By GARRISON KEILLOR
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN
Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain in a fresh white suit and take a Sunday morning stroll up Fifth Avenue just as churches were letting out and see the heads turn and hear his name murmured, the crowds of Presbyterians and Episcopalians standing awe-struck as the most beloved mustache in America passed by, tipping his silk hat to the ladies. Mr. Twain’s autobiography was meant to be a last stroll around the block, and to build up suspense and improve sales, Sam told everybody that he was writing one and that it contained material so explosive it would need to be embargoed for a hundred years. That century has passed now and here it is, Volume 1 of “The Complete Authentic Unexpurgated Edition, Nothing Has Been Omitted, Not Even Scandalous Passages Likely to Cause Grown Men to Gasp and Women to Collapse in Tears — No Children Under 7 Allowed to Read This Book Under Any Circumstance,” which made Sam front-page news when all three volumes of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” were announced last spring. The book turns out to be a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin in their Shakespearean romp, and bravo to Samuel Clemens, still able to catch the public’s attention a century after he expired.
He speaks from the grave, he writes, so that he can speak freely — “as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter” — but there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation. Here, sandwiched between a 58-page barrage of an introduction and 180 pages of footnotes, is a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not: travel notes, the dictated reminiscences of an old man in a dithery voice (“Shortly after my marriage, in 1870, I received a letter from a young man in St. Louis who was possibly a distant relative of mine — I don’t remember now about that” begins one story that goes nowhere), various false starts, anecdotes that must have been amusing at one time, a rough essay (with the author’s revisions carefully delineated) on Joan of Arc, a critique of the lecture performance of Petroleum V. Nasby, a recap of the clipper ship Hornet’s ill-fated voyage that ended in Hawaii in 1866, a piece about German compound words, an account of medicine on the frontier, well-worn passages from lectures, a fair amount of self-congratulation (“I expected the speech to go off well — and it did”), a detailed report on the testimony of Henry H. Rogers in a lawsuit in Boston, newspaper clippings, generous quotations from his daughter Susy’s writing about her father (“He always walks up and down the room while thinking and between each course at meals”), ruminations on his methodology of autobiographicizing (“I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted; . . . a complete and purposed jumble”), recollections of Reuel Gridley and other Hannibal classmates, and there is precious little that could be considered scandalous — maybe a rant against James W. Paige, the inventor of a typesetting machine that Sam lost $170,000 on: “If I had his nuts in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died” — but you have to wade through 18 pages of mind-numbing inventory of the Countess Massiglia’s Villa di Quarto, which he leased in Florence (“I shall go into the details of this house, not because I imagine it differs much from any other old-time palace or new-time palace on the continent of Europe, but because every one of its crazy details interests me, and therefore may be expected to interest others of the human race, particularly women”), the only point of which is that the man can afford to rent a palace that is fancier than anything you’d find in Missouri. His wife is dying, and he compiles an inventory of furniture.
Here is a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers — you’d like to be remembered for “The Innocents Abroad” and “Life on the Mississippi” and the first two-thirds of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and not for excruciating passages of hero worship of General Grant and his son Fred and accounts of your proximity to the general and your business dealings as the publisher of his memoirs, which only reminds the reader that the general wrote a classic autobiography, and you tried to and could not.
Think twice about donating your papers to an institution of higher learning, Famous Writer: someday they may be used against you.
Olivia Clemens’s nickname for her husband was Youth, and she knew him up close. Boyish high jinks are his strong suit, and energetic high spirits and sly irreverence. Here is Sam Clemens at 14 dancing naked in a room, unaware that girls are watching from behind a screen — well, he said he was unaware anyway, and why not take his word for it? — and the story of Jim Wolf climbing half-naked up the roof to silence the cats, and Sam tricking his mother into putting her hand in his jacket pocket, where he had stuffed a dead bat. Even in his maturity, he could take an appreciative boy’s view of his neighbor, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”:
“Harriet Beecher Stowe . . . was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fences between. . . . Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes.”
Mark Twain sprang to life at a young age. His voice is clear when Samuel Clemens was 17 and got to New York and wrote to his mother on Aug. 24, 1853: “My Dear Mother: you will doubtless be a little surprised, and somewhat angry when you receive this, and find me so far from home; but you must bear a little with me, for you know I was always the best boy you had, and perhaps you remember the people used to say to their children — ‘Now don’t do like Orion and Henry Clemens but take Sam for your guide!’ ” He took lodging on Duane Street near Broadway and got a job setting type in a large printing shop near the East River. He stuck around the city for a couple of months and wrote home about the fruit market, the Wild Men of Borneo displayed in P. T. Barnum’s museum on Broadway, the Crystal Palace on 42nd Street, and, knowing the letters would appear in his brother Orion’s Hannibal Journal, the boy struck up a style that we recognize as Twain (“I have taken a liking to the abominable place, and every time I get ready to leave, I put it off a day or so, from some unaccountable cause. It is just as hard on my conscience to leave New York as it was easy to leave Hannibal. I think I shall get off Tuesday, though”), a style that makes him seem fresh and friendly a century later. This is the Mark Twain people love to quote (“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way”), and whenever he hits his stride in the “Autobiography,” you feel happy for him — e.g., writing about Virginia City, Nev., in 1863:
“I secured a place in a nearby quartz mill to screen sand with a long-handled shovel. I hate a long-handled shovel. I never could learn to swing it properly. As often as any other way the sand didn’t reach the screen at all, but went over my head and down my back, inside of my clothes. It was the most detestable work I have ever engaged in, but it paid ten dollars a week and board — and the board was worthwhile, because it consisted not only of bacon, beans, coffee, bread and molasses, but we had stewed dried apples every day in the week just the same as if it were Sunday. But this palatial life, this gross and luxurious life, had to come to an end, and there were two sufficient reasons for it. On my side, I could not endure the heavy labor; and on the Company’s side, they did not feel justified in paying me to shovel sand down my back; so I was discharged just at the moment that I was going to resign.”
The reader hikes across the hard, dusty ground of a famous man’s reminiscences and is delighted to come across the occasional water hole. The famous man is in Berlin, hobnobbing with aristocracy at dinner at the ambassador’s, and meets a count: “This nobleman was of long and illustrious descent. Of course I wanted to let out the fact that I had some ancestors, too; but I did not want to pull them out of their graves by the ears, and I never could seem to get a chance to work them in in a way that would look sufficiently casual.” And this leads to a story about a Clemens ancestor running for office in Virginia whose opponent sent six young men with drums to stand in front of Mr. Clemens’s platform and drum during his speech. Mr. Clemens stood up and took out a revolver and spoke, softly: “I do not wish to hurt anybody, and shall try not to; but I have got just a bullet apiece for those six drums, and if you should want to play on them, don’t stand behind them.”
Twain takes a good swing at John D. Rockefeller, that monster of greed and ambition who liked to give little talks to his Baptist church about the beauty of holiness and following in the footsteps of the Master who alone can satisfy our hearts (“Satan, twaddling sentimental sillinesses to a Sunday school, could be no burlesque upon John D. Rockefeller. . . . He can’t be burlesqued — he is himself a burlesque”), and he preaches well against imperialism, but then you must hear about Robert Louis Stevenson (“His splendid eyes . . . burned with a smoldering rich fire under the penthouse of his brows, and they made him beautiful”) and the meeting with Helen Keller, who laughed at Sam’s jokes, the meeting with Lewis Carroll (“He was the stillest and shyest full-grown man I have ever met except ‘Uncle Remus’ ”), and then you start turning the pages two and three at a time.
Sam intended to give us an unblushing autobiography on the order of Casanova’s or Rousseau’s “Confessions” or Samuel Pepys’s diary, which Sam heartily admired, with its matter-of-fact inventories of parties attended and meals enjoyed and the skirts of chambermaids raised, but he knew that frankness comes with a price — “None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned,” he said. “The man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself” — and when he describes his brother Orion as having “an intense lust for approval,” he is surely describing himself: “He was so eager to be approved, so girlishly anxious to be approved by anybody and everybody, without discrimination, that he was commonly ready to forsake his . . . convictions at a moment’s notice. . . . He never acquired a conviction that could survive a disapproving remark from a cat.” The younger brother sees the older with a clear satirical eye, and what he sees is himself. Orion was foolish about money and so was Sam, a spendthrift to the end. Their father, Judge Clemens, before Sam was born, bought 75,000 acres of land in Tennessee. It contained coal, copper, iron, timber, oil, and produced wild grapes — “There’s millions in it!” said a cousin, James Lampton — and “it influenced our life,” Sam writes, it “cheered us up, and said ‘Do not be afraid — trust in me — wait.’ It kept us hoping and hoping, during 40 years, and forsook us at last. It put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us — dreamers, and indolent. We were always going to be rich next year.” When their father died, “we began to manage it ourselves, . . . managed it all away except 10,000 acres,” which Orion traded for a house and a lot worth $250. The only one to turn a profit was Mark Twain, who turned Mr. Lampton (“the happy light in his eye, the abounding hope in his heart, the persuasive tongue, the miracle-breeding imagination”) into Colonel Sellers in “The Gilded Age.”
It is the sad fate of an icon to be mummified alive, pickled by his own reputation, and midway through this dreary meander of a memoir, Sam throws up his hands in despair. “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. . . . His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world . . . and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden — it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. . . . Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” There is very little real feeling here and no volcanic fires until you come upon the account of the death of his daughter Susy, 24, in Hartford, of meningitis, on Aug. 18, 1896. It is agony to read. Susy took ill and was taken to the house in Hartford, the home of her childhood, where she once wrote: “We are a very happy family. We consist of Papa, Mamma, Jean, Clara and me.” Her mother and Clara set sail from England to be with her. Her sister Jean and an aunt and uncle and some servants and the minister Joseph Twichell were at the bedside. Meningitis set in on the 15th. She ate her last supper that evening. The next morning, a high fever and delirium. She mistook a gown hanging in the closet for her mother and clutched it, kissed it and wept. She went blind. She stroked the face of Katy Leary, the housemaid, and said her last word, “Mamma.”
The father writes, “How gracious it was that in that forlorn hour of wreck and ruin, with the night of death closing around her, she should have been granted that beautiful illusion . . . and the latest emotion she should know in life the joy and peace of that dear imagined presence.” Susy was unconscious for two days and died on a Tuesday at 7 p.m. — “she that had been our wonder and our worship.” Sam was in England when he got a cablegram on Aug. 18 that said, “Susy was peacefully released today.” (“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live. . . . The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. . . . It will be years” before he truly knows “the magnitude of his disaster.”)
Of all the cruel deaths in the book — the death of Sam’s father just when prosperity seemed to be in his grasp; the death of his younger brother, Henry, when boilers burst on a steamboat in 1858 (Henry, who had taken a job on the boat at Sam’s urging); the death of the infant son Langdon Clemens, for which Sam felt responsible — the death of the beloved daughter far beyond her father’s love and care is a disaster from which there is no recovery. Boyishness cannot prevail, nor irreverence. The story can’t be written. The man buttons up his clothes and resigns himself to the inexpressible.
Garrison Keillor is the host of “A Prairie Home Companion” and editor of the forthcoming “Good Poems, American Places.”