Suppose You’re an Idiot

Boylan_35.6_twainRoger Boylan reviews The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume I, in the Boston Review:

The posthumous career of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, has been a busy one.

According to the staff of the University of California’s Mark Twain Project, more than 5,000 previously unknown letters of Twain’s have surfaced in the last 50 years. This represents an average of two new letters per week, but still only about one-tenth of the 50,000 or so he is believed to have written. Two of his best-known works were published after his death: the iconoclastic Letters from the Earth, in which a not-yet-fallen Satan, on a fact-finding trip to Earth, analyzes the follies of the human race in a series of letters to his fellow angels (“Now my kids can learn how to be good atheists!” a friend of mine exclaimed); and the bizarre supernatural fantasy No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, set in a medieval Austria no better prepared than Twain’s America to deal with the harsh truth about humanity, as expounded by an otherworldly visitor calling himself “No. 44.” The former was released in 1962, the latter in 1982 (a fraudulent version appeared in 1916).

These repeated encores would neither have displeased nor surprised Twain, who approved of the idea of withholding publication until after death. “I will leave it behind,” he said of one of his unpublished writings, “and utter it from the grave. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family.” He said substantially the same thing about his autobiography, decreeing that it remain unpublished until a hundred years after he died:

A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way. In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons.

Twain was also deeply fond of his own celebrity, which, by delaying publication, he sought to extend into the future. And the first volume of his Autobiography, with two more to come, is now rolling off the presses, as requested, a hundred years after the occasion when news of his death was not exaggerated. Volume I is divided into two main sections: “Preliminary Manuscripts and Dictations, 1870–1905,” consisting of autobiographical jottings and early odds and ends, and the “Autobiography” proper, starting in 1906, when Twain began to dictate his reminiscences to a stenographer. Some of the earlier pieces were published in his lifetime; in 1906 the North American Review printed excerpts, titled “Chapters from My Autobiography,” to generally favorable critical reception.

But beset by doubts and chronically depressed—for good reason, having gone bankrupt or nearly bankrupt twice, and having lost a son, a daughter, and a wife over the years (the second of his three daughters, Jean, would die in 1909)—Twain continued to blow hot and cold on the whole idea of writing an autobiography