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The Autobiography of Mark Twain

It’s worth wading through this massive tome to mine its nuggets of unalloyed Twain.

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The Autobiography of Mark Twain:
Volume 1
By Mark Twain
University of California Press
760 pp., $34.95

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The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, is a weighty piece of literature: five pounds if it’s an ounce, and 736 pages long. But please don’t blame Mr. Mark Twain. The first 58 pages are hijacked by an editor, and the last 267 pages are squandered on appendixes, notes, references, indexes, lost laundry tickets, and recipes for chicken con carne. Those last two might not be all together accurate, but let it go. I defy anyone to disprove me by wading through this semantic morass.

Surrounded though he is by six editors, Twain still manages to get a few words in edgewise. At one point he describes his feeling about being edited for the first time in 32 years: “The idea! That this long-eared animal – this literary kangaroo – this bastard of the Muses – this illiterate hostler, with his skull full of axle-grease – this.... But I stopped there, for this was not the right Christian spirit.”

It is well that Twain did not live to be 175 and witness the publication of his posthumous, unexpurgated autobiography. It would have laid him low, to be sure. Parts of it repeat passages from editions of his previously published autobiography: an account of his first public lecture, for example. There are new segments here, of course, but they hardly seem scandalous or scathing enough to have been kept from the public for a century after his death. Perhaps Volumes 2 and 3 will contain more of the rockets’ red glare.

The truth is that the juicy, uncensored stuff has been leaking out for decades, such as in “Letters for the Earth,” prepared for publication in 1937 but not released until 1962. In it, Twain, a nominal Christian for most of his life, fulminates against the Almighty in the most sacrilegious fashion imaginable. Nothing in the current volume comes close.

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