Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 2, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2013.
Passages in this volume of the Autobiography will be found in no other book. Twain himself doubts whether any human being can be original, but this volume belies his claim. Twain is. Incidents of first impression and first expression exist therein.
While in Europe in 1896, Twain’s first daughter died in Connecticut. By the summer of 1902 his wife was in bad health. Later that year his youngest daughter had a life threatening illness (104 degree temperature; doctor sleeping in next room). The fear in Twain’s household wa wife would learn of daughter’s illness, and she would be carried off.
Twain had a third daughter, Clara, who primarily took care of the wife. Twain himself riles wife too much; his daily time with her is limited. Clara makes up a wonderful, social, engaging social life for the daughter near death. Wife’s spirits rise. These fabrications are carried on for three months. Twain writes two letters which are included in the text. [There must be more letters.]
Twain details the life of lies to stating the sick daughter’s happy life, and that they are relayed to everyone in the household – anyone who might come within earshot of wife – must know and speak the lies. Presumably wife remembers all the lies, and so must everyone else. There are near misses. There are mistakes, quickly retorted and corrected or excused, including the schedule of a local train.
Twain observed the whole scenario could be viewed as absurd and humorous except it is real, and it involves his family. The reader can infer what Mark Twain, writer, is doing: To protect himself, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, writes a full, complete and honest account of the activities in the house and about the sick daughter’s social life. Once on paper the events are removed, in a medium where Twain is a master. It is his only defense against two more deaths in his immediate family.
More astounding was the visit of William Dean Howells during the summer 1902 prior to the grave illnesses. Howells adumbrates a story about an ill mother and then her daughter gets sick. Both were cared for by two aunts. The aunts don’t want to lie; it is a sin. But they sin every day to keep the mother’s spirits up, even after the daughter has died: The mother believes the daughter is having a wonderful social life for the first time in her life. The mother also dies. Although the aunts regret sinning, they realize it was necessary.
Mark Twain wrote that story, Was it Heaven? Or Hell? It was published by Harper’s Monthly, when Twain’s wife and daughter were gravely ill. Both of them recovered.
The Autobiography has gems about writing. Spelling: “Majestically lawless.” Twain writes about “style,” “a mysterious thing,” including involuntary “indiscretions,” ofttimes an unwanted, “trademark.” And proofreading – the message is sometimes the editor must do everything himself: Twain tells an anecdote of Bret Harte’s trying to correct “chastity” for “charity.”
An observation about human beings came out which pertains to writing. The sort of human being one is will result in the type of writer one becomes. Bret Harte is used as the example, and Twain does not like him. Harte is capable, but is also acerbic, witless, disloyal, unemotional and selfish. Flickers of brilliance come from Harte’s writings, but mostly Harte is pushing the pen.
The Autobiography does not analyze the heart of writers generally. It raises the issue by example, the personality and the abilities and capabilities of a writer [or any artist]. Those traits and in life, circumstances, realizations, choices and adjustments, bring very individual reflections and come after one consciously mulls, considers, weighs and judges. When those forces and the results arrive unannounced, the writer is in trouble.
“Circumstance” raises another short significant issue. Twain notes, like a diary entry, attending a banquet where Elihu Root, Secretary of State, addressed circumstances as changing the way Americans viewed government and their own freedoms. [This is my summary, not part of the Autobiography.] In many ways the more Americans are brought together as one people in one nation and are supposed to think the same way – whether by innovation, culture, society or law – the more Americans will lose the distinction of being a nation of individuals.
Twain alights on celebrity, by commenting on an article about Olive Logan. She was a female lecturer in the lyceum days. Olive had nothing to say and couldn’t have said it if she did. She was on the platform “to show off her clothes,” a “living fashion plate.” She manufactured a reputation, writing “innate, affected valueless stuff,” and marrying “a penny-liner,” a man who was paid a penny a line to get small items, true or untrue, in newspapers.
The newspapers would appear, and next came the revelation: Readers who “had not been quite aware of [the celebrity] before,” now knew. There were no explanations, just recounting daily or weekly activities, like a Facebook page or a Twitter feed: “Her name was familiar to everybody…and there wasn’t a human being in the entire United States who could answer if you asked him, ‘What is her fame based on?’ ‘What has she done?’ You would paralyze a person by asking that question.”
[The primary difference between Olive Logan then and “celebrities” today is, today Americans can now say the woman took off her clothes, or did explicit acts, and published them.]
Sadly, the life of Olive Logan wound down like the lives today. She is near deaf. Her current husband, a generation younger than she, always drank and neglected her. She “could no longer write.” The couple was impoverished.
Twain mentions other fallibilities of the American system. He complains that the United States of America is an Unpolite Nation without remembering or mentioning that he lives in and about New York City. He notes the pace of America, “come step lively,” differs from the pace elsewhere. He mentions American diplomats and counsels, “chuckleheads,” sent “to some part of this planet because [they were] not needed in this country.”
Many passages are devoted to copyright issues and some (purported) Congressional testimony. In Twain’s day the copyright laws were antiquated and woefully inadequate. Readers other than historians, legal historians, Twain devotees and intellectual property fiends will find these parts laborious. But Twain was prominent in the push to change the laws.
Speaking from the grave, Twain likewise discourses on religion. His views are well presented. His is not an attack on faith itself, but largely on the practice of religion and man’s distortion of faith. That is always the grind. There are distilled, more perceptive presentations of these arguments in Twain’s literature: Huckleberry Finn, The War Prayer, The Mysterious Stranger, and elsewhere.
During the last decade of life Twain did not write much – short stories, essays and articles. He explained that he no longer wanted to pick up a pen and write a novel. The Autobiography was dictated. These is a difference in quality and complete excellence between Twain’s best books and this Autobiography. Many entries are literary, but Twain’s purpose was not literature: He wanted a conversation from himself, a one-way conversation to readers. Readers gets that. The difference between his literary efforts and the Autobiography remain, and have a lesson for today’s writers: Typing at 100 plus words per minute, printing out pages of beautiful words, trying to proofread and write something literary. Unlike Twain, most of today’s word processing entrants have never lectured to audiences, have never delivered humor, do not understand the basic simplicity of a joke, yet they are trying to work at the speed of the spoken word, like they are running their mouths to monopolize conversations with friends.
One gift this volume of the Autobiography gives to writers is Twain’s impressions and methods of lecturing and speaking, a task he could do on an impromptu basis. This volume has also left me in an uncomfortable state of humiliation: Mark Twain could lecture better than I can write.