The One and Only Twain

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 by Mark Twain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not Twain’s greatest work, and a lot of it has seen the light of day before. But earlier editions distorted the book in two ways, one of which Twain intended and the other he didn’t.

Whereas this edition proposes to publish the complete text of Twain autobiographical writings in three volumes (and online at, earlier editions left a lot of the text out. That would have been fine with Twain: he envisioned a series of editions after his death, each successive one being more complete. He was particularly interested in having earlier editors suppress elements of the book that might pain those still living after his death, and he tossed a bunch of newspaper clippings into the book, on the (justified) premise that 100 years or more later, some of the figures and events he was talking about would have become obscure.

On the other hand, earlier editions (like Neider’s 1959, which is the one I’d seen before) went against Twain’s intentions by imposing a chronological order on his reminiscences. Twain’s great plan for an autobiography was to free-associate while dictating, so that he would talk about present and past events mixed up together.

So this, in its completeness and its chaotic pattern, is the book Twain intended to write, and is worth reading for that reason alone. The planless plan, which would have spelled boring jumbled doom if it was followed by a less-gifted talker, really does work for Twain. If the current page is a little dull, Twain probably knows it and is planning to change course with another story, a wisecrack, a savage political observation–something.

For me, standout sections of this book include Twain’s discussion of his brother Orion, who seems to have been bipolar, and Twain’s account of how he patiently and gently corrected an overzealous editor. (This story has appeared elsewhere but never in full.) But there is a lot else here, including a sort of 19th century Paris Hilton–a woman who was famous simply for being famous. That story made me feel better about our crappy media culture–apparently it’s always been crappy, ever since the invention of mass media.

Twain completists will want this volume. Others may want to sample it online before they take the plunge.

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About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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3 Responses to The One and Only Twain

  1. John Stevens says:

    I am looking forward to eventually acquiring these, for both the details and for the way Twain constructs his life, sujet AND fabula!

  2. JE says:

    It is really interesting to read his assessment of people like Theodore Roosevelt and “Petroleum V. Nasby”… and, pre-eminently, of Samuel L. Clemens, that shifty character and unreliable narrator.

  3. Pingback: Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Autobiography of Mark Twain

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