Thursday, July 8, 2010

Publishing Mark Twain's Long-Awaited Autobiography

Randall Stephens

W. D. Howells wrote his long-time friend Mark Twain: "I wonder why we hate the past so?" Twain snapped back "It's so damned humiliating." Mark Twain had a few choice things to say about history.

"I said there was but one solitary thing about the past worth remembering, and that was the fact that it is past-can't be restored."*

Elsewhere he paraphrased Herdotus: "Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects."

Twain was a cynic. A very funny one at that. His views on religion were so volatile in his day--and he feared enough for his own reputation and for that of his immediate family--that he chose not to air them. Though a skeptic, he made observations like this: "All that is great and good in our particular civilization came straight from the hand of Jesus Christ." The bloody theology of Christianity along with its particularity, in his view, was repulsive. He confided to his notebook in 1896: "If Christ was God, He is in the attitude of One whose anger against Adam has grown so uncontrollable in the course of . . . If Christ was God, then the crucifixion is without dignity. It is merely ridiculous, for to endure several hours."

In the autobiography he worked on, Twain meditated on religion, writing, the West, his acquaintances, and more. (See the PBS Newshour segment on the autobio embedded here.)

The editors of the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley have their hands full. The projects website explains:

Housed in the midst of the archive is the Mark Twain Project, a major editorial and publishing program of The Bancroft Library. Its six resident editors are at work on a comprehensive scholarly edition of all of Mark Twain's private papers and published works. More than thirty of an estimated seventy volumes in The Works and Papers of Mark Twain are currently available, all published by the University of California Press.

Twain stipulated that the autobiography could be published one-hundred years after his death. "He used the autobiography as a chance to disburden himself of a lot of feeling," says Benjamin Griffin in the Newshour piece. "He left this out of the final version of the autobiography." For example, as a staunch anti-imperialist, Twain took aim at Teddy Roosevelt for his role in the massacre of Filipino guerrillas during the Spanish-American War.

"[Roosevelt] knew perfectly well that to pen 600 helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day-and-a-half from a safe position on the heights above was no brilliant feat of arms. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag."

I look forward to reading the completed version. (Or at least thumbing through it.) Not a light read, I'm sure.

1 comment:

Jeffrey A. Salthouse said...

I applaud his beneficent contribution to American literary history and welcome his wit and candor in holding the mirror at just the right angle and correct height to illuminate the American myth and mystique without debunking it. Twain, perhaps the most acerbic pundit and author of the 19th century has managed to extend his validity into the 21st century, not so much by prohibiting the publication of his Autobiography for one hundred years, but by remaining relevant and germane to the way of life in America. Visit for more on the publication of the Mark Twain Autobiography.