The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, August 21, 2015

As From the Grave...

In the first volume of 1the 1924 edition of "Mark Twain's Autobiography" (to use the title employed by his editor, Albert Bigelow Paine used for his edition), a little preface begins the work:

In this Autobiography I shall keep in mind the fact that I am speaking from the grave. I am literally speaking from the grave, because I shall be dead when the book issues from the press.

I speak from the grave rather than with my living tongue, for a good reason: I can speak thence freely. When a man is writing a book dealing with the privacies of his life--a book which is to be read while he is still alive--he shrinks from speaking his whole frank mind; all his attempts to do it fail, he recognizes that he is trying to do a thing which is wholly impossible to a human being. The frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter; the writer gets his limitless freedom of statement and expression from his sense that no stranger is going to see what he is writing. Sometimes there is a breach-of-promise case by and by; and when he sees his letter in print it makes him cruelly uncomfortable and he perceives that he never would have unbosomed himself to that large and honest degree if he had known that he was writing for the public. He cannot find anything in the letter that was not true, honest, and respect-worthy; but no matter, he would have been very much more reserved if he had known he was writing for print.

It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing would be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware, and indifferent.

Despite this, preface, the Autobiography is not as confessional as all that. Oh, a bit here and there--more so in the (at last!) unexpurgated edition University of California Press has been publishing--than in Paine's edition, and as to the sanitized, anecdotal, de-fanged botch released by Charles Neider--well, the less said the better. But there is a mystery at the end of his life--his relationship with Isabel Lyon--and Twain's long-suppressed account will be included in the forthcoming volume 3:
The surprising final chapter of a great American life.

When the first volume of Mark Twain’s uncensored Autobiography was published in 2010, it was hailed as an essential addition to the shelf of his works and a crucial document for our understanding of the great humorist’s life and times. This third and final volume crowns and completes his life’s work. Like its companion volumes, it chronicles Twain's inner and outer life through a series of daily dictations that go wherever his fancy leads.

Created from March 1907 to December 1909, these dictations present Mark Twain at the end of his life: receiving an honorary degree from Oxford University; railing against Theodore Roosevelt; founding numerous clubs; incredulous at an exhibition of the Holy Grail; credulous about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays; relaxing in Bermuda; observing (and investing in) new technologies. The Autobiography’s “Closing Words” movingly commemorate his daughter Jean, who died on Christmas Eve 1909. Also included in this volume is the previously unpublished “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript,” Mark Twain’s caustic indictment of his “putrescent pair” of secretaries and the havoc that erupted in his house during their residency.

Fitfully published in fragments at intervals throughout the twentieth century, Autobiography of Mark Twain has now been critically reconstructed and made available as it was intended to be read. Fully annotated by the editors of the Mark Twain Project, the complete Autobiography emerges as a landmark publication in American literature.
The closing words--published as The Death of Jean by Paine, wisely added to end the Autobiography by Neider, in his one improvement to the text, is heart-rending. Seriously, almost everybody who thinks they know Mark Twain--or Samuel L. Clemens, for that matter--is about to learn something.

I've pre-ordered my copy. This is the big one.


Claude Scales said...

I don't know if our friend Ed Lenci has shared this with you. He had a law partner who took a short vacation to visit his father in Elmira, New York. When he got back, he told Ed his father had spent time cleaning the attic. His father said the lawyer's grandfather was a real pack rat who saved every bit of correspondence, and that he had thrown it all out or used it for kindling. When the lawyer asked about the correspondence, his father said, "Oh, there were a lot of letters from some old guy named Samuel Clemens...."

Anglocat said...

No, he hasn't. I can only gasp with Kurtz: "The horror! The horror!"