In Full Throat
Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 2
Edited by Benjamin Griffin & Harriet Elinor Smith (University of California Press 733pp £29.95)
This is the second of what is scheduled to be a three-volume transcript of Mark Twain's autobiography. When complete, it will comprise only a tiny element in a vast project; so vast, indeed, that one doesn't know whether to review the results of its efforts or bow down wordlessly in awe. Very simply, the aim of the Mark Twain Project (MTP), which has been rumbling on since the 1960s and is now slowly excreting its product, is to put into print every single word that Twain consigned to paper. He lived a long life in which his pen never stopped moving.
To achieve its aim, the project has recruited an army of scholars. Treasure has been garnered from universities, foundations, the American government (via funding proxies) and academic presses. And, of course, there are the academic salaries of the editorial staff - one third of which are routinely earmarked for 'research'. The MTP certainly qualifies: on American campuses, no research is more thorough.
Two questions arise in the mind of the general reader. Is Mark Twain worth this extraordinary investment of scholarly expertise and dollars, or are these Twainians, as Shakespeare says, making 'the service greater than the god'? And, at the rate it's going, will any of us be around to see the really interesting bits?
On the first question, there is no doubt that Twain is supremely important as a national figure. He made the point himself with the remark, 'I am not an American, I am the American'; he is as much the emblem of his great country as the bald eagle (but hairier). H L Mencken concurred: Twain was 'the archetype of Homo Americanus'. But is he, when the chips are down, the best American writer?
In Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens, one of the biographies written to commemorate the 2010 centenary of his death, Jerome Loving pondered the mystery of how Twain could have achieved this eminence with such a small number of great works. Loving is surely correct in claiming that, much enjoyed (and filmed) as the tale is, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is 'possibly the most overrated work in American literature'. Nor can Loving find any incontrovertibly great plums in the Twain pudding. Huckleberry Finn, perhaps; but what about the lame, and belatedly published, second half of that novel?
I, for one, am mightily curious to know what the MTP is going to do with the squib entitled 1601. Subtitled 'Conversation, as it was in the Time of the Tudors', it portrays Queen Elizabeth presiding over a farting contest between, inter alia, Sir Walter Raleigh and 'ye famous Shaxpur'. Raleigh wins the competition of the 'nether throats' with a mighty thundergust, 'yielding an exceding mightie and distresfull stink'. The work was unpublishable in Britain until the liberating Lady Chatterley trial of 1960.
As to the second question - MTP longa, vita brevis. At the present rate, the project will be completed decades hence. What new organisations of scholarly knowledge will there be by then? Will the 'project', in 2040, look like the proverbial stagecoach on the freeway when it finally reaches its far-off destination?
Griping aside, what is one to make of the volume under review? Half of its bulk is apparatus criticus. It's like a newly constructed building from which they've forgotten to remove the scaffolding. But, alas, it's necessary. There's so much local, quotidian reference that, without annotation, the book might as well be in Sanskrit.
The entries cover the period from 2 April 1906 to 28 February 1907. Twain had taken to dictating at this time. His words were transcribed by an amanuensis, then edited. Parts of the Autobiography were subsequently published. Most of it wasn't, however. There has been dispute about what was going on in his life in 1906 - little, if any, of which breaks the surface of what we have here; not even, unless I've missed it, any reference to the white cashmere suit which he began wearing in 1906. For the last four years of his life, Twain wore head to toe white: shirts, overcoats, socks, dressing gown. He was even buried in white. No one knows why.
In another of the centenary biographies, Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years, Laura Trombley argues that in these terminal years Twain was in dire straits. He never recovered from the death of his favourite daughter, Susy, in 1896 (she is frequently mentioned here). The death of his beloved wife, Livy, eight years later was a second hammer blow - 'the disaster of my life', as he calls it here. Of the two daughters that remained, Clara, the elder, was a second-rate singer with a weakness for concert-room Lotharios (her stage debut is described in this volume - ruefully). Jean, the younger daughter, was afflicted by epilepsy, a condition considered shameful at the time. There are passing references to these women, but nothing at all revealing.
In these late years Twain came to rely on Isabel Lyon, his secretary-cum-companion, who was involved in recording and writing up the Autobiography. According to Twain himself, in a private document penned in his final years, Lyon was a 'drunken slut' who, failing to seduce him, conspired with his personal assistant, Ralph Ashcroft, to embezzle him. None of that protrudes into what we have in this volume. Perhaps it will in the next volume.
What, then, do we have here? The so-called 'autobiography' is in fact a series of top-of-the-head, straight-from-the-mouth ruminations. It's the record of a virtuoso talker. His starting points are random: what he's read in the morning papers, something arising from that day's mail, something that simply drifts into his mind. There are ill-tempered complaints about the iniquitous laws of copyright (Twain thought authors, dead or alive, should own their work until the crack of doom). He bad-mouths every publisher he ever dealt with - they all robbed him. Over several daily entries he rants at God (worse than Nero and Caligula). There are neat japes, as when he dictates a cod letter approving some idiot suppression of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn because, he has been informed, 'boys and girls have been allowed access to them'. The mind that becomes 'soiled in youth', Twain sagely opines, 'can never again be washed clean'. He knows this, he adds, 'by my own experience and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was fifteen years old'.
There are some genuinely illuminating entries, as when he confesses that in every long work he has ever written the 'tank ran dry' halfway through. There are tender recollections of 'Mrs Clemens' on the anniversary of her death and nostalgic recollections about San Francisco when he reads in the newspapers accounts of the 1906 earthquake and catastrophic fire.
One sees a mind bubbling and hears a uniquely American voice. So, is the Mark Twain Project a worthy expenditure of time and money if this is its outcome? It is. But I do wish they would hurry up. If nothing else, I am keenly awaiting the apparatus criticus for 1601.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
John Sutherland's A Little History of Literature has just been published by Yale University Press.