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Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2

Mark Twain rambles (delightfully) through his own life and opinions.

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Autobiography of Mark Twain (Volume 2),
by Mark Twain,
University of California Press,
776 pp.

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Mark Twain and his never-ending autobiography are back.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 was published this month, following on the heels of Volume 1, which became an immediate bestseller when published in 2010. (Twain required that this work be kept private until 100 years after his death. It will be capped by a third volume.)

But don’t look for the trappings of a traditional autobiography anywhere in this mammoth book. It consists of unvarnished dictations that Twain produced from April 1906 through February 1907, seasoned here and there with news articles that caught Twain’s fancy, letters, and scraps of literature from various sources, including a biography of him written by his daughter Susy when she was a teenager.

The dates of the dictation are the only aspect of the text that are chronological. Twain, who was 71 years old in 1906 (he died four years later), meanders hither and yon with no apologies. His topmost goal is to entertain himself. He knows that what he says will not appear in print until long after his death, so he has few if any societal inhibitions. Literarily, he is a dead man talking.  

Twain had been working on his autobiography in fits and starts for a quarter of a century with little success. But by this point he has grown tired of writing and admits there are a handful of books lurking in him that will never see the light of day. That is as sad as almost anything else in this book.

Indeed, the great writer and humorist frequently is sad, weary, and deeply cynical in this volume. His wife and soul mate, Livy, two of their four children, and many friends have died. (He will outlive a third child, Jean.) He is not happy with his country, its recent imperialistic adventures, his species, his God, his late brother Orion, or then-President Theodore Roosevelt, whom he ranks as the worst chief executive ever. He even pretends not to be happy with himself, but this lacks conviction.

Twain believes that he will not live much longer and seems cheered by the prospect. Despite such gloom, his devastating wit is in evidence. Waiting his turn to speak to a theater audience of several thousand people, he reports, “A man who couldn’t speak, spoke. And a woman who couldn’t sing, sang. Another man who couldn’t speak, spoke. A mixed string-and-banjo-band made some noises, and when the house rejoiced that the affliction was over, the band took it for an encore and did the noises over again.”

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