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Mark Twain on Samuel Clemens

The autobiography of a literary giant

Created date

March 28th, 2014
Mark Twain sitting on front porch
Mark Twain sitting on front porch

No author occupies a more prominent place in the pantheon of American literature than Mark Twain. The father of endearing characters like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he has managed to remain as indelible as his stories are timeless.

But while Twain the novelist is familiar to most, with his trademark white suit, wild hair, and brushy mustache, the man behind the penname is lesser known. Luckily, at age 69, Samuel Langhorne Clemens decided to augment his already peerless literary dossier with one more story—his own.

In 1904, he began a series of dictations and written passages filled with reflections about his family, his friends, his career, and his political views. He worked sporadically in the course of the next five years, laying bare the many facets that defined him as a person.

A century later

To avoid offending those mentioned in the estimated 1,000 pages of material, Clemens insisted that his ruminations stay sealed until 100 years after his death, which came in 1910. In accordance with his wishes, the editors at the University of California’s Mark Twain Papers & Project waited that long to release the first of his two-volume uncensored memoirs Autobiography of Mark Twain.

It was an instant success and held a spot on The New York Times Best Sellers list for over a year.

“Clearly it’s an amazing testimony to the power of Clemens’ personality that his thoughts and writings are best sellers a century after his death,” says Benjamin Griffin, the book’s associate editor. “I think the widespread interest in the first volume came from the known and the unknown. That is, everyone feels as though they know Mark Twain and yet, here was a chance to encounter the Mark Twain they didn’t know.”

One can say the same for the second volume, which the University of California Press released in October 2013 to similar acclaim. In total, both books took longer to edit than they did for Clemens to write.

“We began editing volume one in 2004, so the whole project required almost ten years of intensive work,” Griffin recalls. “When we started, it wasn’t as though we had two boxes, each of them neatly labeled ‘Mark Twain’s Autobiography: Volume One and Two,’ respectively.”

In fact, the actual situation was the farthest thing from it. Editors had to muddle through a hodgepodge of revised typescripts, a number of them attached to carbon copies bearing a different set of changes and annotations.

“In several cases, we had to invest a lot of time sorting the manuscripts to determine which set of editorial marks represented Clemens’ final amendments,” explains Griffin. “And as we made these determinations, we kept meticulous records documenting our work throughout the project.”

The fruits of their countless hours of editing and poring over proofs were well worth it. Now, fans of Mark Twain have unrestricted access to the mind of a literary giant. 

Reading his autobiography is the next best thing to sitting in the room with Clemens, listening to him reminisce as he puffs away on a cigar.

Personal and honest

He tells stories of his early days as a journalist in the Nevada Territory, gives his candid opinions on the politics of the era, offers deeply personal vignettes about his family life as a husband and father, and recollects his brushes with greatness, including Kaiser Wilhelm II and King Edward VII.

With a bold honesty, Clemens speaks from the grave on subject matter that he usually reserved for private conversations with those closest to him. He opens up on the heavy topics of religion and the character of God, only to temper the weighty tone with humorous musings on phrenology, mesmerism, and clairvoyance. 

“Getting the chance to hear him speak without censorship reveals the depth of his character and personality,” Griffin says. “Some people labor under a preconception of him as a sort of cracker-barrel philosopher and frontiersman, but he was an incredibly cultured, worldly person.”

Clemens’ autobiography provides readers with a fresh understanding of the man they thought they knew. Indeed, this unvarnished look at his daily life, his personal relationships, and his most intimate values and beliefs reveals the source of his brilliance—the vibrant humanity that infused his writing.