The curious thing about Mark Twain’s much-anticipated autobiography isn’t his insistence that it not be published until 100 years after his death. The curious fact is that it got written at all, especially if you took him at his word: “I’m not going to write autobiography. The man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself.”
Twain wrote short bits that looked suspiciously autobiographical beginning as early as 1870, but didn’t label anything as such until 1877 at the age of forty-two when his friend John Hay told him that an autobiography ought to be written at forty, since “man has at that age succeeded or failed; in either case he has lived all of his life that is likely to be worth recording.” A sobering thought to be sure.
Getting started on his autobiography did not give Twain difficulty—he began in earnest several times—but he abandoned it repeatedly, sometimes after only a week, for other projects. In a three-paragraph piece titled “The Latest Attempt,” he describes what he feels is the best way to write an autobiography:
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 turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.
He tried various methods of getting his story on paper, including the recording phonograph which had recently been invented by his friend, Thomas Edison; but the bulk of what now constitutes Twain’s autobiography comes from dictations conducted 1906–1908. He found that dictating to a stenographer allowed him to create something that sounded more like talking. Shorthand notes were typed up and given back to Twain for editing, and he allowed copies of pages to be marked up by other readers as well, creating a cache of over 5000 pages, some duplicates with notes from as many as six other hands. All versions of these pages were filed with no clarification as to which ones constituted the final draft. These factors made publishing Twain’s final book a huge and complicated job. So it is lucky for those left in charge of the Mark Twain Papers that they had a century to figure it all out.
Narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across… a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around … but always going…Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.
This volume is a delight to flip through casually or to peruse more seriously, whether it’s the story of how the book came to be (laid out in the introduction), the chronicling of his many attempts to write his autobiography and his ever-changing philosophy on such an endeavor, or the vignettes he refers to as “Scraps.” Just don’t go into it thinking it is a straightforward, chronological account of Twain’s life. But do make the trip.