Read an Excerpt
SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, a village about forty miles southwest of Hannibal, the Mississippi River town that he would later celebrate, writing as Mark Twain. In 1853 he left home to work as an itinerant printer and four years later became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. With his piloting career cut short by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he went west and prospected and worked as a journalist in Nevada and California. In February 1863 he signed the pseudonym “Mark Twain” for the first time in an article for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise. His trip to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867 became the basis of his first major book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), which made him famous. Roughing It (1872), his account of experiences in the Far West, was followed by a satirical novel, The Gilded Age (1873), Sketches: New and Old (1875), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). In 1891, he was compelled by mounting expenses to move his family abroad. In 1895–96, he undertook a round-the-world lecture tour to pay off creditors of his bankrupt publishing firm and then remained in Europe until 1900. His fortunes mended, he returned to America and found himself celebrated—not only for heroically pulling himself out of debt but also for his uncompromising stands against injustice and imperialism. He died in his final home in Redding, Connecticut, on April 21, 1910.
R. KENT RASMUSSEN has written and edited eight other books on Mark Twain, including the forthcoming Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers, as well as many books on other subjects. He is best known for his award-winning Mark Twain A to Z (recently revised as the two-volume Critical Companion to Mark Twain) and The Quotable Mark Twain. He holds a doctorate in history from UCLA and recently retired from his job as a reference book editor in Southern California.
Edited with an Introduction by
R. KENT RASMUSSEN
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man best known to the world as Mark Twain, is one of the most autobiographical of American writers. His presence can be felt in almost everything he wrote. Overtly or through proxies, he placed himself in most of his essays and nonfiction books and built much of his fiction around his experiences. He was ever his own favorite subject and his thoughts often went back to his own past, so it should not be surprising that he eventually turned to composing autobiography—initially by hand and later by dictation. During the last years of his life, his daily autobiographical dictations* were becoming an obsession. According to his autobiography itself, he told his close friend William Dean Howells, “if I should talk to the stenographer two hours a day for a hundred years, I should still never be able to set down a tenth part of the things which have interested me in my lifetime.” Moreover, his autobiography would not be a mere book but an entire library—and not a small one, either:
if I should live long enough, the set of volumes could not be contained merely in a city, it would require a State, and… there would not be any multi-billionaire alive, perhaps, at any time during its existence who would be able to buy a full set, except on the instalment plan.
In all this, he was, of course, exaggerating. However, he was serious about composing a big autobiography. By the time he died in early 1910, the manuscripts constituting what he regarded as his formal autobiography had grown to nearly one-half million words. He led a long and complex life and had much to tell. Moreover, the history of his attempts to write his autobiography is a long and complex story in itself.
Mark Twain’s career as a professional writer commenced during the early 1860s, when he worked as a reporter for Nevada and California newspapers and contributed stories and sketches to literary magazines. By the time he left the Far West at the end of 1866, he had built a modest reputation as a skillful humorist but was still several years away from thinking of himself as an author. That transformation began with the publication in 1869 of The Innocents Abroad, his best-selling account of his travels in Europe and the Holy Land with the Quaker City steamship excursion two years earlier. The travel letters he wrote for newspapers during that trip and the book that grew out of those letters earned him a national reputation. Publication of Roughing It (1872), about his experiences in the Far West during the early 1860s, completed his transformation from journalist to author. His reputation then grew steadily, as he published The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884/1885), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and other books, along with a steady stream of magazine sketches, short stories, and essays. Meanwhile, he further enhanced his reputation by undertaking a number of extended lecture tours. Even before he reached the age of forty, he had an international reputation and was regarded as an important American author—albeit one who was best known as a humorist.
Mark Twain’s interest in writing autobiography began relatively early. In 1870, for example, he wrote about the disastrous effect of the Tennessee land that his father had bequeathed to his family. It was a subject to which he would return several times more than thirty-five years later. In the meantime, he made fictional use of that part of his family’s history in The Gilded Age, a partly autobiographical novel he coauthored with his Hartford, Connecticut, neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. In 1877, he wrote a brief memoir about the time he spent in Florida, Missouri, as a child. Through the next three decades, he made other attempts at starting an autobiography, but none of them succeeded in holding his interest. The first major breakthrough came in 1904, while he was staying in Florence, Italy, where he had taken his family for the sake of his wife’s health. Using his secretary Isabel Lyon as a scribe, he discovered that he could efficiently dictate his autobiography. Lyon was not a proficient stenographer, but she was an appreciative listener who satisfied Mark Twain’s need for an audience. Raised in a tradition of oral storytelling, he was a natural speaker.
On January 16, 1904, Mark Twain wrote excitedly from Florence to William Dean Howells:
I’ve struck it! 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; then you will realize, with a pang, that you might have been doing it all your life if you had only had the luck to think of it. And you will be astonished (& charmed) to see how like talk it is, & how real it sounds, & how well & compactly & sequentially it constructs itself, & what a dewy & breezy & woodsy freshness it has, & what a darling & worshipful absence of the signs of starch, & flatiron, & labor & fuss & the other artificialities!…
Try it, & you will see. But with a long-hand scribe, not with a stenographer. At least not at first. Not until you get your hand in, I should say. There’s a good deal of waiting, of course, but that is no matter; soon you do not mind it.
Miss Lyon does the scribing, & is an inspiration, because she takes so much interest in it. I dictate from 10.30 till noon. The result is about 1500 words. Then I am a free man & can read & smoke the rest of the day, for there’s not a correction to be made.…
The death of Mark Twain’s wife, Livy, the following June deeply unsettled him and ended his experiments in composing autobiography. However, after he returned to the United States and had time to settle down, an unexpected development brought him back to that work. In January 1906, free-lance writer Albert Bigelow Paine approached him about becoming his biographer. Mark Twain not only granted Paine’s request with some enthusiasm, he also quickly invited Paine to move into his New York City home to allow Paine convenient access to his papers. Soon Paine was interviewing him regularly to gather information for his biography, and Mark Twain engaged a professional stenographer, Josephine Hobby, to record their interviews in shorthand and later make typescripts of them. Paine’s questions renewed his interest in creating his own autobiography, and the interview sessions were transformed into autobiography dictation sessions, with Paine helping to provide focus and inspiration.
Over the next two years, Mark Twain conducted about 250 dictation sessions. Early on, he developed a technique that he explains in the opening of the first installment of the North American Review chapters:
a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along, like contact of flint with steel.…
Howells was here yesterday afternoon, and I told him the whole scheme of this autobiography and its apparently systemless system—only apparently systemless, for it is not really that. It is a deliberate system, and the law of the system is that I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted. It is a system which follows no charted course and is not going to follow any such course. It is a system which is a complete and purposed jumble—a course which begins nowhere, follows no specified route, and can never reach an end while I am alive…
The almost inevitable result of Mark Twain’s free-form dictations is an enormous manuscript with almost no discernible shape. When he suggested changing subjects the moment his interest in what he is talking about fades, he was not exaggerating. His dictations switch subjects frequently, moving their narratives about in space and back and forth in time. The absence of a chronological framework is particularly noticeable. In 1906, he serialized a portion of his dictations in the North American Review under the title “Chapters from My Auobiography.” The first installment opened with some discussion of Clemens family ancestors, but the series did not get around to discussing Mark Twain’s own birth until the thirteenth installment. When the first edition of the autobiography in book form (edited by Paine) was published in 1924, a review in the Dallas Morning News of October 19 called it
surely the most strangely put together of all memoirs. It is a work of shreds and patches, a hodge-podge of miscellaneous papers and dictations written in various parts of the world—Vienna, Florence, New York City, Dublin (New Hampshire)—and in as many different manners as could well be found in a book not an anthology. Still worse, there is no sort of chronology; each new chapter begins with whatever subject happens to come into the muser’s mind. When after a time, the book becomes a combination of diary and autobiography, there is a semblance of order and the author claims again and again he has at last hit on the way to write this sort of thing. This is the best way because most natural. Well, it is natural. But the vaunted “method” is simply to have no method.
The “miscellaneous papers” to which the review alludes are texts Paine added to the dictations and were not part of what Mark Twain considered to be his formal autobiography. However, the points the review makes accurately describe the dictations. In any case, these eccentricities did not greatly vex the reviewer, who went on to say,
This is in no sense a complaint, only the statement of fact—of a fact that must surprise the reader, at least mildly. What a life the man led. Mississippi pilot; in Nevada and California when the exploits of the Forty-Niners were recent history; newspaper correspondent in Hawaii; around the world on the Quaker City; long seasons of residence abroad… And what a succession of people he knew about whom one is curious…
Despite all the effort Mark Twain invested in composing “autobiography,” little of what he recorded resembles what is generally regarded as true autobiography. Indeed, it might even be argued that this most autobiographical of American writers never actually wrote an autobiography. This is not to say that he did not write about his own life. He truly was his own favorite subject, and what he called his autobiography is filled with fascinating and often moving reminiscences of his past. What he did not record was an introspective narrative connecting events, finding patterns, or, more generally, seeking an understanding of how he came to be the person he was.
In September 1906, the fortnightly North American Review published the first in the series of twenty-five “Chapters” from Mark Twain’s autobiography. The widely publicized event quickly attracted newspaper comments, which generally expressed eager anticipation. An editorial in the September 14 issue of California’s San Jose Mercury News said of the developing autobiography, “This ought to be the best of his books. His life has had variety enough and adventure enough to make good reading when told in his own inimitable way.” The paper’s observation was accurate: Variety was never lacking in Mark Twain’s life, and the autobiographical chapters that were eventually published would not disappoint readers. At the same time, however, cautious skepticism crept into some commentaries. By 1906, the name Mark Twain had become so closely associated with humor and hoaxes that many people were unsure how seriously to take anything he wrote. When the Mercury News expressed the hope that Mark Twain’s forthcoming autobiography would reveal “how much of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and the Innocents Abroad is founded upon his own history and how much is fiction,” it also added,
Or it may be that, led astray by his picturesque imagination, he may add another book, a mixture of fact and fancy, to the old list. Unless he takes a solemn affidavit to the truth of all that he writes there will be some people suspicious of his autobiography.
There were reasons aplenty to be skeptical about the veracity of Mark Twain’s autobiography. The grossly exaggerated estimate of how large his autobiography would become that he gave to Howells appears in the autobiography itself. Indeed, it opens the first chapter of “Chapters from My Autobiography.” Furthermore, it not only contains a ludicrous exaggeration, it also leads into another statement obviously stretching the truth:
Howells applauded, and was full of praises and endorsement, which was wise in him and judicious. If he had manifested a different spirit, I would have thrown him out of the window. I like criticism, but it must be my way.
It is safe to assume that Mark Twain would not really have thrown Howells out a window. The remark is merely a bit of silly fun. Nevertheless, it alerts readers not to take Mark Twain at his word for all that follows. It is a timely warning, as the very next paragraph in that first chapter opens with an even more doubtful statement about the Clemens family ancestry: “Back of the Virginia Clemenses is a dim procession of ancestors stretching back to Noah’s time. According to tradition, some of them were pirates and slavers in Elizabeth’s time.” No family can trace its ancestry back to Noah’s time, and the business about pirates and slavers is pure poppycock. However, these remarks lead into a more concrete discussion about an ancestor named Geoffrey Clement, who helped sentence England’s King Charles I to death in 1649 and consequently “made me vain.” This story sounds more reasonable, especially when one knows that Clement really was a historical figure involved in King Charles’s execution. Was he, however, an ancestor of Mark Twain’s? Probably not, as no evidence of a family connection has yet been found.
The Mercury News editorial’s suggestion that “some people” would be suspicious of Mark Twain’s autobiography was an understatement. People were, indeed, suspicious of it in 1906. One such person was Mark Twain’s biographer Paine. As a knowledgeable participant in most of the autobiographical dictation sessions, no one was better placed than he to judge the authenticity of what Mark Twain said. The monumental biography of Mark Twain he published in 1912 contains vivid first-hand descriptions of dictation sessions and recalls his growing suspicion that what he was hearing was not quite right:
It was not for several weeks that I began to realize that these marvelous reminiscences bore only an atmospheric relation to history; that they were aspects of biography rather than its veritable narrative, and built largely—sometimes wholly—from an imagination that, with age, had dominated memory, creating details, even reversing them, yet with a perfect sincerity of purpose on the part of the narrator to set down the literal and unvarnished truth. It was his constant effort to be frank and faithful to fact, to record, to confess, and to condemn without stint. If you wanted to know the worst of Mark Twain you had only to ask him for it. He would give it, to the last syllable—worse than the worst, for his imagination would magnify it and adorn it with new iniquities, and if he gave it again, or a dozen times, he would improve upon it each time, until the thread of history was almost impossible to trace through the marvel of that fabric; and he would do the same for another person just as willingly. Those vividly real personalities that he marched and countermarched before us were the most convincing creatures in the world, the most entertaining, the most excruciatingly humorous, or wicked, or tragic; but, alas, they were not always safe to include in a record that must bear a certain semblance to history. They often disagreed in their performance, and even in their characters, with the documents in the next room, as I learned by and by when those records, disentangled, began to rebuild the structure of the years.
His gift of dramatization had been exercised too long to be discarded now. The things he told of Mrs. Clemens and of Susy were true—marvelously and beautifully true, in spirit and in aspect—and the actual detail of these mattered little in such a record. The rest was history only as Roughing It is history, or the Tramp Abroad; that is to say, it was fictional history, with fact as a starting-point. In a prefatory note to these volumes I have quoted Mark Twain’s own lovely and whimsical admission, made once when he realized his deviations:
“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.” (chapter 239)
Paine went on to modify his remarks on the truthfulness of the autobiography:
I do not wish to say, by any means, that his so-called autobiography is a mere fairy tale. It is far from that. It is amazingly truthful in the character-picture it represents of the man himself. It is only not reliable—and it is sometimes even unjust—as detailed history. Yet, curiously enough, there were occasional chapters that were photographically exact, and fitted precisely with the more positive, if less picturesque, materials. It is also true that such chapters were likely to be episodes intrinsically so perfect as to not require the touch of art.
In the talks which we usually had, when the dictations were ended and Miss Hobby had gone, I gathered much that was of still greater value. Imagination was temporarily dispossessed, as it were, and, whether expounding some theory or summarizing some event, he cared little for literary effect, and only for the idea and the moment immediately present.
It was at such times that he allowed me to make those inquiries we had planned in the beginning, and which apparently had little place in the dictations themselves. Sometimes I led him to speak of the genesis of his various books, how he had come to write them, and I think there was not a single case where later I did not find his memory of these matters almost exactly in accord with the letters of the moment, written to Howells or [Joseph] Twichell, or to some member of his family. Such reminiscence was usually followed by some vigorous burst of human philosophy, often too vigorous for print, too human, but as dazzling as a search-light in its revelation.
Later biographers have shared Paine’s suspicions. Justin Kaplan, for example, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966), summed up Mark Twain’s autobiography as “that piece of near-fiction.” However, that harsh judgment did not lessen Kaplan’s admiration for the work. “As a record of magnificent talk, magical, hilarious, savage, and tender,” he added, “the autobiography is a major work, Mark Twain’s last, a sprawling and shapeless masterpiece whose unity is in the accent and rhythm and attack of his voice.” A still later biographer, Forrest Robinson, brings a different perspective. In The Author-Cat: Clemens’s Life in Fiction (2007), he argues that Mark Twain is more truthful about his life in his fictional writings than he is in his autobiography.
One root of distrust in Mark Twain’s truthfulness goes back to a characteristic trait of much of his writing—a cavalier disregard for fine distinctions among literary forms and genres. Stories, sketches, essays, and memoirs were often seemingly as one to him. Usually more interested in telling a good yarn than in sticking to the petrified truth, he was always willing to overlook inconvenient differences between fact and fiction. This tendency is most evident in his travel books, which were ostensibly factual descriptions of places he visited and the experiences he had during his travels. Roughing It, one of the books to which Paine alluded, is a prime example. In that lively volume about his Western adventures, lines between fact and fiction are often too thin to discern what Mark Twain himself actually did and what his anonymous narrator claims he merely did. Mark Twain wrote the book in the first person and clearly built it around his own experiences. However, from the book’s opening paragraph it is apparent that its unnamed narrator is not quite Mark Twain himself:
My brother had just been appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory… and the title of “Mr. Secretary” gave to the great position an air of wild and imposing grandeur. I was young and ignorant, and I envied my brother. I coveted his distinction and his financial splendor, but particularly and especially the long, strange journey he was going to make, and the curious new world he was going to explore. He was going to travel! I never had been away from home, and that word “travel” had a seductive charm for me.
Typical of Mark Twain’s travel writings, Roughing It exaggerates its narrator’s youthfulness and inexperience. In 1861, when he went to Nevada with his brother, he was twenty-five years old and was already impressively accomplished and well traveled. After spending several years working as a journeyman printer in midwestern and eastern cities, including St. Louis, Cincinnati, New York, and Philadelphia, he had spent four years piloting steamboats between St. Louis and New Orleans on the Mississippi. As a pilot, he had already earned a larger salary than his brother would ever receive. Roughing It sustains its narrator’s youthful greenhorn pose throughout its early chapters, while embellishing Mark Twain’s actual experiences with exaggerations, distortions, and outright inventions that make the narrative much livelier and more vivid than a straightforward account could possibly be. The result is a mixture that may justifiably be classified equally as both memoir and fiction. One thing it is not, however, is autobiography. The same may be said of The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, and parts of Life on the Mississippi. Nonetheless, as extracts reprinted in the present volume show, each of those books contains patches of authentic autobiography.
Modern readers of Mark Twain generally know enough about him not to be greatly troubled by his mixing of fact and fiction in his books. His contemporary readers, though, were less comfortable with it. In December 1880, he received a letter from a New York cheese merchant named Charles W. Rhodes, who had read The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, and other works and was just finishing A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain’s account of his most recent travels in western Europe. Rhodes wished to know
by what rule a fellow can infallibly judge when you are lying and when you are telling the truth. I write this in case you intend to afflict an innocent and unoffending public with any more such works. I would suggest the next volume be published with the truth printed in italics.
Mark Twain evidently merely laughed at this letter, for on it he jotted, “Ha!—ha! captured another idiot.” He did not, of course, adopt Rhodes’s suggestion about using italics, so his readers were left wondering which passages in his writings to believe. Always fascinated with the concept of truth, Mark Twain was doubtless aware of his own reputation. In a discussion of lying in Following the Equator (1897), his book about his round-the-world lecture tour in 1895–1896, he ruefully remarked, “My own luck has been curious all my literary life; I never could tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe.” Is it, then, any wonder that readers approached his serialized autobiography with some skepticism in 1906?
EDITIONS OF THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
In 2010, the University of California Press issued the first of three projected volumes of the superbly edited Autobiography of Mark Twain, prepared by the editors of Berkeley’s Mark Twain Papers. This publication is accurately billed as the first “complete and authoritative” edition of the autobiography, that is, the first to include every manuscript and dictation that Mark Twain himself regarded as part of his formal autobiography. It is also the first edition to arrange the material strictly as he intended, which is essentially the order in which he created it.
Although Mark Twain directed that his autobiography not be published until one hundred years after he died, four different versions were published between 1906 and 1959. None was close to being complete or authoritative. Not long after Mark Twain recorded his intention of having his autobiography published posthumously, he succumbed to an attractive offer from George Harvey, the president of Harper and Brothers, to publish twenty-five installments, or “chapters,” in the North American Review, beginning in September 1906. With an eye toward pleasing readers, Harvey selected about 110,000 words of material to go into the magazine, omitting a few possibly controversial passages with the recommendations and approval of Mark Twain, who stipulated that none of his autobiography would be published in book form during his lifetime. The North American Review chapters were later reprinted in several book editions, including Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography (1990; rev. 2010), edited by Michael J. Kiskis. (The chapters also appear in the present volume.)
In 1924, Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain’s biographer and literary executor and the first editor of the Mark Twain Papers, published about 250,000 words of Mark Twain’s autobiographical writings in two volumes as Mark Twain’s Autobiography. Despite Paine’s immense knowledge of Mark Twain and his intimate personal acquaintance with him, his edition is probably the least authoritative yet published. He tried to follow Mark Twain’s wish by arranging the material in the order in which it was created, but he included material that Mark Twain did not intend to be part of his formal autobiography, while omitting portions he himself regarded as uninteresting and rewording some passages without revealing what he had changed.
Bernard DeVoto, Paine’s successor as editor of the Mark Twain Papers, published what might be regarded as a supplement to Paine’s edition in 1940: Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events. Both DeVoto’s and Paine’s editions included material that had previously appeared in the North American Review in 1906–1907, but none of the approximately 120,000 words of material in DeVoto’s edition is in Paine’s edition. Much of this material contains scathing remarks about people that Paine was too timid to use. Like Paine, DeVoto selected the material that most interested him. When he was done, he declared that the approximately 120,000 words of still-unpublished material that remained would be of interest only to scholars. Meanwhile, in contrast to what Paine had done, DeVoto departed radically from Mark Twain’s instructions by arranging the material topically, under nine subject headings: “Theodore Roosevelt,” “Andrew Carnegie,” “The Plutocracy,” “Hannibal Days,” “Two Halos,” “In a Writer’s Workshop,” “Various Literary People,” “The Last Visit to England,” and “Miscellany.”
The next edition of the autobiography had an even more radical rearrangement of the material. In 1959, Charles Neider published The Autobiography of Mark Twain, drawing material from all previous editions and adding about 30,000 words of previously unpublished material. Dissatisfied with how the previous editions had been organized and baffled by Mark Twain’s preferred arrangement, Neider attempted to force the material into a traditional cradle-to-grave arrangement. The resulting book has the appearance of a traditional autobiography, but that appearance can be deceptive. Sequential passages are often drawn from different dictations and occasionally were not composed to mean what they appear to mean in their new settings.
Michael J. Kiskis’s edition of Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography, first published in 1990, is essentially a reprint of the original North American Review chapters. Apart from correcting minor errors in the magazine versions, Kiskis changed nothing. He did, however, add substantial annotations and a useful table summarizing the textual sources of each edition of Mark Twain’s autobiography. In 2010, Kiskis published a revised edition of Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography with expanded annotations and a new Introduction.
CONTENTS OF THE PRESENT VOLUME
If, indeed, an argument can be made that Mark Twain never wrote a true autobiography, then all the various autobiographical fragments and reminiscences scattered throughout his writings should have equal validity as pieces of his autobiography. This Penguin Classics volume is the first book to collect many of those fragments under one cover.
The materials in the present volume are loosely arranged among three sections. The first section, “Autobiographical Dictations,” contains all twenty-five parts of “Chapters from My Autobiography,” which originally appeared in the North American Review between September 1906 and December 1907 and were later serialized in Sunday newspaper supplements. The texts of these chapters are rendered here exactly as they appeared in the original magazine.
The second section, “Youthful Memories,” includes several brief and self-contained memoirs, an extract from an early attempt at formal autobiography, and extracts from four of Mark Twain’s travel books. Selections within this section are arranged chronologically by their composition dates. “My First Literary Venture” is a lighthearted but reasonably accurate account of Mark Twain’s earliest journalistic work in Hannibal, a period in Mark Twain’s youth not addressed directly in the North American Review articles. “Early Years in Florida, Missouri” is an important fragment of Mark Twain’s attempt to construct a formal autobiography in 1877. It covers some of the same information presented in several North American Review chapters but perhaps because it was written nearly three decades earlier, it provides a richer and more intimate portrait of an early phase of Mark Twain’s life that he also used in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Written around the same time he was dictating his autobiography, “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” adds another dimension to Mark Twain’s memories of his Florida days. “Jane Lampton Clemens”—which Mark Twain wrote after his mother died in 1890—is rich in his boyhood memories and is laced with observations on relatives, several of whom he used as models for fictional characters.
Mark Twain’s five travel books constitute an important but enigmatic part of his autobiographical writings for reasons discussed above. None of these books is, strictly speaking, autobiography, but each covers, more or less accurately, a significant phase of his life. The Innocents Abroad (1869) traces his tour of Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East on the Quaker City excursion of 1867—an important turning point in his life that he barely mentions in his North American Review chapters. It offers a broadly accurate reconstruction of his itinerary and the high points of his trip, but it is so permeated with inventions and exaggerations that it is difficult not only to know which of its incidents actually happened but also to know which actions attributed to the book’s unnamed narrator Mark Twain himself performed. Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain’s account of his five years in Nevada, California, and Hawaii, is a very different kind of narrative, but as an autobiographical work it poses the same challenges as The Innocents Abroad. Nevertheless, one cannot possibly understand Mark Twain’s experiences during the early 1860s without reading it.
As an account of Mark Twain’s return to continental Europe during the late 1870s, A Tramp Abroad (1880) resembles The Innocents Abroad in many ways. However, as autobiography it is even less reliable than the earlier book. In contrast to The Innocents Abroad, which Mark Twain constructed around the actual itinerary of the Quaker City excursion, A Tramp Abroad uses a more artificial structure that only loosely followed Mark Twain’s actual travels in 1878–1879, while inserting wholly imaginary episodes and characters and employing an anonymous narrator who often scarcely resembles Mark Twain himself.
Life on the Mississippi (1883), which followed only three years later, is yet another kind of travel book and, as such, presents different challenges to readers seeking Mark Twain autobiography. Mark Twain wrote the book with the idea of creating a standard work on the Mississippi River. To that end, he opened the book with several chapters on the river’s geomorphology and history. He then inserted eighteen chapters on steamboat piloting that he expanded from “Old Times on the Mississippi,” which he had serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875. All but four of the book’s piloting chapters are a first-person account of Mark Twain’s experiences as an apprentice pilot during the late 1850s. Although the chapters depict their unnamed narrator as younger and less experienced than Mark Twain actually was during his cub piloting days and contain some embellishments similar to those in his earlier travel books, they nevertheless constitute an important part of his autobiography. (They are reprinted in the present volume as “Cub Piloting Days.”) The rest of Life on the Mississippi—more than half the entire book—is a relatively sober account of Mark Twain’s return to the Mississippi in 1882, when he traveled by boat from St. Louis down to New Orleans and then back up the river as far as Minnesota. This part of the book has strong autobiographical elements, but they are diluted by Mark Twain’s insertion of several tall tales unrelated to his own life and enough fictional embellishments to his narrative to make most of the chapters as unreliable as autobiography as the earlier travel books. However, chapters 53–56, recounting Mark Twain’s visit to Hannibal, contain important reminiscences of his childhood there. They are reprinted here as “My Boyhood’s Home.”
Mark Twain’s final travel book, Following the Equator (1897), is yet another kind of narrative. Written when Mark Twain was worn down by his travels and was grieving over the recent death of his daughter Susy (an event poignantly described in the third North American Review chapter), the book is a relatively straightforward narrative of the round-the-world lecture tour that Mark Twain undertook in 1895–1896. Indeed, much of it is taken directly from the journals he kept on his trip. As autobiography, the book is more reliable than his earlier travel books and is particularly valuable for its expressions of Mark Twain’s critiques of European imperialism—particularly British imperialism—in the South Pacific, South Asia, and Southern Africa.
As has been shown, Mark Twain’s travel books are generally unreliable as autobiography—or at best difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, they contain valuable autobiographical scraps about his youth that pop up in unlikely passages and make one wonder what Mark Twain’s thought processes must have been when he wrote them. Three such fragments are reprinted here. The first, “An Unpleasant Adventure,” appears in the middle of The Innocents Abroad’s chapter on the great cathedral of Milan, Italy. After describing a graphically realistic sculpture of a man who had been skinned alive, Mark Twain makes a remark about the difficulty of forgetting repulsive things that seems suddenly to have evoked a memory of a dramatic incident that occurred during his Hannibal boyhood. “A Mississippi River Story” intrudes in a similarly unlikely passage of A Tramp Abroad discussing German theater. Here a description of an actor performing without the encouragement of his audience’s applause reminded Mark Twain of an incident during his first steamboat ride at the age of ten, when he awakened from a nightmare late at night and burst into the ladies’ saloon. The third extract, “The Space-Annihilating Power of Thought,” comes from a chapter in Following the Equator on Bombay, India. When Mark Twain saw a German hotel proprietor cuff an Indian servant, he instantly remembered his father doing the same thing to slaves when he was a boy. In contrast to the previous two memories, which Mark Twain seemed to evoke during the act of writing, Mark Twain’s boyhood memory of slavery appears to have entered his mind at the very moment the Bombay incident happened. The anecdote is brief, but it admits to a harsher reality of Hannibal slavery than his more formal autobiographical writings reveal.
The third section of writings, “Essays,” contains three pieces that Mark Twain consciously wrote as autobiographical reflections but did not regard as part of his autobiography proper. In 1900, he wrote “My Boyhood Dreams” for McClure’s Magazine while he was in Sweden. The largely facetious essay recalls an imaginary gathering of friends many years earlier, when each man revealed to the others his private hopes for his future. The essay might be read as a reflection of Mark Twain’s own boyhood aspirations. Written in 1909 in response to an invitation from Harper’s Bazar and published shortly before Mark Twain died in 1910, “The Turning-Point of My Life” is a more serious reflection on his past that takes a very deterministic view of the forces that directed his life. He actually conceived the idea of writing such an essay several years earlier, after he had written “What Is Man?” (1906), his masterwork on determinism. The essay’s argument that his entire life was shaped by the case of measles he contracted as a boy might profitably be compared to Mark Twain’s account of the measles in the twenty-third of the North American Review chapters.
Of the thirteen chapters in the last book Mark Twain published during his lifetime, Is Shakespeare Dead? From My Autobiography (1909), the two chapters reprinted here as “Is Shakespeare Dead?” have the strongest autobiographical content. The central argument of this little book is that William Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him because no evidence exists showing he had the legal training that their actual author must have had. Mark Twain supports his case by drawing comparisons between what is publicly known about his own life and what was known about Shakespeare during his time.
MARK TWAIN A CENTURY LATER
Two months after Mark Twain’s April 21, 1910, death, the New York literary magazine Bookman published several articles about him. In “Mark Twain a Century Hence,” the magazine’s first editor, Henry Thurston Peck, analyzed the juvenilian characteristics of Mark Twain’s humor and speculated on how long his works would be remembered. While his appreciation of the humorous side of Mark Twain was generous, his prediction of how Mark Twain would be regarded in the year 2010 was dismal:
Going over the entire list of the many volumes to which this author set his name, there are only four or five at the most that are likely to last for a great length of time. I am certain that not more than three of them [The Jumping Frog, The Innocents Abroad, and Roughing It] will be read a century from now…. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1885) will remain for perhaps two decades. All the rest of Mr. Clemens’ books may perhaps be sold by subscription agents among his “complete works” for a certain time, but they will not be read. A Tramp Abroad marks the beginning of a first decline. A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur makes one feel sorry for its author. Joan of Arc is distinctly dull; and The Autobiography of Mark Twain, which has been dragging its slow way along for many months, is formless and in places without any meaning whatsoever. His best friends have regretted that he ever began to write it. It is to be hoped that his heirs and executors will suppress it.
In an anonymous Bookman editorial published nine years earlier, Peck had dismissed Mark Twain as “first and last and all the time, so far as he is anything, a humorist and nothing more.” During the intervening years his opinion had evidently hardened, and the serialized publication of “Chapters from My Autobiography” had not changed his mind. His assessment of Mark Twain’s future reputation probably did not reflect the majority view in 1910, but he was not alone in regarding Mark Twain as primarily a humorist. Time has shown that view to be wrong. Indeed, it is a shame that Peck did not live long enough to learn how spectacularly inaccurate his predictions were. Far from being mostly forgotten, virtually all Mark Twain’s books were in print a century after he died. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course, have lasted far longer than two decades. Moreover, neither has ever gone out of print, and the literary reputations of both Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee have grown stronger with each passing year. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the increasing interest in Mark Twain’s life. Every year sees the publication of at least a half-dozen major new studies of him, and biennial conferences focusing on his life and writings draw growing numbers of attendees. Yes, his autobiography may be formless; however, the 760-page portion published by the University of California Press in 2010 spent twenty-four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Reports of Mark Twain’s death were, indeed, exaggerated.
R. KENT RASMUSSEN
* In the present volume the term “autobiographical writings” is used in a broad sense to encompass Mark Twain’s daily dictations, which actually made up the great bulk of his formal autobiography. After a stenographer typed up his dictations, he hand-corrected them on paper.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Camfield, Gregg. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Clemens, Susy. Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain. Edited by Charles Neider. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.
Couser, G. Thomas. “Autobiography as Anti-Biography: The Case of Twain vs. Paine.” Auto/Biography Studies 3, no. 3 (Fall 1987): 13–20.
Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.
———. Recording Literature’s Lost Ground: Essays in American Autobiography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Dawidziak, Mark. Horton Foote’s “The Shape of the River”: The Lost Teleplay About Mark Twain with History and Analysis. New York: Applause, 2003.
Eakin, Paul John, ed. American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Fisher Fishkin, Shelley, ed. The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works. New York: Library of America, 2010.
Hill, Hamlin. Mark Twain: God’s Fool. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.
Kiskis, Michael J. “Coming Back to Humor: The Comic Voice in Mark Twain’s Autobiography.” In Mark Twain’s Humor: Critical Essays. Edited by David E. E. Sloan. New York: Garland, 1993.
———. “Dead Man Talking: Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Deception.” American Literary Realism 40, no. 2 (Winter 2008): 95–113.
LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain, A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912.
Powers, Ron. Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
———. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Random House, 2005.
Rasmussen, R. Kent. Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. 2 vols. New York: Facts on File, 2007.
Robinson, Forrest G. The Author-Cat: Clemens’s Life in Fiction. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007.
———. “The Late Writing of Mark Twain.” In A Companion to Mark Twain. Edited by Peter Messent and Louis J. Budd. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
———. “Mark Twain, 1835–1910: A Brief Biography.” In A Historical Guide to Mark Twain. Edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Scharnhorst, Gary, ed. Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Shelden, Michael. Mark Twain: Man in White—The Grand Adventure of His Final Years. New York: Random House, 2010.
Smith, Henry Nash, and William M. Gibson, eds. Mark Twain–Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William D. Howells, 1872–1910. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. 2d ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Tenney, Thomas Asa. Mark Twain: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
Twain, Mark. Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 1. Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
———. The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Including Chapters Now Published for the First Time. Edited by Charles Neider. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.
———. Chapters from My Autobiography. Edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, with Introduction by Arthur Miller and Afterword by Michael J. Kiskis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
———. Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events. Edited by Bernard DeVoto. New York: Capricorn Books, 1940.
———. Mark Twain’s Autobiography. Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
———. Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the “North American Review.” Edited by Michael J. Kiskis. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.
———. My Autobiography: “Chapters” from the North American Review. Introduction by Thomas Wortham. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1999.
Zaccra, Jennifer L. “Mark Twain, Isabel Lyon, and the ‘Talking Cure’: Negotiating Nostalgia and Nihilism in the Autobiography.” In Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship, edited by Laura E. Skandera Trombley and Michael J. Kiskis. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
A Note on the Texts
All texts in this volume are taken from their original publications, except as noted below. All footnotes are from the original texts, but their numbers have been changed to symbols, such as asterisks, to avoid confusion resulting from changing page breaks. Texts are unaltered, except for the closing of contractions, such as “don’t” for “do n’t.”
The texts of “Chapters from My Autobiography” come directly from the twenty-five original articles of the same title appearing in North American Review between September 6, 1906, and December 1907. All original chapter numbers, headnotes, and footnotes are retained. The only omissions are the original copyright notices and the boldfaced years inserted within parentheses near the outside margins of pages beginning in chapter 8. (These insertions repeat dates provided in the text, of which they are not part.) The many ellipses throughout the articles are original to the texts.
“An Unpleasant Adventure” is extracted from chapter 18 of The Innocents Abroad (American Publishing Co.,1869). “My First Literary Venture” is reprinted from Mark Twain’s Sketches New & Old (American Publishing Co., 1875).
“Cub Piloting Days” reprints chapters 4–13 and 18–21 of Life on the Mississippi (James R. Osgood & Co., 1883), whose original chapter titles are retained: (4) “The Boys’ Ambition,” (5) “I Want to Be a Cub-Pilot,” (6) “A Cub-Pilot’s Experience,” (7) “A Daring Deed,” (8) “Perplexing Lessons,” (9) “Continued Perplexities,” (10) “Completing My Education,” (11) “The River Rises,” (12) “Sounding,” (13) “A Pilot’s Needs,” (18) “I Take a Few Extra Lessons,” (19) “Brown and I Exchange Compliments,” (20) “A Catastrophe,” and (21) “A Section in My Biography.” Chapters 4–13 appeared earlier in a slightly different form in seven articles titled “Old Times on the Mississippi” published in the Atlantic Monthly (January–June and August 1875). Chapters 14–17 of Life on the Mississippi are not included here because they contain almost no autobiographical content.
“Early Years in Florida, Missouri” and “Jane Lampton Clemens” are extracted from “Unpublished Chapters from the Autobiography of Mark Twain (Part I),” edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, in the February 1922 issue of Harper’s Monthly. “A Mississippi River Story” is extracted from chapter 10 of A Tramp Abroad (American Publishing Co., 1880).
“My Boyhood’s Home” comprises chapters 53–56 of Life on the Mississippi and retains the original chapter titles: (53) “My Boyhood’s Home,” (54) “Past and Present,” (55) “A Vendetta and Other Things,” and (56) “A Question of Law.”
“The Space-Annihilating Power of Thought” is extracted from chapter 38 of Following the Equator (American Publishing Co., 1897). “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” is reprinted from the December 1906 issue of Harper’s Monthly.
“My Boyhood Dreams” is reprinted from the January 1900 issue of McClure’s Magazine. “Is Shakespeare Dead?” comprises chapters 6–7 of the book of the same title published in 1909. “The Turning-Point of My Life” is reprinted from the February 1910 issue of Harper’s Bazar.
November 30, 1835: Samuel Langhorne Clemens—later better known as Mark Twain—is born in the northeastern Missouri village of Florida. The sixth of seven children of John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens, he will outlive all his siblings, his wife, and three of his own four children.
1839–1853: Lives in Missouri’s Mississippi River town of Hannibal, on which he will later model the fictional St. Petersburg of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. After leaving school at eleven, he does printing work for local newspapers, including his brother Orion’s papers, and writes occasional sketches and essays.
March 24, 1847: John Marshall Clemens’s death leaves his family impoverished.
1853–1856: Sam Clemens leaves Missouri to work as a printer in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York; after returning to the Midwest, he does similar work for Orion in southern Iowa.
May 1857–April 1861: Spends two years training as a steamboat pilot on the Lower Mississippi—mostly under Horace Bixby—and two more years as a licensed pilot.
June 13, 1858: Steamboat “Pennsylvania” blows up south of Memphis, severely injuring Clemens’s younger brother, Henry, who dies eight days later.
April 12, 1861: Civil War begins when Confederates fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. Clemens, who is in New Orleans, will soon end his piloting career when war stops steamboat traffic on the Lower Mississippi.
June 1861: Clemens drills for about two weeks with a Missouri militia unit called up by the state’s pro-Confederate governor.
July 1861: Crosses the plains with his brother Orion, who has been appointed secretary to the government of the newly created Nevada Territory.
July 1861–September 1862: Prospects and collects mining claims in western Nevada.
September 1862–May 1864: Works as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise.
February 3, 1863: Uses the pen name “Mark Twain” for the first time in a report written in Carson City for the Enterprise.
June 1864–December 1866: After relocating to California, briefly reports for the San Francisco Morning Call, does some prospecting in the depleted gold fields of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, and writes for a variety of publications.
November 18, 1865: Publication of his jumping frog story in New York’s Saturday Press helps build his national reputation.
March–August 1866: Visits the Hawaiian (Sandwich) Islands as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union. After returning to San Francisco, he launches what will become a long and successful lecturing career by speaking on the islands in Northern California and western Nevada.
May 14, 1867: Publishes his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches.
June–November 1867: Tours Mediterranean Europe and the Holy Land with the Quaker City excursion; his travel letters to San Francisco and New York newspapers are widely reprinted, expanding his reputation. After he returns, Elisha Bliss of the American Publishing Co. (APC) of Hartford, Conn., invites him to write the book about his travels that will become The Innocents Abroad.
March–July 1868: Visits California for the last time to secure the rights to his Quaker City letters from the San Francisco Alta California; while there, he finishes writing his book with the help of Bret Harte.
July 20, 1869: APC publishes The Innocents Abroad, Or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress, the first of Clemens’s five travel books, which will be his best-selling book throughout his lifetime and the best-selling American travel book of the nineteenth century.
August 1869: Clemens buys an interest in the Buffalo Express and becomes one of the newspaper’s editors. After settling in Buffalo, N.Y., he begins the first of several major eastern lecture tours.
February 2, 1870: Marries Olivia (Livy) Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy Elmira, N.Y., coal magnate. The newlyweds settle in a Buffalo house given to them by his father-in-law.
November 7, 1870: The couple’s first child, a son named Langdon, is born; he will live only twenty-two months.
February 1871: Isaac Sheldon publishes Mark Twain’s Burlesque Autobiography and First Romance, the first part of which is essentially a farce about imaginary ancestors that Clemens would later regret having published.
March 1871: After a year of family misfortunes, Clemens sells his Buffalo house and interest in the Express and relocates to Elmira, where his family stays on the Quarry Farm of Livy’s sister, Susan Crane. Over the next two decades, his family will spend most of its summers on the farm, where Clemens will do much of his most important writing.
October 1871: His family settles in Hartford, Conn., before he starts another long lecture tour. His first daughter, Susy, is born the following March. In September 1874, the family will move into a magnificent new house that will be their home until 1891.
February 29, 1872: APC publishes Roughing It, an embellished account of Clemens’s years in the Far West and Hawaii.
August–November 1872: Clemens makes his first visit to England, to which he will soon return with his family.
December 1873: APC publishes The Gilded Age, a novel by Clemens and his Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. Clemens’s portions of the novel revolve around events modeled on his own family’s history.
June 1874: Clemens begins writing Tom Sawyer during the same month his second daughter, Clara, is born.
January–August 1875: Publishes “Old Times on the Mississippi,” his first extended work about steamboating, in a seven-part series in the Atlantic Monthly.
July 21, 1875: APC publishes Mark Twain’s Sketches New & Old, which includes “My First Literary Venture.”
June 9, 1876: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is published first in England. American publication is delayed until December.
December 17, 1877: Clemens delivers burlesque speech at a Boston birthday banquet for poet John Greenleaf Whittier that afterward causes him great embarrassment.
April 1878–August 1879: Travels in western Europe with his family.
November 12, 1879: Delivers triumphant speech honoring Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at a Union Army reunion in Chicago.
March 13, 1880: APC publishes A Tramp Abroad, a fictionalized account of episodes from Clemens’s recent European travels.
July 7, 1880: His last daughter, Jean, is born at Quarry Farm in Elmira, N.Y.
December 12, 1881: James Osgood of Boston publishes The Prince and the Pauper, Clemens’s novel about boys switching places in sixteenth-century England.
April–May 1882: Clemens travels by steamboat from St. Louis, Mo., to New Orleans, and then upriver to St. Paul, Minn., to gather material for the book to be called Life on the Mississippi.
May 17, 1883: Osgood publishes Life on the Mississippi, which expands Clemens’s 1875 “Old Times on the Mississippi” articles and adds new material from his 1882 return to the river.
May 1, 1884: Clemens founds his own publishing house, Charles L. Webster & Co., with Webster, his nephew by marriage, as company president.
December 10, 1884: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn sees its first publication in England, by Chatto & Windus, which will become Clemens’s only authorized English publisher.
February 18, 1885: Huckleberry Finn is belatedly released in America by Webster.
December 10, 1889: Webster publishes A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Clemens’s novel about a contemporary American thrust back to sixth-century England.
October 27, 1890: Jane Lampton Clemens, Clemens’s mother, dies at the age of eighty-seven.
June 1891–May 1895: Clemens family closes down the Hartford house—to which they will never return—and goes to Europe to live to cut down living expenses. As the family moves around in western Europe, Clemens makes numerous trips to the United States to look after his failing business interests.
May 1892: Webster publishes The American Claimant, Clemens’s novel about an American who claims to be heir to an English earldom.
1893–1894: Clemens publishes Tom Sawyer Abroad, first as a serial in St. Nicholas Magazine, then as the last book issued by his firm, Webster & Co., which goes into bankruptcy in April 1894.
November 28, 1894: APC publishes Pudd’nhead Wilson, Clemens’s novel about slavery and miscegenation set in another fictional Missouri town modeled on Hannibal.
April 1895–April 1896: Harper’s Monthly serializes Clemens’s novel The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which afterward is issued in book form by Harper & Brothers, Clemens’s new authorized American publisher. Harper will soon begin reissuing all his books in uniform editions.
May 1895–July 1896: Clemens leaves England with his family, beginning a round-the-world lecturing trip. After summering at Elmira, he, Livy, and daughter Clara travel cross-country to British Columbia, whence they cross the Pacific to Hawaii, Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand, and then cross the Indian Ocean to Ceylon, India, and South Africa, before returning to England. Meanwhile, daughters Susy and Jean remain behind in Elmira. Profits from the lecturing tour will pay off debts from Clemens’s publishing firm’s bankruptcy, and he returns to America hailed as a triumphant hero.
July 1896–October 1900: After being rejoined by daughter Jean, the family remains in Europe four more years.
August 18, 1896: Daughter Susy dies of spinal meningitis while Clemens is in England.
August–September 1896: Clemens publishes Tom Sawyer, Detective as a serial in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.
November 13, 1897: Harper and APC publish Clemens’s fifth travel book, Following the Equator, a relatively sober account of his round-the-world trip.
December 11, 1897: Brother Orion Clemens dies.
January 1900: “My Boyhood Dreams” appears in McClure’s Magazine.
October 15, 1900: After an unbroken absence of five years, Clemens returns to the United States with his family and rents a house in New York City.
April 10, 1902: Harper publishes Clemens’s A Double-Barrelled Detective Story, a novella that includes Sherlock Holmes as a bumbling detective.
May 1902: Clemens pays his last visit to Hannibal and the Mississippi River during a trip to Columbia to accept an honorary degree from the University of Missouri.
November 1903–June 1904: Takes his family to Florence, Italy, hoping the mild climate will help his wife Livy’s failing health.
January 14, 1904: Begins dictating his autobiography to his family secretary, Isabel Lyon.
June 5, 1904: Livy dies in Florence; the rest of the family soon returns to the United States.
August 31, 1904: Pamela Clemens Moffett, Clemens’s last surviving sibling, dies.
September 1904–June 1908: Clemens takes up residence on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where he is lionized as a public speaker and banquet guest.
December 5, 1905: Col. George Harvey, president of Harper & Brothers and editor of Harper’s Weekly, hosts a grand seventieth birthday banquet for Clemens at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant.
January 1906: Albert Bigelow Paine moves into Clemens’s home to begin work as Clemens’s authorized biographer; Clemens soon begins dictating his autobiography to Paine and a professional stenographer, Josephine Hobby.
September 7, 1906–December 1907: Twenty-five installments of “Chapters from My Autobiography” appear in the fortnightly North American Review.
December 1906: “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” appears in Harper’s Monthly.
June–July 1907: Clemens makes last transatlantic voyage, to accept an honorary degree at Oxford University in England.
October 27, 1907–September 27, 1908: Illustrated reprints of “Chapters from My Autobiography” appear in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Tribune and at least nine other newspapers.
June 18, 1908: Clemens moves into his last home, a newly built house outside Redding, Conn., that he initially dubs “Autobiography House” because it has been built with income from “Chapters from My Autobiography”; he later renames the house “Stormfield.”
April 8, 1909: Publishes Is Shakespeare Dead?, which is subtitled “From My Autobiography.”
December 24, 1909: His youngest daughter, Jean, dies of a heart attack suffered during a seizure. Clemens spends two days writing “The Death of Jean” as the “last chapter” of his autobiography. With his only remaining child, Clara, recently married to the Russian musician Ossip Gabrilowitsch and living in Europe, Clemens is alone for the first time since he married.
January–April 1910: Visits Bermuda on his last trip outside the United States. When his health seriously declines, Paine goes to Bermuda to bring him home.
February 1910: “The Turning-Point in My Life” appears in Harper’s Bazar.
April 21, 1910: Samuel Langhorne Clemens dies of heart failure in his Stormfield home at the age of seventy-four. Three days later, he is buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where all members of his family will eventually be interred.
August 18, 1910: His only grandchild, Nina Gabrilowitsch, is born at Stormfield to this daughter Clara.
September 1910: William Dean Howells publishes My Mark Twain, a personal tribute to his close friend.
1911: Archibald Henderson publishes Mark Twain.
January 1911: “The Death of Jean” appears in Harper’s Monthly.
August 1912: Now Clemens’s literary executor, Paine publishes his three-volume Mark Twain, A Biography. Over the next quarter-century he will edit and publish numerous collections of Clemens’s previously unpublished writings.
February–June 1922: Paine publishes “Unpublished Chapters from the Autobiography of Mark Twain” in Harper’s Monthly.
October 1924: Harper publishes Mark Twain’s Autobiography, edited by Paine, in two volumes.
April 9, 1937: Paine dies in New Smyrna, Fla.; Bernard DeVoto succeeds him as editor of the Mark Twain Papers.
April 16, 1940: Harper publishes Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events, edited by DeVoto.
January 1946: DeVoto resigns as editor of the Mark Twain Papers. His successor, Dixon Wecter, will move the collection to the University of California at Berkeley three years later.
1959: Harper publishes The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Including Chapters Now Published for the First Time, edited by Charles Neider.
November 19, 1962: Clara Clemens Samossoud, Clemens’s longest surviving child, dies in San Diego, Calif.
January 16, 1966: Nina Gabrilowitsch, Clemens’s only grandchild and last direct descendant, dies in Los Angeles.
1990: University of Wisconsin Press publishes Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography, the first book edition of the North American Review’s “Chapters from My Autobiography,” edited by Michael Kiskis.
1996: Oxford University Press’s twenty-nine-volume Oxford Mark Twain edition, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, includes Chapters from My Autobiography, a volume containing facsimile reproductions of the original magazine articles.
2010: University of California Press publishes the first of three projected volumes of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Papers. The book will spend twenty-four weeks on the New York Times list of best-selling nonfiction.
CHAPTERS FROM MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY
North American Review
SEPTEMBER 7, 1906
CHAPTERS FROM MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY—I
BY MARK TWAIN
PREFATORY NOTE—Mr. Clemens began to write his autobiography many years ago, and he continues to add to it day by day. It was his original intention to permit no publication of his memoirs until after his death; but, after leaving “Pier No. 70,” he concluded that a considerable portion might now suitably be given to the public. It is that portion, garnered from the quarter-million of words already written, which will appear in this REVIEW during the coming year. No part of the autobiography will be published in book form during the lifetime of the author.—EDITOR N. A. R.
I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published, after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method—a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along, like contact of flint with steel. Moreover, this autobiography of mine does not select from my life its showy episodes, but deals mainly in the common experiences which go to make up the life of the average human being, because these episodes are of a sort which he is familiar with in his own life, and in which he sees his own life reflected and set down in print. The usual, conventional autobiographer seems to particularly hunt out those occasions in his career when he came into contact with celebrated persons, whereas his contacts with the uncelebrated were just as interesting to him, and would be to his reader, and were vastly more numerous than his collisions with the famous.
Howells was here yesterday afternoon, and I told him the whole scheme of this autobiography and its apparently systemless system—only apparently systemless, for it is not really that. It is a deliberate system, and the law of the system is that I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted. It is a system which follows no charted course and is not going to follow any such course. It is a system which is a complete and purposed jumble—a course which begins nowhere, follows no specified route, and can never reach an end while I am alive, for the reason that, if I should talk to the stenographer two hours a day for a hundred years, I should still never be able to set down a tenth part of the things which have interested me in my lifetime. I told Howells that this autobiography of mine would live a couple of thousand years, without any effort, and would then take a fresh start and live the rest of the time.
He said he believed it would, and asked me if I meant to make a library of it.
I said that that was my design; but that, if I should live long enough, the set of volumes could not be contained merely in a city, it would require a State, and that there would not be any multi-billionaire alive, perhaps, at any time during its existence who would be able to buy a full set, except on the instalment plan.
Howells applauded, and was full of praises and endorsement, which was wise in him and judicious. If he had manifested a different spirit, I would have thrown him out of the window. I like criticism, but it must be my way.
Back of the Virginia Clemenses is a dim procession of ancestors stretching back to Noah’s time. According to tradition, some of them were pirates and slavers in Elizabeth’s time. But this is no discredit to them, for so were Drake and Hawkins and the others. It was a respectable trade, then, and monarchs were partners in it. In my time I have had desires to be a pirate myself. The reader—if he will look deep down in his secret heart, will find—but never mind what he will find there; I am not writing his Autobiography, but mine. Later, according to tradition, one of the procession was Ambassador to Spain in the time of James 1, or of Charles 1, and married there and sent down a strain of Spanish blood to warm us up. Also, according to tradition, this one or another—Geoffrey Clement, by name—helped to sentence Charles to death.
I have not examined into these traditions myself, partly because I was indolent, and partly because I was so busy polishing up this end of the line and trying to make it showy; but the other Clemenses claim that they have made the examination and that it stood the test. Therefore I have always taken for granted that I did help Charles out of his troubles, by ancestral proxy. My instincts have persuaded me, too. Whenever we have a strong and persistent and ineradicable instinct, we may be sure that it is not original with us, but inherited—inherited from away back, and hardened and perfected by the petrifying influence of time. Now I have been always and unchangingly bitter against Charles, and I am quite certain that this feeling trickled down to me through the veins of my forebears from the heart of that judge; for it is not my disposition to be bitter against people on my own personal account. I am not bitter against Jeffreys. I ought to be, but I am not. It indicates that my ancestors of James II’s time were indifferent to him; I do not know why; I never could make it out; but that is what it indicates. And I have always felt friendly toward Satan. Of course that is ancestral; it must be in the blood, for I could not have originated it.
.… And so, by the testimony of instinct, backed by the assertions of Clemenses who said they had examined the records, I have always been obliged to believe that Geoffrey Clement the martyr-maker was an ancestor of mine, and to regard him with favor, and in fact pride. This has not had a good effect upon me, for it has made me vain, and that is a fault. It has made me set myself above people who were less fortunate in their ancestry than I, and has moved me to take them down a peg, upon occasion, and say things to them which hurt them before company.
A case of the kind happened in Berlin several years ago. William Walter Phelps was our Minister at the Emperor’s Court, then, and one evening he had me to dinner to meet Count S., a cabinet minister. This nobleman was of long and illustrious descent. Of course I wanted to let out the fact that I had some ancestors, too; but I did not want to pull them out of their graves by the ears, and I never could seem to get the chance to work them in in a way that would look sufficiently casual. I suppose Phelps was in the same difficulty. In fact he looked distraught, now and then—just as a person looks who wants to uncover an ancestor purely by accident, and cannot think of a way that will seem accidental enough. But at last, after dinner, he made a try. He took us about his drawing-room, showing us the pictures, and finally stopped before a rude and ancient engraving. It was a picture of the court that tried Charles I. There was a pyramid of judges in Puritan slouch hats, and below them three bareheaded secretaries seated at a table. Mr. Phelps put his finger upon one of the three, and said with exulting indifference—
“An ancestor of mine.”
I put my finger on a judge, and retorted with scathing languidness—
“Ancestor of mine. But it is a small matter. I have others.”
It was not noble in me to do it. I have always regretted it since. But it landed him. I wonder how he felt? However, it made no difference in our friendship, which shows that he was fine and high, notwithstanding the humbleness of his origin. And it was also creditable in me, too, that I could overlook it. I made no change in my bearing toward him, but always treated him as an equal.
But it was a hard night for me in one way. Mr. Phelps thought I was the guest of honor, and so did Count S.; but I didn’t, for there was nothing in my invitation to indicate it. It was just a friendly offhand note, on a card. By the time dinner was announced Phelps was himself in a state of doubt. Something had to be done; and it was not a handy time for explanations. He tried to get me to go out with him, but I held back; then he tried S., and he also declined. There was another guest, but there was no trouble about him. We finally went out in a pile. There was a decorous plunge for seats, and I got the one at Mr. Phelps’s left, the Count captured the one facing Phelps, and the other guest had to take the place of honor, since he could not help himself. We returned to the drawing-room in the original disorder. I had new shoes on, and they were tight. At eleven I was privately crying; I couldn’t help it, the pain was so cruel. Conversation had been dead for an hour. S. had been due at the bedside of a dying official ever since half past nine. At last we all rose by one blessed impulse and went down to the street door without explanations—in a pile, and no precedence; and so, parted.
The evening had its defects; still, I got my ancestor in, and was satisfied.
Among the Virginian Clemenses were Jere. (already mentioned), and Sherrard. Jere. Clemens had a wide reputation as a good pistol-shot, and once it enabled him to get on the friendly side of some drummers when they wouldn’t have paid any attention to mere smooth words and arguments. He was out stumping the State at the time. The drummers were grouped in front of the stand, and had been hired by the opposition to drum while he made his speech. When he was ready to begin, he got out his revolver and laid it before him, and said in his soft, silky way—
“I do not wish to hurt anybody, and shall try not to; but I have got just a bullet apiece for those six drums, and if you should want to play on them, don’t stand behind them.”
Sherrard Clemens was a Republican Congressman from West Virginia in the war days, and then went out to St. Louis, where the James Clemens branch lived, and still lives, and there he became a warm rebel. This was after the war. At the time that he was a Republican I was a rebel; but by the time he had become a rebel I was become (temporarily) a Republican. The Clemenses have always done the best they could to keep the political balances level, no matter how much it might inconvenience them. I did not know what had become of Sherrard Clemens; but once I introduced Senator Hawley to a Republican mass meeting in New England, and then I got a bitter letter from Sherrard from St. Louis. He said that the Republicans of the North—no, the “mudsills of the North”—had swept away the old aristocracy of the South with fire and sword, and it ill became me, an aristocrat by blood, to train with that kind of swine. Did I forget that I was a Lambton?
That was a reference to my mother’s side of the house. As I have already said, she was a Lambton—Lambton with a p, for some of the American Lamptons could not spell very well in early times, and so the name suffered at their hands. She was a native of Kentucky, and married my father in Lexington in 1823, when she was twenty years old and he twenty-four. Neither of them had an overplus of property. She brought him two or three negroes, but nothing else, I think. They removed to the remote and secluded village of Jamestown, in the mountain solitudes of east Tennessee. There their first crop of children was born, but as I was of a later vintage I do not remember anything about it. I was postponed—postponed to Missouri. Missouri was an unknown new State and needed attractions.
I think that my eldest brother, Orion, my sisters Pamela and Margaret, and my brother Benjamin were born in Jamestown. There may have been others, but as to that I am not sure. It was a great lift for that little village to have my parents come there. It was hoped that they would stay, so that it would become a city. It was supposed that they would stay. And so there was a boom; but by and by they went away, and prices went down, and it was many years before Jamestown got another start. I have written about Jamestown in the “Gilded Age,” a book of mine, but it was from hearsay, not from personal knowledge. My father left a fine estate behind him in the region round about Jamestown—75,000 acres.* When he died in 1847 he had owned it about twenty years. The taxes were almost nothing (five dollars a year for the whole), and he had always paid them regularly and kept his title perfect. He had always said that the land would not become valuable in his time, but that it would be a commodious provision for his children some day. It contained coal, copper, iron and timber, and he said that in the course of time railways would pierce to that region, and then the property would be property in fact as well as in name. It also produced a wild grape of a promising sort. He had sent some samples to Nicholas Longworth, of Cincinnati, to get his judgment upon them, and Mr. Longworth had said that they would make as good wine as his Catawbas. The land contained all these riches; and also oil, but my father did not know that, and of course in those early days he would have cared nothing about it if he had known it. The oil was not discovered until about 1895. I wish I owned a couple of acres of the land now. In which case I would not be writing Autobiographies for a living. My father’s dying charge was, “Cling to the land and wait; let nothing beguile it away from you.” My mother’s favorite cousin, James Lampton, who figures in the “Gilded Age” as “Colonel Sellers,” always said of that land—and said it with blazing enthusiasm, too,— “There’s millions in it—millions!” It is true that he always said that about everything—and was always mistaken, too; but this time he was right; which shows that a man who goes around with a prophecy-gun ought never to get discouraged; if he will keep up his heart and fire at everything he sees, he is bound to hit something by and by.
Many persons regarded “Colonel Sellers” as a fiction, an invention, an extravagant impossibility, and did me the honor to call him a “creation”; but they were mistaken. I merely put him on paper as he was; he was not a person who could be exaggerated. The incidents which looked most extravagant, both in the book and on the stage, were not inventions of mine but were facts of his life; and I was present when they were developed. John T. Raymond’s audiences used to come near to dying with laughter over the turnip-eating scene; but, extravagant as the scene was, it was faithful to the facts, in all its absurd details. The thing happened in Lampton’s own house, and I was present. In fact I was myself the guest who ate the turnips. In the hands of a great actor that piteous scene would have dimmed any manly spectator’s eyes with tears, and racked his ribs apart with laughter at the same time. But Raymond was great in humorous portrayal only. In that he was superb, he was wonderful—in a word, great; in all things else he was a pigmy of the pigmies.
The real Colonel Sellers, as I knew him in James Lampton, was a pathetic and beautiful spirit, a manly man, a straight and honorable man, a man with a big, foolish, unselfish heart in his bosom, a man born to be loved; and he was loved by all his friends, and by his family worshipped. It is the right word. To them he was but little less than a god. The real Colonel Sellers was never on the stage. Only half of him was there. Raymond could not play the other half of him; it was above his level. That half was made up of qualities of which Raymond was wholly destitute. For Raymond was not a manly man, he was not an honorable man nor an honest one, he was empty and selfish and vulgar and ignorant and silly, and there was a vacancy in him where his heart should have been. There was only one man who could have played the whole of Colonel Sellers, and that was Frank Mayo.*
It is a world of surprises. They fall, too, where one is least expecting them. When I introduced Sellers into the book, Charles Dudley Warner, who was writing the story with me, proposed a change of Sellers’s Christian name. Ten years before, in a remote corner of the West, he had come across a man named Eschol Sellers, and he thought that Eschol was just the right and fitting name for our Sellers, since it was odd and quaint and all that. I liked the idea, but I said that that man might turn up and object. But Warner said it couldn’t happen; that he was doubtless dead by this time, a man with a name like that couldn’t live long; and be he dead or alive we must have the name, it was exactly the right one and we couldn’t do without it. So the change was made. Warner’s man was a farmer in a cheap and humble way. When the book had been out a week, a college-bred gentleman of courtly manners and ducal upholstery arrived in Hartford in a sultry state of mind and with a libel suit in his eye, and his name was Eschol Sellers! He had never heard of the other one, and had never been within a thousand miles of him. This damaged aristocrat’s programme was quite definite and businesslike: the American Publishing Company must suppress the edition as far as printed, and change the name in the plates, or stand a suit for $10,000. He carried away the Company’s promise and many apologies, and we changed the name back to Colonel Mulberry Sellers, in the plates. Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen. Even the existence of two unrelated men wearing the impossible name of Eschol Sellers is a possible thing.
James Lampton floated, all his days, in a tinted mist of magnificent dreams, and died at last without seeing one of them realized. I saw him last in 1884, when it had been twenty-six years since I ate the basin of raw turnips and washed them down with a bucket of water in his house. He was become old and white-headed, but he entered to me in the same old breezy way of his earlier life, and he was all there, yet—not a detail wanting: the happy light in his eye, the abounding hope in his heart, the persuasive tongue, the miracle-breeding imagination—they were all there; and before I could turn around he was polishing up his Aladdin’s lamp and flashing the secret riches of the world before me. I said to myself, “I did not overdraw him by a shade, I set him down as he was; and he is the same man today. Cable will recognize him.” I asked him to excuse me a moment, and ran into the next room, which was Cable’s; Cable and I were stumping the Union on a reading tour. I said—
“I am going to leave your door open, so that you can listen. There is a man in there who is interesting.”
I went back and asked Lampton what he was doing now. He began to tell me of a “small venture” he had begun in New Mexico through his son; “only a little thing—a mere trifle—partly to amuse my leisure, partly to keep my capital from lying idle, but mainly to develop the boy—develop the boy; fortune’s wheel is ever revolving, he may have to work for his living some day—as strange things have happened in this world. But it’s only a little thing—a mere trifle, as I said.”
And so it was—as he began it. But under his deft hands it grew, and blossomed, and spread—oh, beyond imagination. At the end of half an hour he finished; finished with the remark, uttered in an adorably languid manner:
“Yes, it is but a trifle, as things go nowadays—a bagatelle—but amusing. It passes the time. The boy thinks great things of it, but he is young, you know, and imaginative; lacks the experience which comes of handling large affairs, and which tempers the fancy and perfects the judgment. I suppose there’s a couple of millions in it, possibly three, but not more, I think; still, for a boy, you know, just starting in life, it is not bad. I should not want him to make a fortune—let that come later. It could turn his head, at his time of life, and in many ways be a damage to him.”
Then he said something about his having left his pocketbook lying on the table in the main drawing-room at home, and about its being after banking hours, now, and—
I stopped him, there, and begged him to honor Cable and me by being our guest at the lecture—with as many friends as might be willing to do us the like honor. He accepted. And he thanked me as a prince might who had granted us a grace. The reason I stopped his speech about the tickets was because I saw that he was going to ask me to furnish them to him and let him pay next day; and I knew that if he made the debt he would pay it if he had to pawn his clothes. After a little further chat he shook hands heartily and affectionately, and took his leave. Cable put his head in at the door, and said—
“That was Colonel Sellers.”
(to be continued)
* Correction. 1906: it was above 100,000, it appears.
* Raymond was playing “Colonel Sellers” in 1876 and along there. About twenty years later Mayo dramatized “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and played the title rôle delightfully.
North American Review
SEPTEMBER 21, 1906
CHAPTERS FROM MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY—II
BY MARK TWAIN
PREFATORY NOTE—Mr. Clemens began to write his autobiography many years ago, and he continues to add to it day by day. It was his original intention to permit no publication of his memoirs until after his death; but, after leaving “Pier No. 70,” he concluded that a considerable portion might now suitably be given to the public. It is that portion, garnered from the quarter-million of words already written, which will appear in this REVIEW during the coming year. No part of the autobiography will be published in book form during the lifetime of the author.—EDITOR N. A. R.
My experiences as an author began early in 1867. I came to New York from San Francisco in the first month of that year and presently Charles H. Webb, whom I had known in San Francisco as a reporter on The Bulletin, and afterward editor of The Californian, suggested that I publish a volume of sketches. I had but a slender reputation to publish it on, but I was charmed and excited by the suggestion and quite willing to venture it if some industrious person would save me the trouble of gathering the sketches together. I was loath to do it myself, for from the beginning of my sojourn in this world there was a persistent vacancy in me where the industry ought to be. (“Ought to was” is better, perhaps, though the most of the authorities differ as to this.)
Webb said I had some reputation in the Atlantic States, but I knew quite well that it must be of a very attenuated sort. What there was of it rested upon the story of “The Jumping Frog.” When Artemus Ward passed through California on a lecturing tour, in 1865 or ’66, I told him the “Jumping Frog” story, in San Francisco, and he asked me to write it out and send it to his publisher, Carleton, in New York, to be used in padding out a small book which Artemus had prepared for the press and which needed some more stuffing to make it big enough for the price which was to be charged for it.
It reached Carleton in time, but he didn’t think much of it, and was not willing to go to the typesetting expense of adding it to the book. He did not put it in the waste-basket, but made Henry Clapp a present of it, and Clapp used it to help out the funeral of his dying literary journal, The Saturday Press. “The Jumping Frog” appeared in the last number of that paper, was the most joyous feature of the obsequies, and was at once copied in the newspapers of America and England. It certainly had a wide celebrity, and it still had it at the time that I am speaking of—but I was aware that it was only the frog that was celebrated. It wasn’t I. I was still an obscurity.