I haven’t had this much fun with a new book since the corrected version of Joyce’s Ulysses came out. Let me explain. The only thing better than reading an outstanding work by a great writer is seeing the anatomy of how the work was written. It’s fascinating to see the false starts, the problems, their solutions, and the process of mixing it all together to make a wonderful, tasty concoction for readers.
Samuel L. Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) decided he wanted to write a truthful autobiography that would be so accurate in its portrayals that he directed it not be published for 100 years. Despite that admonition, his source material has been scoured to produce earlier versions of “an autobiography.” It turns out that what Clemens had in mind was something much more difficult, writing an exhaustive autobiography that allowed him to also candidly share his unusual turn of mind and insert the kind of humor that makes his writing so appealing. As a result of many unsuccessful attempts, he chose to ignore the normal chronological order in favor of dictating segments (and side trips that are not necessarily very related) that appealed to him.
In the process, I came away with a strong feeling that it’s hard to put your imprint on an autobiography . . . even if you are a wonderful storyteller and writer. The constraint of telling the truth (no more and no less) is also a daunting one, one that the footnotes to this fascinating volume indicate that Clemens often violated (probably unwittingly in many cases).
Even the “failed” sections make for fascinating reading, including his close association with Ulysses S. Grant while that ex-president and retired general coped with lethal cancer to complete his memoirs and to earn a little money for his family that was financially struggling, the many ways that publishers took advantage of Clemens, and his awful experiences with investing in new technology for typesetting.
To me, the most moving sections are those where his daughter Susy’s biography is displayed and he elaborates on her stark, utterly honest thumbnail sketches. I came away impressed that he learned quite a lot about himself from Susy and wanted to rise to the challenge of not “embroidering” his personal history. Alas, the storyteller in him turned out to be stronger than the researcher. The result is a candid portrait of a man (like all men) who had feet of clay, but aspired to do better. I liked him the more for it, and my desire to read more of his writing was vastly increased.
The book is not an easy read. It starts with some very tiny type that even made my post-cataract operation eyes with reading glasses squint to see clearly. The material is very dense. I found myself settling down each day to study 15 to 30 pages at a time (an amount I would normally devour in a few minutes). In addition, there’s much food for thought here. It would be a crime to leave it undigested. The notes in the back are very helpful for turning sections that are hard to penetrate into more accessible material. Don’t neglect them.
Normally, I would question devoting so much scholarly effort into an autobiography. Having seen Volume I of this one, I think it’s well worth the time, money, and effort . . . especially since this book begins to expose what Clemens most wanted us to know about him, in the way he intended.
Don’t miss this book!!
If you know any writers, give them this book as a gift. They’ll adore it (and probably you, as well, for being so thoughtful).