The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, March 15, 2013

He Is Returning, It Is Returning, They Are Returning....

When in 2010, the University of California began publishing the Autobiography of Mark Twain, the big question was what had taken so long. The Autobiography was a hodgepodge of memoir, political commentary, fiction, and what-have-you, banged together in stream of consciousness form. The U Cal blurb describes his method:
"I've struck it!" Mark Twain wrote in a 1904 letter to a friend. "And I will give it away—to you. You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography." Thus, after dozens of false starts and hundreds of pages, Twain embarked on his "Final (and Right) Plan" for telling the story of his life. His innovative notion—to "talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment"—meant that his thoughts could range freely. The strict instruction that many of these texts remain unpublished for 100 years meant that when they came out, he would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent," and that he was therefore free to speak his "whole frank mind."
The Autobiography has never been published in that way, though, and not all of it has been published at all; Albert Bigelow Paine started to publish it, but only got two volumes out in 1924, both shorter than volume 1 of the California edition. Then, in 1940, selected topical bits from the Autobiography were published by Bernard DeVoto, under the title Mark Twain in Eruption. DeVoto published another volume, Letters from the Earth, in 1962, this time including bits of fiction.

In 1959, though, Charles Neider published what he titled The Autobiography of Mark Twain, which is, I am afraid, a rather fraudulent if quite readable volume. Neider stripped the most purely memoir-ish segments out of context, strung them together in chronological order, and tossed out all of the political commentary, satire, as well as Twain's stream-of-consciousness approach. It was a splendid read, and received rave reviews, but in no way was it the autobiography of Mark Twain. (Let me not leave Neider on so uncharitable a note, though; he introduced back into print many of Twain's essays, short stories, and sketched and tales, as well as doing a thoroughly scholarly and responsible job editing Papa, Susan Clemens' biography of her father, written when she was only 13. Neider's compilation volumes made a great deal of hard to find Twain accessible for me when I was a boy, and I still have them, and treasure them.) Finally, a brief but more authentic volume, comprising the sections Twain published in The North American Review during his lifetime was published as edited by Michael J. Kiskis, under the title Mark Twain's Own Autobiography in 1988.

Mark Twain's Autobiography, Volume 2 will be released in October of this year.

Now, don't get me wrong; I was and am delighted to have volume 1 of what I consider Twain's final masterpiece. But, frankly, volume 1 largely corrects and unbowdlerizes the otherwise reasonably good fist of editing the first part of the Autobiography by Albert Bigelow Paine. Volume 2 is where the real action begins, for those of us who have read the Paine edition.

And volume 3 will contain the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, the 429 page jeremiad that will shed light on the relationship between Twain and Isabel Lyon, his secretary with whom he had an enigmatic relationship, one which led him to, for several years, keep his daughters Clara and Jean at a distance, at great cost to the latter. As I've previously written, both Isabel Lyon and Jean Clemens have had their defenders; but the voice of the man Lyon (and Paine) called "the King" has been suppressed these 100-odd years.

Much turns on the nature of the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript. Is it, as Lyon defender Laura Skandera-Tronbley contends, a profoundly disturbed document, displaying all of Twain's paranoia and bile (he did have both), or is it, as Karen Lystra contends, an expiation of rage and shame (for his treatment of Jean) by a brilliant man who had nearly lost all that he had to a manipulative, if devoted, Lyon? The Ashcroft-Lyon will not, of course, answer the question of the nature of that strange relationship, but it will shed light on Samuel Clemens' capabilities and state of mind as the sun began to set on Mark Twain.

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