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Mark Twain a century later

Created date

May 24th, 2011

"I've struck it!...You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography."

Mark Twain wrote this revelation in the heat of composition. Since 1870, the author known to friends as Samuel Clemens had hammered out literary classics while struggling with his life story.

After countless failed attempts, Clemens hit his stride, and by December 1909, his stenographer had recorded over a half million words worth of memories. The work was complete but with his strict order that it wouldn't be published for 100 years.

A century later

In November 2010, the editors of the Mark Twain Project released the first volume of Clemens' long-awaited memoirs. The Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California Press, 2010) has been riding high on the New York Times best seller list ever since.

This uncensored text reveals his intense curiosity about world events and the personalities who helped shape them: people like Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Ulysses S. Grant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Far from mere brushes with celebrity, Clemens knew these men and women intimately and even published Grant's memoirs in 1885.

In telling his own story, Clemens threw chronology to the wind. He dictated memories whenever they struck his fancy, giving the narrative a conversational air that s as brilliant and entertaining as the author was in life.

Fresh insight

Although most are familiar with Mark Twain the amiable humorist, his memoirs show us a man capable of deep feeling. At one point, he recalled the news of his daughter Susy's death, lamenting that    "[it] is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live."

Further beset with financial troubles, he took up a punishing, worldwide lecture tour in his 60s and paid off his debts. The public flocked to these appearances, which Clemens described in detail.

And while the editors have produced a fine scholarly edition, it would have been helpful to have the chronology of his life up front instead of buried in the back pages. This is a hands-on book a patchwork of recollections that readers can flip through and experience at their leisure. Future volumes would benefit from an easily accessible timeline.

Still, Clemens speaks from the grave with a bold honesty in these pages, giving the world his unguarded thoughts on religion, politics, and men, opinions that he normally reserved for private conversation with friends. Reading his autobiography is like spending a summer evening on the porch with the man himself, puffing on a cigar and reminiscing about old times.