populism and snobbery, deception and honour,
idealism and cynicism, freedom and slavery, wilderness and civilisation
– represent such characteristically American preoccupations.
Twain was just as American in life, in his self-promotion, commercial
ambition, pursuit of celebrity and narcissism. (As a child, Twain’s
daughter Susy began a biography of her famous father, in which she
reports his explanation for never attending church: "He couldn’t
bear to hear any one talk but himself, but [. . .] could listen
to himself talk for hours without getting tired, of course he said
this in joke, but I’ve no dought [sic] it was founded on truth.")
Equally American was Twain’s mix of idealism and cynicism, sentimentality
and scepticism. Hemingway pronounced in the 1930s that "All
modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called
Huckleberry Finn"; but Twain didn’t invent only modern
American literature, he invented modern American authorship, as
well.

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the rest of the article

November
16, 2010

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