Suppose You're an Idiot
Mark Twain tells his own story
Nov 1, 2010
16 Min read time
The posthumous career of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, has been a busy one.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume I
Edited by Harriet E. Smith, et al.
University of California Press, $34.95 (cloth)
The posthumous career of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, has been a busy one.
According to the staff of the University of California’s Mark Twain Project, more than 5,000 previously unknown letters of Twain’s have surfaced in the last 50 years. This represents an average of two new letters per week, but still only about one-tenth of the 50,000 or so he is believed to have written. Two of his best-known works were published after his death: the iconoclastic Letters from the Earth, in which a not-yet-fallen Satan, on a fact-finding trip to Earth, analyzes the follies of the human race in a series of letters to his fellow angels (“Now my kids can learn how to be good atheists!” a friend of mine exclaimed); and the bizarre supernatural fantasy No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, set in a medieval Austria no better prepared than Twain’s America to deal with the harsh truth about humanity, as expounded by an otherworldly visitor calling himself “No. 44.” The former was released in 1962, the latter in 1982 (a fraudulent version appeared in 1916).
These repeated encores would neither have displeased nor surprised Twain, who approved of the idea of withholding publication until after death. “I will leave it behind,” he said of one of his unpublished writings, “and utter it from the grave. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family.” He said substantially the same thing about his autobiography, decreeing that it remain unpublished until a hundred years after he died:
A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way. In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons.
Twain was also deeply fond of his own celebrity, which, by delaying publication, he sought to extend into the future. And the first volume of his Autobiography, with two more to come, is now rolling off the presses, as requested, a hundred years after the occasion when news of his death was not exaggerated. Volume I is divided into two main sections: “Preliminary Manuscripts and Dictations, 1870–1905,” consisting of autobiographical jottings and early odds and ends, and the “Autobiography” proper, starting in 1906, when Twain began to dictate his reminiscences to a stenographer. Some of the earlier pieces were published in his lifetime; in 1906 the North American Review printed excerpts, titled “Chapters from My Autobiography,” to generally favorable critical reception.
But beset by doubts and chronically depressed—for good reason, having gone bankrupt or nearly bankrupt twice, and having lost a son, a daughter, and a wife over the years (the second of his three daughters, Jean, would die in 1909)—Twain continued to blow hot and cold on the whole idea of writing an autobiography. Sometimes his self-contempt took over, and he dismissed the idea completely: “The more I think of this, the more nearly impossible the project seems,” he wrote. Eventually he concluded that it should be done, but fretted over the form it should take. Didactic? Too evocative of the pulpit. Chronological? Too boringly predictable. Discursive?
This approach had some appeal. “Discursiveness does not hurt an autobiography in the least,” he said; then, with growing enthusiasm, convinced he had found the solution:
start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.
The form of his autobiography would thus follow its function: to entertain the future reader and make things easy for the author. “I’ve struck it!” he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells.
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.
After his death Twain’s literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, seeking to bask in the reflected glory of America’s most celebrated writer, went through the typewritten manuscript of the disjointed autobiographical segments and published only the parts he liked best, or deemed most suitable for the public to read. Some of Twain’s juiciest morsels—his effusions against holy cows such as the government, religion, and the temperance movement—were carefully excised. With the tacit cooperation of Twain’s surviving daughter, Clara, self-appointed guardian of her father’s reputation, Paine and his successors presided over the posthumous publication in 1924, 1940, and 1959 of collections of autobiographical excerpts. Each bore the title Autobiography, was missing entire sections deemed offensive, and was awkwardly contained within the very chronological narrative structure that Twain had decided against. Clara eventually realized that censorship of her father’s work would do more harm than would publication, and in time she consented to the release of even controversial material such as Letters from the Earth. When she died in 1962, she bequeathed the million or so pages of her father’s writings to the University of California, Berkeley, where one of his biographers happened to be teaching. And so the Mark Twain Project was born.
• • •
All of which leads us back to this final iteration of the Autobiography. Judged on the basis of Volume I, this is going to be as real and complete an evocation of Samuel Clemens as we are going to get. According to Robert Hirst, curator of the Twain Project, approximately half of the contents of the projected three volumes will never have been published before.
Twain was, after all, a Victorian, albeit an enlightened one, and like most Victorians, he didn’t do self-revelation.
Yet this first uncensored version, although informative, promises little by way of titillation or saucy secrets; most of the revelations will be relatively tame. (Rumor has it, however, that a future section will mention Twain’s alleged intimate relationship with his secretary, Isabel Lyon, after the death of his wife, Olivia, in 1904.) Twain had difficulty being totally honest with, and about, himself, and found the truth embarrassing. The let-it-all-hangout compulsion of the modern memoir would have been distasteful to him, despite his professed admiration for the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini.
Twain was, after all, a Victorian, albeit an enlightened one, and like most Victorians, he didn’t do self-revelation. “Part of him wanted to reveal all, and part of him was really never able to speak the truth, as he called it,” Harriet Elinor Smith, who edited the Autobiography, says. Still, Twain hoped that having an audience, in the person of his stenographer, would elicit greater candor, and that the relaxed setting might bring forth a discourse of honesty and distinction.
And so it does, although it’s all a bit of a grab bag. Some entries are mere sketches, others lengthy perorations. But this is what he intended, and the virtue of the discursive style is that it brings forth the unmistakable voice that we recognize from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and The Innocents Abroad—the voice of the nineteenth-century American hinterland, at once caustic and lyrical, part rustic, part genteel. Lincoln, too, had this voice, and we hear its echoes in Mencken and Steinbeck. A dry wit is the keynote, self-deprecation the theme. From the Autobiography:
In my early manhood and in middle-life, I used to vex myself with reforms, every now and then. And I never had occasion to regret these divergencies, for whether the resulting deprivations were long or short, the rewarding pleasures which I got out of the vice when I returned to it, always paid me for all that it cost.
The opinions Twain expresses are, by and large, less surprising than the force with which he expresses them. That he took a dim view of politics would not have startled his contemporaries, who knew him as a hardened cynic on the subject, responsible for such witticisms as “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself,” and “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctively native American criminal class except Congress.” His views on religion, too, were widely known—“Man . . . is kind enough when he is not excited by religion,” he said—although the full extent of his apostasy only became apparent much later, with publication of Letters from the Earth.
But the autobiographical Twain ranges beyond attacking concepts and institutions. He gleefully mauls humanity itself:
Of all the creatures that were made [Man] is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one—the solitary one—that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices—the most hateful. That one thing puts him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinæ.
He luxuriates in righteous rage. This is no cracker-barrel storyteller; this is a man on a mission. “There is a perception that Twain spent his final years basking in the adoration of fans,” Laura Trombley, author of Mark Twain’s Other Woman, observes:
The autobiography will perhaps show that it wasn’t such a happy time. He spent six months of the last year of his life writing a manuscript full of vitriol, saying things that he’d never said about anyone in print before. It really is 400 pages of bile.
Well, not entirely, but he does let fly. Here, for instance, in a nutshell, is Bliss, a publisher he quarreled with:
He was a tall, lean, skinny, yellow, toothless, bald-headed, rat-eyed professional liar and scoundrel.
And Twain outlines a suitable retribution for one James Paige, inventor of a typesetting machine in which Twain invested, and lost, heavily:
Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms; and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.
Twain’s ravings about the family’s landlady in Florence, the American-born Countess Massiglia, border on the manic:
She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward.
He was no doubt convinced of the rightness of all his opinions, but on the subject of the countess they were colored by especially unfortunate circumstance. The Clemens clan—Samuel, his wife Olivia, and their daughters Clara, Susy, and Jean—first moved to Florence in 1891 and returned for periodic sojourns, mainly for Olivia’s health. She died there in 1904. Although her weak heart had long been a subject of concern, her husband partly blamed the Countess Massiglia, who at the very least had a meddlesome streak, for his wife’s death. This accounts in part for his invective: Twain knew how to bear a grudge. His amour-propre lay close to the surface, and was easily injured, as by the (to him) duplicitous countess, and numerous others.
Twain, so often viewed as the quintessential provincial American, was in reality one of the most cosmopolitan of writers.
In counterpoint, however, his fond memories of Olivia are among the most affecting parts of this book. His love for her was unbounded and true, and it shines forth:
She was slender and beautiful and girlish—and she was both girl and woman. She remained both girl and woman to the last day of her life. Under a grave and gentle exterior burned inextinguishable fires of sympathy, energy, devotion, enthusiasm, and absolutely limitless affection. She was always frail in body, and she lived upon her spirit, whose hopefulness and courage were indestructible. (Emphasis original).
And, cantankerous as he was with others, he could be unsparing with himself, as when he looks back over his long marriage.
I have known few meaner men than I am. By good fortune this feature of my nature does not often get to the surface, and I doubt if any member of my family except my wife ever suspected how much of that feature there was in me . . . Mrs. Clemens suffered from it, and I . . . suffer from the remembrance of the tears it caused her.
• • •
Florence was only one of many foreign cities where Twain and his family settled over the years. Throughout most of the 1890s, partly for financial reasons (this was in the wake of the Paige typesetter disaster), they lived in Europe—Geneva, Paris, Heidelberg, London, Edinburgh, and Vienna.
Twain, so often viewed as the quintessential provincial American, was in reality one of the most cosmopolitan of writers. He traveled the world incessantly, read Cellini and Rousseau in the original Italian and French, dined with the Kaiser and King Edward VII, and—having left school at age eleven, never to return—was awarded an honorary D. Litt. from Oxford University. Forever at war within him were the down-home scoffer and the great world artist, the author of both the thoroughly American Huckleberry Finn—from which, as Ernest Hemingway reminds us, “all modern American literature comes”—and of the lyrical and high-minded (and mostly humorless) Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Twain maintained, against all evidence, that the latter was his best book—“I like Joan of Arc best among all my books. It is the best; I know it perfectly well.”
Small wonder that such contradictions took root in him, since his life embraced so many. He died universally famous and respected, at the dawn of the modern era. But he was born into an obscure family in the obscurest corner of the American Midwest, in the depths of the American Middle Ages: Missouri in 1835, a Western frontier culture, a place and time a medieval peasant would have found himself right at home in, except perhaps for the rootless independence of the settlers. (I wonder if a sense of having grown up in such “medieval” surroundings might explain Twain’s lifelong affinity with the Middle Ages, as seen in Joan of Arc; The Prince and the Pauper; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger; and sundry odds and ends.)
Twain hardly knew his father. Samuel was eleven when John Marshall Clemens died. A lawyer by profession, a merchant by vocation, and a lifelong striver from Virginia who never really got anywhere, John had bought up tracts of land in Fentress County, Tennessee that he hoped would ensure his family’s well-being. But economic disaster soon struck him, as it would his son (as it did the character, based on John Clemens, of Judge Hawkins in The Gilded Age, the Balzacian society novel Twain cowrote with Charles Dudley Warner). The Tennessee land turned out to be worthless, and John moved on.
He tried his hand at other occupations in Florida and Hannibal, Missouri, where the family moved when Samuel was four years old. John ended up a justice of the peace, a respectable enough position, but he was a lifelong pessimist and died an embittered man. “He had no particular luck except that I was born,” his son later said. The silent austerity of Twain’s father contrasts with the ebullient character of his mother, who was immortalized in Tom Sawyer as Aunt Polly. It is easy to see that their son was divided down the middle, having inherited traits that made him in equal parts humorist and moralist.
Twain’s fury transcends party affiliation or political beliefs, neither of which he possessed to any great degree.
In the Autobiography, as elsewhere in his work, the humorist is present. But here the humor is frequently bitter and the moralist comes into his own. Twain’s fulminations against U.S. government policies in the Spanish-American wars, for instance, are among the most strident of his broadsides. He excoriates the American military for its imperial program in the former Spanish territory of the Philippines. Or perhaps that should be imperial pogrom: Twain describes a massacre of native Moro tribespeople that equals anything out of Vietnam or Algeria, and indeed calls to mind Lidice and Katyn. He also heaps contempt on the president who signed off on the mission:
[Theodore Roosevelt] knew perfectly well that to pen six hundred helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day and a half, from a safe position on the heights above, was no brilliant feat of arms—and would not have been a brilliant feat of arms even if Christian America, represented by its salaried soldiers, had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag, but had done as they have been doing continuously for eight years in the Philippines—that is to say, they had dishonored it.
Today, opinions like this—excised in earlier versions of the Autobiography by the fastidious Paine—would earn Twain the eternal opprobrium of the über-patriotic class.
Twain is no more forgiving of the robber barons of his era, whose excesses he chronicled in The Gilded Age. “The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars,” he remarks. “He pays taxes on two million and a half.” And Jay Gould, the financier, was “that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died.”
Such animus would scarcely seem out of place today coming from the political far left, but in that instance its motivation would be polemical and tendentious, whereas Twain’s fury transcends party affiliation or political beliefs, neither of which he possessed to any great degree. The target of his ire was the universal, unalterable folly of Man. In this respect, the Autobiography redefines him as a kind of Midwestern Jonathan Swift: ironic, erudite, and outraged.
However, in these pages we find not only barbs, but also the nostalgic and evocative poet of the raw American heartland. In the pieces about his boyhood and youth, we return with the young Sam Clemens to his uncle’s farm near Hannibal and admire the beauty of the virgin plains on the frontier of the then-Far West. Here, his homesick prose soars like the hawk in the Western sky:
I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the deep woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wildflowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees, . . . I can call it all back and make it as real as it ever was, and as blessed. I can call back the prairie, and its loneliness and peace, and a vast hawk hanging motionless in the sky, with his wings spread wide and the blue of the vault showing through the fringe of their end-feathers. I can see the woods in their autumn dress, the oaks purple, the hickories washed with gold, the maples and the sumachs luminous with crimson fires, and I can hear the rustle made by the fallen leaves as we plowed through them.
In this autobiography, Twain emerges from the chrysalis of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as a universal writer of sensitivity and vision. He is akin not only to Swift as a satirist, but also to Tolstoy and Dickens in his feelings for—and against—humanity, and to Chaucer and Shakespeare in his stature in the literary history of his nation. Twain himself was sufficiently confident of the importance of his work to anticipate a posthumous readership who would not only keep the flame of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer alive, but would also recognize his autobiography as an exemplary work of the memoirist’s art:
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.
Mission accomplished, Mr. Clemens. Keep up the good work, wherever you are.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
November 01, 2010
16 Min read time